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On Seeing Through Suffering

We should make all spiritual talk simple today:

God is trying to sell you something, but you don’t want to buy

That is what your suffering is:

Your fantastic haggling, your manic screaming over the price.

 Hafiz

I used to suffer. A lot. It felt as if my suffering was deeper, more profound, and longer lasting than anyone else’s. I remember sitting in a group sharing session years ago, listening to one of the participants talk about an issue that she was having with a work colleague. Feeling a mix of contempt and envy, I was stunned that this was the most difficult thing in her life. Try being plagued with anguish and panic, feeling like you’re going to die any minute. I spent a long time, and a lot of energy, trying to find ways to salve my suffering, trying to find the permanent solution that would finally bring it to an end. Needless to say, I was unsuccessful in this quest.

I assumed that, in order to be relieved of the suffering, I would have to eradicate all the troublesome feelings and thoughts. It didn’t occur to me that the suffering may be the result of the way that I was looking at what was happening, rather than the happenings themselves. When I came across spiritual teachings, my suffering appeared to intensify. The idea that I should be accepting or embracing what was going on added yet another layer of wrongness into the mix, as did the idea that it may be my thoughts that were creating the suffering itself.

My identity as a sufferer – I am the one who suffers – wasn’t in doubt until I started to investigate it more closely, using the Living Inquiries. Of course I was suffering (that was a given) and I had all the evidence – thought, memories, and intense emotions – to back up that assumption. However, when I began to look at each of those components separately, as we do when we inquire, it became apparent that the sufferer wasn’t as solid or real as I’d assumed her to be. I looked at words: I’m suffering. This really hurts. I’m the one who is unwanted. An endless stream of thoughts, all asserting their supposed truth.  I started to see that the thoughts alone didn’t constitute suffering. Then came the images: memories, pictures of the future, the mind’s imaginations; some of them deeply painful, of course. What I noticed was that the suffering came from the combination of words, images and feelings (what Scott Kiloby calls the Velcro Effect), not simply from one single component. When I was able to look at each image on its own, to really look at it, I could see that the image, in itself, didn’t mean anything about me. I also began to see that the presence of images or memories didn’t actually constitute suffering.

The biggest revelation for me came when I was able to feel emotions and sensations without the words and images attached to them. I’d always taken it for granted that those feelings were the suffering. Stripped of their associations, the layers of meaning, it turned out that even intense emotions were bearable. More than that, they sometimes became pleasurable, or at least neutral. Energy moving through the body, and being felt. Indistinguishable from aliveness, and no longer perceived as negative in any way. I discovered the breathtaking, exquisite beauty in sadness, the innocence of fear, the high of anger, stripped of its connotations.

Going through the inquiry process, over and over again, the underlying belief that there was something wrong with what I was feeling, that sense of I shouldn’t be feeling like this, began to ebb away. Suffering, as Hafiz pointed out, comes not from life itself, but from our quibbling about it. The more we scream This shouldn’t be happening, the more we suffer. By taking a look at each element of our experience, gently, curiously, and with courage, meeting all of it as it is, we untangle the tale of suffering, and the one who suffers is nowhere to be found.

I used to believe that my suffering would end when my feelings and thoughts were somehow magically transmuted into their opposites. It is delightful to discover that the end of suffering lies in those very same feelings and thoughts, exactly as they are. My life continues as it did, my feelings and thoughts come and go as they do, and yet what was once considered suffering is now vital, alive, precious, and very much less serious than it used to seem.

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