Suffering Our Way Back to Reality

To suffer is to submit to reality. Sounds simple. But if we could do it, we’d all be awakened souls. I’m convinced that this is the wisdom that saints, and holy women and men, throughout the ages either stumbled on to or knew by direct download. The Buddha discovered it under a Bodhi tree. Jesus kept trying to teach his disciples that he must suffer (and die). But they, like most of us, were having none of it. I’m no holy man, but life found a way of teaching me this lesson.

Another way of saying the same thing is I was taught the practice of acceptance—which I’m stilling learning. Accept the unacceptable. Right. In various journeys I’d swing over to the unacceptable nature of what I was dealing with. I knew in my bones that it was actually unacceptable. Then, a voice would sound: “Accept it”. Excruciating. It was like a Zen koan that cannot be resolved rationally. Under the pressure of the irresolvable nature of the experience, I was popped into a trans-rational state (one that includes but goes beyond the rational mind). From this place, I was graced with acceptance.

Air filled my lungs. I gasped like a newborn. I grocked what our Hindu tradition calls karma—the conditioning of the past carried over into the present, preventing us from being in reality as it is: Now. The words that came were: Everything is new! It’s all new! The feeling was that it’s actually possible to be in the present, unplugged if you like. Unplugged from suffering of the past, the whole of it, the suffering I’ve caused and endured at the hands of others and life itself. Don’t get me wrong. I’d done a shit load of work to get to this point. It wasn’t magic.

Behold, I create all things new. It springs forth now. Do you not perceive it?”

8th century B,C.E. prophet, Isaiah, got this download from Source. Essentially, it is an affirmation that it is the nature of Reality/God/Goddess/Nature to create anew every moment. Yet, for various reasons, what we mostly see is the past. Yesterday, categories, habits, caricatures of reality, models, templates of humans who hurt us back then, not the actually human standing in front of us.

A key factor in not being able to experience reality/accept reality/submit to this and every moment is the presence of past experience that was too painful to metabolize in past lives, birth, infancy and childhood. We learned, necessarily and ingeniously, to exit reality, block out reality, distract ourselves from reality, change reality—whatever the hell we had to do to survive. This is trauma. . These experiences  “stick” to us. We carry them around, and they become like living organisms, beings that have a life of their own, determining our reality. They are unmetabolized, unprocessed suffering that was once too much to bear.  Usually, experience passes through us. Or we pass through experience. Trauma sticks like spaghetti to the wall.

This is why we refuse to “accept” whatever is arising moment to moment, without filters. We are operating with the mind and heart of a traumatized self. We are unconsciously afraid, for example, that we will be destroyed if we accept that our beloved partner feels lonely in our presence. We cannot bear to face that we learned to cut ourselves off emotionally at an early age just to survive failures of love and connection. Her sharing stirs up the original anxiety. The anxiety tells us to reject what she is saying, attack her, rationalize why it’s not true, etc.

Our daughter tells us that she is afraid of dying, and we impulsively try to cheer her up. She leaves feeling unheard. We’re annoyed, having “done our best”. It is our own inability to deal with death which prevents us from containing with equanimity her fear. What we cannot accept in ourselves we reject as valid in others.

Trauma awareness is the missing piece in most spiritual paths. It is nowhere to be found in churches, for example. But even in Eastern meditation practices, very few have a way to help people process what is arising, if what is arising is early failures of love (my definition of trauma). When this stuff comes up, the only way out is the way through. Which means seeing it, feeling it, grieving it and then (and only then) letting it go. It takes time. If you are merely “witnessing” it, my take is that this is most often just another form of detachment, a defence mechanism that was established early. It was put there precisely to escape reality, not let it in. Of course, the spiritual ego may regard this as a high and holy state of “detachment”, but too often it’s just gussied up dissociation.

To recap, suffering is submitting to whatever is arising and present moment by moment, within, in relationship, community, and in the world. It is experiencing as fully as possible the totality of reality. This issues in intensity. The more we are able to suffer what is ours to suffer, the more intensity we can bear. The more intensity we can bear the more alive we are. Intensity is an awareness of the infinite value and mystery of life.

