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Mindful June 2017

insight Suffering is not

insight Suffering is not being able to connect with our children. It’s our anxiety about what will happen at work tomorrow. Suffering is knowing your roof will leak in the next rainstorm. It’s finally buying that shiny new smartphone, then seeing an advertisement for an even newer device with incremental improvements. Hoping your company will get rid of your grumpy boss who still has a year to go before his retirement. Thinking that life is moving by too fast or too slow. Not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want, or getting what you want but fearing you will lose it—all of this is suffering. Sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, and so is dying. We think we need the conditions of our lives to reliably give us what we want. We want to construct an ideal future or nostalgically relive a perfect past. We mistakenly believe this will make us happy. But we all can see that even those people who realize extraordinary conditions in life still suffer. Even if we are rich, beautiful, smart, in perfect health, and blessed with wonderful families and friendships, in time these will break down, be destroyed, and change...or we will simply lose interest. On some level, we know this is the case, yet we can’t seem to stop grasping for those “perfect” conditions. Opening to pain in the present moment, we may be able to do something to improve the situation. Or maybe not. But we can certainly notice how our attitudes toward the experience are impacting what is happening. My reaction to pain, even to the thought of pain, changes everything. It can increase or decrease my suffering. I have always liked the formula: Pain + Resistance = Suffering If we attempt to push away our pain, whether it is physical or emotional, we almost always find ourselves suffering even more. When we open to suffering, inquiring into it instead of trying to deny it, we see how we might make use of it in our lives. Even in the Deepest Tragedy Years ago, Janet was enjoying a backyard BBQ with her husband, their good friend Albert, and their families. Looking around, she couldn’t see her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Jack, or Albert’s son, Daniel, in the yard. Concerned, she said that she was going to check on the boys. But her husband and Albert called her back, saying,

insight “You’re always jumping up. Sit down with us. Relax.” They assured her that the kids were fine, likely playing inside the house. Moments later, they all heard a crash and a scream. Young Daniel came running up to the adults. Janet ran past him to the front of the house, where she found Jack lying near-lifeless in the middle of their normally peaceful neighborhood street. The car that had hit her child had driven off. Janet scooped up Jack, and they all piled into the truck, heading to the emergency room as quickly as possible. Albert was a physician, so he worked heroically throughout the ride to restore Jack’s breathing. Janet felt overwhelmed by guilt and shame, though her primary concern was for Jack’s obviously broken leg. How could she have allowed this to happen? she wondered as they drove. It turned out that Jack had suffered injuries far worse than a broken leg. The doctors at the hospital did their best to save the boy, but they explained that his head wounds and the resulting brain damage were too severe. Janet’s son would not survive. She and her husband eventually made the decision to unhook little Jack from life support. He died almost immediately. Everyone was in shock, frozen in time and disbelief. Janet held her baby close, rocking him as she had so many nights as she settled him to sleep with a sweet lullaby. There would be no waking from this dream. Full of fear and sheer horror, the parents drove back home shortly before dawn. The country road hugged the nearby river. Janet noticed the rising full moon reflected in the water. This contact with something outside herself helped her sense a deep, clear part of her being, a calm awareness that, for a moment, could cut through the guilt, grief, and disbelief. An inner guidance spoke to her, saying, “If I am going to honor Jack’s life, I cannot let this accident destroy me.” Still, the next day, when the police phoned to confirm the hit-and-run, her whole being filled again with the heat of rage. Then, at 11:00 a.m., another shift occurred. There was a knock on the screen door. An older man, a stranger, appeared on the other side. Instinctively, Janet knew he was the driver of the car. The anguish on his face temporarily washed away her rage, and the grieving mother invited the stranger into her home. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” The driver apologized, admitted his In time and with attention, her heart cracked wide open, and her relationship to the precariousness of life changed, giving rise to gratitude and a sense of being fully alive. liability, and explained that he did not know that his car had hit anyone until the police contacted him. Once again, Janet’s guidance spoke to her with an inner strength reminiscent of the drive along the river. She looked compassionately at the man and, without any false sympathy, spoke honestly. “Jack’s death is a responsibility that we four adults all share,” she said. Janet and the man who had accidentally killed her son talked a while longer. Janet cried as she spoke of how she, her husband, and their friend had been preoccupied and hadn’t kept a close enough eye on the young boy. The driver explained how his daughter was getting married and that he had been rushing to the wedding rehearsal. In Janet’s mind, it was a moment of distraction on all their parts that had led to this disastrous outcome. A brief moment of inattention, nothing more. We tend to like simple causes: they tidy up life’s uncertainties. We want such accidents to be brought under human control. We want someone to be held accountable. We want the outrageous and impossible to be understood, so as to alleviate our sense of helplessness. But life does not always present itself in ways that are right or reasonable. The truth is, we are → June 2017 mindful 77

June 2017
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