Coming Together Around Suffering
Few of us will be sorry to see 2020 go. Although some of us have remained financially secure, barely noticing the isolation or natural disasters or political upheaval, for most of us, this year has been filled with loneliness, uncertainty, anger, boredom, and despair. To cope, some people have numbed themselves with substances or other addictions. Protests have turned violent as people feel powerless in the face of repeated assaults. Domestic violence has escalated, as have mental health crises, suicides, and homicides. It has been a year of suffering.
Of course, stress is always with us. Suffering is part of life. Indeed, if there were no suffering, we wouldn’t appreciate the gifts we receive, nor would we develop compassion. Not that everyone responds to suffering by becoming kinder or wiser. Some people turn suffering into bitterness. They project their rage onto others and lose the capacity to care.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could dole out tragedy and abuse evenly, so that everyone got the right amount of pain for them to grow in wisdom?
But that isn’t possible, and we don’t need to manufacture misery to make people learn. We could take care of every person’s needs, raise all children with love and gentle guidance, treat everyone with respect and tenderness, and there would still be enough pain in the world to develop character. So go ahead and do your best to improve people’s lives. Suffering has its value, but nothing we do will eradicate it.
Besides, it isn’t suffering alone that develops character. What allows us to transform our pain into kindness is being cared for and supported when our lives fall apart. By coming together after disaster strikes, we help heal one another’s broken hearts.
Manas and Avoiding Pain
So suffering not only teaches us how to care about others who suffer, it also brings us together. After a natural disaster or terrorist attack, for instance, people will rush to help those who are hurt. That doesn’t mean we like suffering, though. Pain may be good for us, but we still try to avoid it.
In his book Reconciliation, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that our desire to avoid pain and cling to pleasure actually creates our suffering.  We develop addictions to things we like, such as substances or video games or sweets. Because we can’t bear the thought of losing our loved ones, we end up trying to control them, thus alienating them. This causes pain for all of us. Afraid of loss, we erect barriers between us and the world, we remain in jobs we hate, and we put up with abusive relationships. In the end, we become angry, resentful, and depressed. Rarely do we acknowledge that anxiety and craving lie behind the misery we create.
The Illusion of Separateness
We do this because we believe the illusion of separateness. This illusion arises out of manas, the thinking part of our minds. Manas tells us that we are individual beings with no real connection to others. According to Buddhist teachings, we are actually part of every person and every thing in the universe. Our ancestors live within us, as does the sun and water that nourish the food we eat.
But manas doesn’t see this. It worries, judges, and makes plans. Manas fears death; it fears loss. Believing in our separateness, manas thinks that if we lose a loved one, that loved one no longer exists for us. In reality, we and our beloved are one. Although death may have changed her form, she remains within us. 
This idea that we are separate selves may be a delusion, but it’s a powerful one. So we act out of that delusion, seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering. By doing so, we create the pain that wounds us and those around us.
Be Careful of Love
Anthony de Mello tells the story of a king who loved a servant girl. He brought her to the palace, intending to marry her.
As soon as she arrived at the palace, however, she became ill. Though the king’s healers came up with remedies, nothing helped. The girl grew so weak, it seemed she would die. The king promised a great reward for anyone who could save her life, but no one could cure her.
Then one day a wise man appeared at the king’s court. He asked to be allowed to examine the girl in private. After an hour, he came out of the girl’s room and told the king he knew what medicine would cure her. “But the medicine will cause great pain,” the wise man told him. “Not to the girl, but to you.”
The king said that was no concern. Whatever the girl needed, she would have. “What is the medicine?” he asked.
So the wise man told him that the girl was in love with another of the king’s servants. To save her life, the king must allow her to marry the boy.
The king didn’t know what to do. He desired the servant girl so much he couldn’t imagine letting her go. On the other hand, he loved her so much, he couldn’t bear to let her die. How should he answer?
According to de Mello, the moral of the story is that we should be careful of love. “If you walk into it, it will be the death of you.” 
