Our practice at Breathworks is to move toward the painful, the difficult; to meet our suffering, loneliness, lost-ness and disappointment with kindness and tenderness. The emotional attitude is open, receptive, welcoming and embracing, rather than rejecting or abandoning. When we’re exploring the practice of befriending our suffering during a mindfulness course (whether that’s physical, emotional or mental suffering), I ask people what their reaction might be to a child or loved one who is in pain or who is afraid, lonely or lost. Participants always know what to do and how to be; they talk about love and kindness and patience and listening and holding close, and giving of themselves in terms of attention and time and tenderness. We know how to love and how to live from the heart. We are born knowing this. We unlearn it.
Moving toward and attending to pain and distress can often make sense theoretically, but resistance may continue and so it’s useful to take some time to consider some of the things that we can learn from attending to suffering. There are benefits to coming into close and kindly relation to our suffering but what are they?
One of the benefits of learning to repeatedly turn towards pain or discomfort is the development of courage. It takes courage to change, to stop avoiding, to stop distancing ourselves from life, to what’s really happening. It takes courage to turn around, to face and open up to our pain, fear or loss. The word courage derives from the word ‘heart’ and is linked to whole heartedness. The chance to develop whole heartedness is a chance to live fully and brightly even if and when we hurt.
Perhaps the most beautiful benefit of the practice of moving toward the difficult or the painful is the development of self-compassion. To see, to feel, to know that we suffer, that we experience pain, that we feel despair, grief, fear. Our mindfulness practice gives us permission to name this experience, to name what’s happening for us, not in an abstract but in a very visceral way, to come to know where pain lives in the body, to be able to place a hand there, to take the breath there, to touch our suffering with the warmth and affection of awareness. In this way we interrupt the habit of abandonment.
When we’re willing to lean into, stand close to and pay attention to suffering, we come to see that experience, sensation, feelings, moods, patterns of thoughts change. We imagine them to be seamless and endless (it often feels that pain and depression will never end), but the very nature of experience is to change, it shifts, it alters, subsides, recedes and reduces in intensity. We can come to see experience and sensation for what it is, a constantly changing flow of sensation/thought and feeling. Knowing this to be true is a very valuable insight because it means that neither pain nor low mood will last; everything is subject to change.
When we abide with pain or suffering, when we’re willing to return, to hang around with, when we’re willing to open to our whole experience, we begin to notice that there’s pain and low mood, but also that our experience may include and be coloured by the sound of laughter in the street or the sight of a of a small flower living brightly in a pot. There may be pain, but this is not all of our experience: joy and discomfort, beauty and sadness can live in us simultaneously. This seems to echo the nature of life, wonderful and difficult as it is.
Abiding with our pain or discomfort, we come to rest in our own vulnerability, coming to know our own tender and open places, places that are innocent and undefended and beautiful. With courage, with our hearts engaged, we allow this precious part of ourselves to breathe and to see the light of day.
Once we know that we suffer, once we know that we’re vulnerable, its only a short step to acknowledge that others must suffer too, must be vulnerable too, because they’re human! If we pay attention and look closely we see that many people are happy, but many also struggle with loneliness, sadness, disappointment. We see our own lives reflected back to us in the faces of people we don’t know in the street, on the bus, the train. And seeing this is an opportunity to make connection, to feel common humanity, an opportunity to feel that we are not different to each other, not so separate, that we’re in this together, and that we don’t suffer alone.
There is much to learn from our raw experiences of suffering about the nature of reality and experience, about change and about transformation. Intimacy with suffering doesn’t need to isolate or separate us from each other. A caring, compassionate connection to suffering can bring us into a close and heartfelt understanding of what it means to be human, bringing us closer to ourselves and each other.