Suffering is not morbid. It is not self-denial, as many Christians have been taught to understand it. It is self-recovery. When Jesus told his disciples that he must suffer, he meant that he, like all of us, must undergo reality. But it doesn’t mean hanging our head, putting ourself last in every situation (and making a virtue of it) or not enjoying life.

The moment, for example, may be asking us to undergo ecstasy. But we block it out because we learned early in life that feeling warm, feeling unity with another, feeling relaxed, breathing deeply, will be followed by the unimaginable shock of being taken advantage of or hurt in some way. This means that whenever we are “threatened” by joy, relaxation, or peace, anxiety arises. Anxiety is always a warning sign that we learned that we are in danger of being overwhelmed by reality. Fatigue is the surest sign that we’ve been working very, very hard to escape reality and escape suffering. Our strategy to escape suffering always end in deep fatigue. My next post is about trusting fatigue to bring us back to reality.

12 Comments on “Suffering Our Way Back to Reality

  1. One of my first influential books was….Be Here Now…it still gives me pause to be in the moment with clarity and love, rejoicing and playfulness…surrendering to what is requires vigilance and whatever a person can create to sweep away the lice like thoughts forms that rob us from the possibility of revelation. I have heard, maybe incorrectly, that suffer’s root used to mean…to allow. I also believe that judging good or bad is a fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil…sometimes what was good is later …”evil”…evil can sometimes be considered spiritual dsylexia…

    1. Thanks Sophia, Yes, that’s the way in which I’m using “suffering” – to allow. And I agree with you that suspending judgment as to what is good or evil is wise.

  2. Thank-you, Bruce. It is good to hear from you and about your move to Denman. I wish you much joy in this new place.

    I feels deeply true to me that integrating the trauma of past failures of love allows me to be present with love in this moment. To be both at peace and deeply committed to the work of love in the world. Your words about intensity make me smile. Yes. Intensity is about capacity to show up and bear what is. And intensity also sings in the morning!

  3. Thank you, Bruce. Always. I know never and always are not encouraged by many – but/and in my experience, your words, spoken or written always give me pause and pleasure. You are a gift. I do want another “If Darwin Prayed”-ish book – and I know you know. I am providing leadership at worship this Sunday and my Reflection “From Brokenness to Wholeness” will be richer because your words. So, again, thank you. ~ Nancy
    PS)Please note my email change.n

    1. Thanks for the kind words Nancy. And good luck with the service. Another If Darwin Prayed? Who knows. I wrote it for very practical reasons. I needed prayers and couldn’t find any. That need is over. But I’m writing poetry these days, so who knows.

  4. “The more we are able to suffer what is ours to suffer, the more intensity we can bear. The more intensity we can bear the more alive we are. Intensity is an awareness of the infinite value and mystery of life.” Beautiful! In the midst of intensity right now. Relearning trust.

  5. Dear Bruce,
    I suffer and I know that is why I am here on this earth. Buddhists seem to denigrate suffering and value detachment (I think this was your point of reference) but suffering is what life is – for all species. Can we deal with it, as self-conscious beings? Our particular “gift” of consciousness makes our journey on this earth very challenging. I suffer and I know I suffer. But I know I will survive it.

  6. Hi Bruce,
    What an address — Treasure Island!
    your reminder that ‘suffer’ = ‘allow’ rocketed me back to the ’30’s when I was kid who baulked at the Idea of ‘suffering’ to ‘come unto me’. Then a fast forward to the what seems like a notch up on ‘allow’. It’s the reflection that Jesus had of of his crucifixion (as reported in ‘A Course in Miracles’ that he is said to have dictated to Helen Schucman (sp) from 1965)
    I ELECTED for your sake and mine to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, did not matter. I love that needed to satisfy himself that love was stronger that fear when its a bad as it can get. What a model. Electing to suffer for a non-masochist is not all that easy!
    love David

    1. Thanks David, I wonder if Jesus didn’t discover, after the fact, that his courage to allow would issue in “life eternal”?

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