It may seem that the only person in de Mello’s story for whom love meant death was the servant girl. She was dying of a broken heart. Partly this was because the king didn’t know how to free that which he desired. This made the girl’s misery worse. It also meant that he, too, would eventually feel the ache of loss. Whether the girl left him to marry the boy she loved or died of sadness, the king would lose her. Indeed, he never had her in the first place, for we cannot force someone to care for us. Thus, whatever choice he made, the king would die inside. To perish physically is not the only way we can die.
At the same time, the girl was killing herself, for she could not let go of her own longing. Just as the king clung to her, she clung to her idea of what she needed for happiness. She, too, was stuck in the illusion of separateness that told her she could not live without her beloved.
Whenever we cling to what we think will bring us pleasure, we create suffering for ourselves and others.
Yet how do we let go?
Facing the Little Deaths
Perhaps manas can help us. That same thinking mind that convinces us we should always feel pleasure can be used to help us see the truth. With manas, we can recognize how much trouble we get into when we try to avoid discomfort. Instead of running from our hurts, we can learn to listen with compassion to our wounded heart. We can pay attention to our sorrow and hold it tenderly.
When we do this, we may discover a truth: The servant girl and her boyfriend were never apart. Not really. If the king were to release his beloved and let her marry someone else, she would remain part of him. Our separateness is an illusion.
At the same time, we experience life as separate beings. Thus, when we release our beloved, we hurt. It’s a necessary part of being human. If we did not grieve loss, there would be no suffering, and if there were no suffering, there would be no joy. Nor would there be love.
Love arises out of desire and holds within it the seed of suffering, because nothing lasts forever. Thus, there will always be loss and pain. That’s why, when we “walk into” love, we will, at some point, die. We face many little deaths in life. They can help us grow in compassion and learn to love with a love that knows how to let go.
They Are Just Feelings
Of course, letting go hurts. Yet our thinking mind can remind us that hurts do not last forever. They are just feelings. Nor are they an accurate representation of reality. Often they arise less because of what is happening right now and more because of past wounds we have experienced. Our history gets in the way of our seeing clearly. To justify the emotions we experience at one moment or another, we tell ourselves stories about life being unfair or about our own victimization, but just because we tell those stories does not make them true.
We have a choice. Either we can believe the thoughts that generate our emotions, thus intensifying our misery, or we can notice our distressed thoughts and the emotions that follow them. Then we can greet them, thus taking away some of their power. This allows them to pass through us. Emotions are not reality. They arise out of our construct of reality.
When we observe and hold lightly our thoughts and emotions, they no longer rule us. If we allow ourselves to let go and face the little deaths that are part of every life, if we find the courage to feel what we feel, those emotions and sensations will transform into something less scary. With time, they will fade. If we stop trying to push them down or run from them, they will dissipate all by themselves.
We are both separate and not separate. Our feelings are not facts. With practice, we can learn to use our conscious mind to observe and see what is true and not true. Then we will be able to release our beloved. We will be able to face loss, to face all the little deaths that are part of a life.
But why should we bother to feel our sadness and anger and fear?
We do this because, if we can allow our thoughts and feelings to be what they are without getting caught up in them, and when we can let them pass through us, we will discover happiness.
Happiness exists only in the now. To be happy, we must be conscious of the present moment. We cannot be lost in the haze of addiction or in mind-numbing computer games. Instead, we must experience the life that runs through us, be aware of the joy of flowers and sun and air to breathe. In each moment, we can choose to be miserable, or we can choose joy.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. In some parts of India, for instance, the air quality is so bad that the sun hides behind smog and breathing brings little pleasure. Happiness might still be found in the touch of a loved one or the contentment of a task well done, but some lives are filled with more suffering than one can cope with. Sometimes, choosing happiness takes more effort that a person can sustain.
Also, we might be one with everything, and we do have the power to choose joy, but that does not mean we should allow others to purposefully hurt us. It is fine and reasonable to protect our minds and bodies. Our separateness is an illusion, yet this is how we experience life, and we deserve to be cared for.
Even so, if we run from pain and hardship, we will not find the true happiness that resides in the moment, in the breath, in the wind, the rain, the tree. To be happy, we must let go of what we crave and accept the pain that is a natural part of being alive.
Turning toward God
That is what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches. It is true and helpful. If we embrace his teachings, our life will be changed.
