Suffering’s Not the Only Story

In the midst of great personal pain and confusion, says Sylvia Boorstein, we can be alive to the momentary gaps where our minds change course.

Sylvia Boorstein
1 September 2005

In the midst of great personal pain and confusion, says Sylvia Boorstein, we can be alive to the momentary gaps where our minds change course. In these gaps, all kinds of experience— compassion, insight, even humor—can arise.

At a recent Spirit Rock Meditation Center class, a woman named Nancy, a regular member of the group, told us about coming home the previous evening to hear this message on her answering machine:

“Nancy, this is Randy. I’m calling you from my car. I’ve just been to the doctor. She had the results of my biopsy. The news is not good. My lymphoma is back. She’s already consulted with her colleagues and no one knows what to try for me next. Oh my God. There’s a flock of turkeys starting to cross the highway. I hope they make it safely to the other side! I’ll call you later, okay?”

As Nancy spoke, reciting the message slowly and carefully from memory, I felt several distinct emotions. First, the words “biopsy” and “news is not good” and “lymphoma” aroused tension in my mind—I felt eager to hear more, and fearful about what I would learn. Then, the improbable image of turkeys marching onto a highway startled me. (Were they single file? Four abreast?) I almost laughed. Finally, Randy’s spontaneous wish for the turkeys’ survival, in the midst of his need to assimilate dire news about his health, inspired me.

I think the other eighty or so people in the room had similar responses. Although everyone became quite still as Nancy began her story, I noticed that people were smiling as she ended it. I heard some chuckling. Then we talked about our responses to Randy’s story.

The fact that Randy, a person known to none of us but Nancy, was able to move beyond the limits of his own story—such a compelling story—to care about others was reassuring. I saw it as a confirmation of the Buddha’s third noble truth: liberation from ego-based suffering is possible. One person said it was consoling to know that nothing has to change in our lives in order for the heart to be free to love.

None of us could know, of course, how long Randy’s shift of attention from personal anguish to benevolent connection lasted. Perhaps it was just a few minutes, the time it took the turkeys to pass. Indeed, it seems reasonable to imagine that his shift away from grief and dismay and confusion ought to have been brief. We are programmed by instinct, as emotionally healthy animals, to vigorously respond to challenges to our own survival and to the survival of our kin. Not to think, “I might be dying soon. How can I possibly handle this? Will I be able to deal with the pain? What can I do for my family? What if I cannot bear this grief?” would be a form of denial. That Randy’s attention shifted at all, even for a brief moment, was inspiring assurance of the mind’s essential freedom.

The group heard Randy’s story and responded first of all with wishes for his wellness. Indeed, we prayed for him. Later, the discussion became general. People remembered their own experiences of incidents that dramatically shifted the mind away from turmoil. Someone remembered how, at a family gathering just after the funeral of a dearly loved relative, the mention and recollection of a playful afternoon many years past caused everyone to laugh; how odd it had seemed—and what a relief it had been—to find that grief is permeable.

“Everything is permeable” is, I think, a useful alternative phrasing of “Everything is impermanent.” Impermanence is the first of the three characteristics of experience that the Buddha taught as liberating insights. Even “Everything is insubstantial,” which may be the closest correct translation, does not console the grieving mind. The pain of loss feels substantial. Reminding a person who is grieving, “This too shall pass,” a cliché that trivializes a person’s pain and creates distance rather than connection, exacerbates suffering. What is reassuring are moments when we are aware of the absence of suffering, within the acknowledged context of great pain. Surcease—rather than peace—is possible, always.

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.