The Courage to Be With Suffering

Currently, I am reading Pema Chodron’s book The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.  Her words remind me that we all experience difficult times in our lives. This is a part of being human. She also illustrates through her beautiful discussion of loving kindness and compassion meditation practice that to live fully means becoming aware of how we relate to this discomfort, not to deny or avoid it. She raises this question, “How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day?”  If you are like me, you have spent much of your life trying to avoid discomfort. This, too, is a natural part of being human.  Yet, “[w]hen we touch the center of sorrow, when we sit with discomfort without trying to fix it, when we stay present to the pain of disapproval or betrayal and let it soften us” we awaken to life, we cultivate bodhichitta (an opened heart-mind). Click here for Pema Chodron’s discussion of bodhichitta.

As I deliberately cultivate a compassionate recognition of my relationship to painful emotions, I experience a softening and at times feel truly alive. Of course, this is not at all easy.  Some days I feel joyful, can be present and open to experience.  Other days and sometimes weeks, I feel the weight of suffering and struggle with being with what is. This is true for me right now as I try to cultivate compassion for myself and loved ones in the face of my father-in-law dying of cancer.

Experiencing loss, watching a loved one die, is simply a part of life.  Yet, it is an extremely unpleasant part of life, one many of us try to avoid.  I am anxious about being unable to manage my grief and the grief of my loved ones once my father-in-law passes. It is the claustrophobic nature of communal sadness that frightens me. This fear is causing me a lot of suffering. In practicing loving kindness this week, I’ve been reflecting on my sense of purpose: In my heart of hearts, what do I really want in my life? At this moment, I want to cultivate the courage to be present for my loved ones’ suffering.

Mindfulness and compassion practice is a courageous act. It requires a daily motivation to train the mind and body. It requires us to be gentle with our imperfections and to believe we can always begin again.  This is not easy.  Recently, my daily intention has been to be a friend unto myself, to give myself the love and care needed during this emotionally painful time.  It is hard to be with yourself, your pain, when your instinct is to run and hide.  Nonetheless, I continue to sit on the cushion every day even though my mind wanders to the point that I forget I am even meditating.  In an effort to let my mind be as it is, I have noticed a deepening of my awareness, a disruption of habitual habits in dealing with discomfort.  I have become more capable of responding lovingly to this experience.  This acknowledgement cultivates my courage.

Just this morning I told myself it is time to resurrect the gratitude journal. Identifying what is already good for us in the moment helps us soften expectations of how life should be.  Cultivating joy is a form of self-compassion, an act of courage. In searching the Greater Good Science Center website, I came across, an online gratitude journal. I have committed to a 10 day challenge where I share privately or publicly my gratitude for the day.  “Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite,” writes Pema. “It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s [of compassion] world.”  This simple act of choosing to find joy in the moment will strengthen my courage to be with suffering.  Already the fog is clearing.

May you be a friend unto yourself.  May you be free from suffering.  May you experience peace and joy. 




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