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Monday, April 2, 2018

Pain & Joy: The Balancing Act of Your Inner Life

Buddhist Trungpa Rinpoche is said to have pointed out that it's possible to be enlightened everywhere except around your family, a statement which – whether actually said by him or not – I find quite humourous. And yes. It is so very true. Families can be loving, warm, painful, exasperating, joyous, hurtful, plain mean, and totally divine. Families can fill your heart with sheer, utterly boundless joy. Equally they can pierce your heart with glass shards resulting in unspeakable pain. And yes – you may have worked on becoming more enlightened, more spiritual in many arenas of your life, you may have been doing this for a very long time already and yet – you will find yourself tripping up more often than not in interactions that involve your closest family.

Sometimes we believe that because we've already been through much pain and hardship and have already come so far in our spiritual quest, that henceforth things will be easier. Not because we're 'better than', or 'superior to', or 'more evolved', but simply because we've already learned so much. As though now there were less to learn. Not so, as I was aptly reminded last month in a FB post by Alan Oken. He writes: "Many of us have reached a place in our spiritual development when our ideas about the Path and the reality of the way the Path truly unfolds are in conflict. A lot of us believe that once we have set a foot on the Spiritual Way, we can just glide “on home to the other side!” This sentiment comes about early on in our development. It is a kind of “gift” to encourage us. But as those of us who have been walking a little longer along the Way can readily attest, this apparent gift of ease along the “cosmic conveyor belt” is far from the truth. In fact, for a very long while, our crises in life will appear to multiply and not lessen after we have identified ourselves with the Soul. 

This is because there are now even more levels of interplay to consider in each and every one of our relationships, be they with people, objects, ideas, emotions, or beliefs. What is also true is that the direction, quality, and nature of these personal, impersonal, and transpersonal crises (for they indeed occur on all of these levels!), is that they take on a specific direction. Our crises therefore become fewer in number but far more specific in terms of the "energetic principles" that they represent. The identification of these Principles is a faculty of the higher mind and anchored in the Soul." Another humbling reminder of the fact that spiritual growth is not only a life-long spiraling process, but also of the fact that the bar is continually raised along the way.

Speaking with several friends (separately) of their (and my) individual and personal pain, we felt supported in our mutual understanding and sharing in the discovery that we feel we are all living an inner balancing act that never seems to stand still. In this inner balancing act one is conscious that joy and pain are capable of coexisting simultaneously. It brings to mind something I once read of a man who had been in an accident, resulting in quadriplegia. He said that at times, when he was in the company of friends, or when a joke was being told, he was able to momentarily forget the state of his body.

The inner balancing act of joy and pain is not about forgetting. But it is very much about being able to feel joy in the midst of pain. Those who have lost a loved one know that occasionally in the midst of sorrow, even in a short period of time after the loss, they may smile or even laugh. It seems incongruous, almost disrespectful, and yet it happens.

Again, the inner balancing act of joy and pain is not about suddenly smiling or laughing, but about being aware of your pain – whatever it may be – and simultaneously being able to be aware of – and experience – joy. This can only come about in my opinion, if you practice mindfulness.

In his Letters to a Young Poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of how great sadness transforms us and brings us closer to ourselves: “ … you must not be frightened … if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?”

In seeking to balance suffering and joy in your life you must realize that suffering eventually leads to joy, and joy eventually leads to suffering. We live in a dualistic world. One without the other would not be what it is. Joy without suffering would not be joy. Likewise suffering without joy would not be suffering. If suffering did not exist, we could not have joy. And without joy we would not have suffering.

One of Taoism’s most important concepts is wu wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” I’ve been grappling with it for many years, having initially read about it in the writing of Fritjof Capra. “A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action,” Elizabeth Reninger writes. “Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which--without even trying--we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise. 

The Taoist principle of wu wei has similarities to the goal in Buddhism of non-clinging to the idea of an individual ego. A Buddhist who relinquishes ego in favor of acting through the influence of inherent Buddha-nature is behaving in a very Taoist manner.” 

What this teaches us is that in the midst of suffering, where we may be tempted to rush in and try to resolve, that which at this moment cannot be resolved, that we may need to remain still. To rest in non-action. Hence the concept of non-doing. Or as a dear friend of mine puts it: sit like the hare.

In his book “The Art of Living” Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “Mindfulness has the capacity to embrace our suffering. It says, Hello, my dear pain. This is the practice of recognizing suffering. Hello, my pain. I know you are there, and I will take care of you. You don’t need to be afraid.

Now in our mind-consciousness there are two energies: the energy of mindfulness and the energy of suffering. The work of mindfulness is first to recognize and then to embrace the suffering with gentleness and compassion. You make use of your mindful breathing to do this. As you breathe in, you say silently, Hello, my pain. As you breathe out, you say, I am here for you. Our breathing contains within it the energy of our pain, so as we breathe with gentleness and compassion, we are also embracing our pain with gentleness and compassion.

When suffering comes up, we have to be present for it. We shouldn’t run away from it or cover it up with consumption, distraction, or diversion. We should simply recognize it and embrace it, like a mother lovingly embracing a crying baby in her arms. The mother is mindfulness, and the crying baby is suffering. The mother has the energy of gentleness and love. When the baby is embraced by the mother, it feels comforted and immediately suffers less, even though the mother does not yet know exactly what the problem is. Just the fact that the mother is embracing the baby is enough to help the baby suffer less. We don’t need to know where the suffering is coming from. We just need to embrace it, and that already brings some relief. As our suffering begins to calm down, we know we will get through it.”

Your inner life is always a balancing act, and YOU are fully in charge of that – if you choose to take on that responsibility. Part of why you consciously choose - seek - to be the one in charge is because you have grown to love yourself. Loving yourself lies at the base of so much of what allows you to grow and expand. Loving yourself is the beginning of a wondrously brilliant road. Joy and pain will always have their places there.



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