Relaxing with Suffering

“I’m certain that compassion is the only possible response to pain, yet I still sometimes become resentful when I or someone else is suffering.”

Sylvia Boorstein
1 November 2002

“I’m certain that compassion is the only possible response to pain, yet I still sometimes become resentful when I or someone else is suffering.”

I recently found myself acting intolerantly, irritably and impatiently in the middle of—of all places—a large diversity workshop. I listened to my mind becoming increasingly inflamed, framing a list of rebuttals to what I heard as excessive preoccupation with past grievances. “Why haven’t you gotten over this already?” I thought. “Can’t you just let this go? How about other people’s suffering? The whole world is suffering!”

My blaming thoughts were painful. Perhaps I might have instead asked myself, “Why is this bothering me so much?” I might have remembered, “This person is in terrible pain,” and felt compassion. I might have—if my mind had stayed clear and my heart had stayed open. But, the truth is, I feel helpless when confronted with pain I cannot ease, and helplessness frightens and confuses me. It doesn’t matter if the “excessive complainer” is someone else trapped in bitterness, or if it is me. It’s the same.

The lesson I seem to be learning again and again, as a psychotherapist and as a dharma teacher, is, “Pain is pain. And it hurts. Period.”

Evaluating anyone’s pain by comparison is irrelevant. “Nelson Mandela emerged from years of imprisonment…,” “The Dalai Lama has had his people, his culture, his country and his religion systematically attacked…”—stories about people who managed to triumph over bitterness aren’t helpful. They only add the factor of guilt, and tie the knot of pain tighter. Gwen, a participant in the Wednesday morning class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, once said, “My answer to the question, ‘How are you, Gwen?’ is always, ‘I couldn’t be better.’ Because I couldn’t.”

I quote Gwen often because I think she’s right: we couldn’t be better, ever, than how we are. Even when we are miserable. Even when our misery is strong enough to leak out and create pain for other people. If we could, we would. No one wants to suffer.

The Buddha explained dukkha, suffering, as anguish in the mind that arises in response to the inevitable grief of life. The consolation he promised was the lessening of anguish, not the end of pain. The peace he described is the relief that comes when the mind is able to surrender its imperative that things be different. I know from my own experience that this is true. Over and over I’ve made the liberating move from resisting to accepting. I trust with absolute certainty that compassion is the only possible response to pain. And still, given a set of circumstances that frighten me by touching unhealed sensitivities in my own heart, I become flustered. Like my grandson, Erik, who sticks his fingers in his ears when he’s heard all he can manage, I also stop hearing. Then I feel disconnected. Then resentful. Then I suffer more.

Then I talk to my friends. Dharma wisdom alone is not enough at this point. Indeed, it might be exactly the wrong time to remind me of what the clearest part of me knows is true.

Imagine this conversation:

“The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” (Third Zen Patriarch)

“I have preferences!”

“This too shall pass.” (Insight into anicca, impermanence)

“It isn’t passing fast enough for me!”

“If you stop resisting, you’ll stop suffering.” (Insight into dukkha, suffering)

“Hey, aren’t we supposed to be friends?”

“Where is the ‘I’ who is resenting?” (Insight into anatta, emptiness)

“Don’t give me any of that guff. ‘I’ or ‘no-I’—pain is happening!”

Now here’s a more helpful conversation:

“You’re in pain, Sylvia.” (Expression of empathy, connection)

“I know.” (Moment of honesty, relief)

“I’m sorry.” (Verbal equivalent of handholding)

“Thanks.” (Confession of neediness, also a relief)

“You want to talk about it?” (Invitation to self-examination)

“I guess so. You know, I’m not ordinarily intolerant.” (Preparation for self-disclosure)

“I do know that.” (Reassurance that disclosure is possible)

“I guess I got scared. I suppose I still have work to do on _____, _____, and ______.

“This is hard work you’re doing. I’m thinking very good thoughts about you.” (I would say this to my grandson Erik as well, or to anyone, however old they are, when they are challenged.)

So I talked to friends after my community-meeting mind storm. Each one, in a different way, held my hand as I thought about what happened. No one told me what I should think. I stopped being frightened. Then I stopped being mad. Then I remembered that we’re all suffering, and I could think about what the “complainer” had said, and feel compassion. And then I could think about what still hurts inside me, and feel compassion toward myself as well.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.