Yet his is not the only way. We can also find happiness, joy, peace, and comfort from turning back to that which created us, to the source of life, to that which some call God.
This is the core of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hoshanah, which is celebrated in the fall. Rosh Hoshanah is about owning our shortcomings, repenting of our sins, and turning back to God. At this time of the year, Jews look at what they have done through the last year and commit to doing better in the future.
This is a little like our New Year’s resolutions. We think of something we don’t like in ourselves and decide to change it. We resolve to “turn over a new leaf.” But how do we do this? Willpower by itself is not effective at inducing change. Hanh’s method of noticing what arises within us and being gentle with ourselves tends to work better. When we push at something, it pushes back harder. We change not because we are shamed or browbeaten into it, but because we are invited with compassion and gentleness.
But we can also choose to reach out to God for assistance. This is not easier, for it also takes a willingness to face our suffering and let go of that which we crave. The point of Rosh Hoshanah is to reconcile with God, but also with those around us. We seek forgiveness, and we seek to forgive. Teshuvah, the Jewish practice of turning back, asks that we look inside ourselves, be honest about our motivations, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions. The goal is not to shame or berate ourselves, but simply to notice. Then we can resolve to do better in the future.
Be Who We Are Meant to Be
Even if we are not the one who has hurt another, if we are the one who was hurt, teshuvah is important. Out of teshuvah, we learn to forgive, for we have been forgiven by God.
Christian teachings often emphasize forgiveness no matter how the other person responds. He can continue to abuse others; it matters little for our own forgiving. After all, we forgive to free ourselves, not so much to change the life of the other.
In the Jewish tradition, however, before we can be forgiven by God, we must experience regret and confess our sins. We must commit to turning back, to changing, to living differently. Before we can be forgiven by another person, we must not only show our remorse and apologize, but we must make right the wrong we did. We must pay back what we stole, replaced what was broken. This is not always possible, of course, but we can do our best to bring justice to the situation. 
If we turn back to God, however, we will be returning to the path God set before us when we were born. We will become the person we were meant to be. Humility, confession, an open heart are all necessary to make the inner change that is part of the Jewish New Year, part of teshuvah, of turning over a new leaf. This brings us close to the divine and makes it easier, every day, to do what we should do and be who we are meant to be. 
Making Next Year Better
As we enter into 2021, may we resolve to do better in that year than we did before. The world is hurting. Our country is in disarray. So much needs to be done to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. It is important that we do our part, even if that part is small.
Yet it can be hard to know what to do. Most of us have little control over policies. We can do something to minimize pollution, but that will have little impact on the fires and storms that beleaguer us. If society is to become more humane, more just, more inclusive, it will take a lot more effort than ours alone.
Happiness in Our Own Hearts
Things are not hopeless, however. We do have control of our own hearts. We can choose to turn back to God, to repair our relationship with the holy. In the future, we can choose to journey with God in all that we do.
If we prefer the Buddhist path, we can use mindfulness to transform our suffering into compassion. By noticing our emotions and thoughts and letting them pass through us, we can develop the capacity to hold our hurts with tenderness. We can heal our heartache. This will help us heal those around us, as well.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to change our behavior through turning. We can turn back to God or turn back to the compassion within us. This will allow us to become the people we were born to be. Then we can help create a world filled with peace and happiness, for there will be peace and happiness in our own hearts. In this way, we can begin to heal the world.
In faith and fondness,
- Hanh, Thich Nhat, Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2010.
- Hanh, Thich Nhat, “Dharma Talk: Consciousness and Quantum Physics,” Mindfulness Bell, #44, Winter/Spring 2007, August 26, 2006, https://www.mindfulnessbell.org/archive/tag/manas, accessed 12/24/20.
- de Mello, Anthony, The song of the Bird, Anand, Gujarat, India: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1982, 205.
- Editors, “Teshuvah, or Repentance,” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/repentance/, accessed 12/25/20.
- Palatnik, Lori, “Teshuvah – Fixing Mistakes,” Aish, https://www.aish.com/jl/sp/bas/48924947.html, accessed 12/25/20.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved