Sacred Suffering

We were sitting together under the canopy.  Her silks fluttered in the warm afternoon breeze, her blue eye shadow bright and the scent of lavender rising from her.  She was explaining to me with a grounded urgency how complex she is, how easily misunderstood, and that if I only knew her, I would see I was making a mistake.  Everything in my gut had told me she was too unsettled, too indecisive to justify the support she would need to have a satisfying experience.  But in that moment, my core softened.  I saw in her all of us who don’t quite fit in longing for a chance to prove ourselves.  I didn’t want to stand in her way.  And her conviction, self-reflection, and compassion moved me.  I told her so.  I allowed my attitude towards her to shift and open.  And the next morning, she chose to leave anyway.

How do we navigate this world with conviction and integrity when we are constantly bombarded with new input from both within and without?  I’ve had two panic attacks in the last month.  I sobbed so hard in a coffee shop with a friend that she had to take me out on a walk because people were staring.  In ten years, even going through my divorce, she said she’s never seen me so distraught.  My mind was tearing through everything in my life – my community, my job, my relationship – desperate to mend or remove what was broken.

The Buddhists speak of Right Action as a spiritually vital commitment to ethical conduct, implying alignment with our own deepest knowing and a trust that even things that feel counter-intuitive serve a higher good we may never fully understand.  There are plenty of recommendations about what Right Action entails – telling the truth, being kind, not over-indulging – but also an acknowledgement that sometimes there is no clearly ethical path.  Our minds will short-circuit trying to solve this sort of dilemma, and deciphering our intuition is a life-long experiment ranging from awe-inspiring to disorienting, embarrassing, and painful. I have learned, however, that I can handle anything if I am connected to my inner guidance.  If I’m not, all the blessings in the world will seem dull, chaotic and unsatisfying.

Art by Trifon Markov

I have traditionally accessed that guidance by entering into an honest and wordless conversation with my body.  I watch for when I open and when I close, when I feel most grounded and alert, inspired and full, and when I feel unsettled or find myself clinging or gorging without satisfaction.  The difficulty recently has been that I am in love one minute and resentful and critical the next.  I am inspired and grateful for my work one moment and feeling stifled and overwhelmed the next.  My core expands and contracts as frequently as the thighs of an Olympic sprinter.  And my mind has been complicating things by telling stories about each thing I observe – what it means about me, what’s supposed to be happening instead, how I can should fix it all.  I know the damage that can come when I speak too liberally from my confusion or act prematurely without clarity, but my distress compounds in limbo.

After another tearful, confused and hopeless call to my sister, she sent me several emails with links to audio books from Gay and Katie Hendricks.  Their words took me straight back to The Presence Process, reminding me that our somatic experience is often not a source of information about the current situation, but an invitation to follow that thread back to a past experience longing to be released.  Gay and Katie add to this by explaining that love at is most essential level is an act of giving space – to ourselves and to others.  I realized that while I was on the right path by tapping into my feelings as the key to accessing my intuition and Right Action, I was missing the most important step: giving my experience space to dissolve into love.  Forgiveness and reconciliation come not from a belief in or determination to do the right thing, but as a natural and effortless consequence of our willingness to know and speak the truth, whatever it is.  Why is this still so hard to do, even though I see the benefits and deeply value living an honest, loving life?

Observing my resistance, I see in true Buddhist fashion that it is my inclination to avoid suffering that compromises my willingness to know the truth.  It is easy to make decisions when one course of action clearly brings deeper peace and joy.  But what do we do when all of our options seem painful, or something that should bring us pleasure doesn’t feel right?  The suffering inherent in both continuing forward and changing direction obscure the truth if we have not learned how to endure pain.  Only when we can embrace and befriend our suffering without leaping to action in order to find immediate relief, can we be present enough to discern the subtle nuances of intuition and truth.

There appear to me to be two different ways to suffer:  the suffering born of a stubborn determination to seek an easy, habitual release and the suffering inherent in enduring the long rhythm of moving against our Self-destructive conditioning.  Right or Sacred Suffering is all about listening and acting in accordance with truth, ready to embrace the consequences, while habitual suffering, bent on obtaining momentary pleasure and relief, creates a separation from truth and an experience of being adrift and lifeless.  Sacred Suffering is often acute in its burn, releasing vital bursts of insight, creativity, and fortitude born of contact with our deepest self.  Habitual suffering deadens, depresses, and drains in endless cycles of longing for what doesn’t fulfill, of denying the truths we don’t want to hear.  Habitual suffering pushes for what it believes will bring gratification – it resents and rails and coerces.  Sacred Suffering breathes deeply, lets go, feels the grief and emptiness, and waits certain of deeper fulfillment.

Despite professing faith in the unfolding abundance of the universe, I admit I have been complicating things by clinging desperately to a script of Right Action I believe is the proper path.  This defense mechanism has shielding me from the reality of spiritual progress as purely experiential, messy, confounding, all about crisscrossing conventions and limitations, simply opening to this moment over and over until we are transformed into something we never could have imagined.  I recognize my current disorientation as part of an organic shift away from a primarily intellectual inner experience to one of energy.  While some days I am restless, fearful and confused, other days words and sensations take tangible, increasingly visual form inside me.  I experience the subtle differences between my energetic core and vibrations I draw in viscous and opalescent from above and below, and spread outward infinitely.  Overlain on this profound  inner experience are the challenges of my outer life – how my core reacts to tasks I am given, social interactions, choices about how to share my time and attention.  These two realities are awkward acquaintances, creating turmoil with their competing priorities, inclinations, and insights, but also equally valid, balancing and strengthening each other.

It is strange to contemplate all the things that are sacred to me and to realize that suffering is one of them.  Sacred Suffering to me means taking the long-view of life.  It means embracing the confusing fluctuations between things that aren’t yet clear, resisting the easy path of escape until bonds loosen of their own accord.  It means giving space to all the dynamic, seemingly contradictory parts of me, especially when they hurt, without needing more or less of anything.  It means accepting the cycles of self-sufficiency and being held, moderation and intoxication, daydreaming and focused exertion.  Sacred Suffering means trusting that every time I find the fortitude to release my preferences, to endure the separation after merging, the disillusionment after excitement, the emptiness after seity, what is timeless returns with humbling and stunning generosity.  Only when I shift my focus away from the people and circumstances that surround me towards the loosening and spaciousness within can I see clearly and feel loved.



“Why, then, do we have to be human and keep running from the fate we long for?

Oh, not because of such a thing as happiness – that fleeting gift before the loss begins.

Not from curiosity, or to exercise the heart…

But because simply to be here is so much and because what is here seems to need us,

This vanishing world that concerns us strangely – us the most vanishing of all…

There are the hurts.  And, always, the hardships.

And there’s the long knowing of love – all of it unsayable…”

  • Rilke – Ninth Elegy, Duino Elegies as found in In Praise of Mortality
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2 Responses to Sacred Suffering

  1. Donna Wallace says:

    Thank you for your evocative and thought provoking writing. I appreciate the sharing of your deep feelings. I want to share my understanding of suffering: I believe that there is suffering for suffering’s sake, and then there is redemptive suffering. When I find myself suffering, I ask myself, “Am I suffering, because this is how I’ve always handled this kind of situation, or is this the start (or middle) of a resolution of loss and redemption?” Maybe this is too simplistic, but it gets me moving out of an energetic field that needs shifting.

    • Nancy says:

      Thank you for your gratitude, Donna, and for sharing your own experience! I really resonate with the idea of redemptive suffering. I often experience it as the thought that I am happy to feel pain as long as it’s constructive, as long as it’s a process of moving through something, not just feeling the same pain over and over again. I’ve found that being unconditionally present, without thought or resistance, enables me to do that. Whatever connects us to our experience in a direct and visceral way seems constructive to me. Best wishes with your experiments with consciousness and healing. I invite you to share again anytime!

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