The young woman sitting next to me looks to be in her late 20s. Given our proximity to the University of Oregon, she could be a graduate student, maybe, or a young professor. She is sipping a big bowl of café au lait, her head bent low. I try not to notice her weeping, but her sadness is so palpable I can feel my own tears forming. After a minute or two, I decide to move a couple of tables away to give her some privacy.
But I can’t get her sadness out of my mind. At my age, I’ve experienced my fair share of suffering—lost relationships, near-fatal automobile accidents, losing four dear friends in the past few years. But the story that comes to mind as I think about sadness surprises me. It happened to a young student of mine, back in Detroit. Maybe it surfaces because she looked like this young women—lovely and full of life, with a rare intensity.
M. worked as a high-end escort for businessmen visiting the city on weekends. The way I remember it, she had several regular clients and was saving up with a plan to get out of the business, when she got into another argument with her boyfriend about it while they were driving one Saturday morning. This time he told her that if she didn’t quit immediately, he would kill himself. He pulled the car over, pointed a pistol to his head, and told her she needed to make her decision. Panicked and hysterical, the young woman called me at the temple. As I struggled to understand her—he pulled the trigger.
Her suffering was immediate and overwhelming. Fifteen years later, none of us who were close to her at this time has ever forgotten that phone call and its aftermath. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Minor suffering mostly, but sometimes overwhelming suffering. Nobody is left out.
One of the Buddha’s first disciples was the son of a wealthy merchant named Yasa. They had met early one morning in the forest, by accident. Yasa was bemoaning his “perfect” life. He had just spent most of the night partying. His parents catered to his every whim, which translated into a luxurious lifestyle: a mansion of his own, fine clothes, money, music, women. If he were alive today, he would have his own reality show.
Yet when Yasa met the Buddha, he told him that his life was miserable. Having everything he could ever want hadn’t protected him from boredom, worry, fear, or anger. Seeing how happy the Buddha looked, he wanted to know his secret. The Buddha responded: everyone suffers. While we may learn to manage our suffering through therapy, meditation, talks with good friends, and exercise, if we look closely, we’ll see that the suffering doesn’t ever go away completely. And while it is easy to say that joy is also always a part of life, when we suffer, we suffer. Period.
Ironically, the second truth Buddhism has to offer is that the way through suffering is just that: straight through it. How do we do this? First, we name it. Heartbreak. Worry. Disappointment. In doing this we admit that we are suffering.
Then we need to lean into it with everything we’ve got, using all the help that is available to us. An old koan teaches this: “The whole world is on fire. How do you sit in meditation?” Until we realize that there is simply no escape from the pain that life brings and that all we can do is to sit in the middle of the fire, we only pile suffering on top of suffering. Resistance is like that.
So we lean in. And suffering dissipates. When we came together, all of the temple residents wept with our young friend. For weeks we did special practice together. Meditation. Chanting. Prayer. Prostrations. I think she attended every retreat offered that year. Slowly, slowly I watched the light come back into her eyes. When she later married a wonderful young man, I got to perform their wedding ceremony. We could look at each other with the great love that seems to grow out of shared sadness. When she had her baby, we all rejoiced. We still do.
Words to Live By
Use this recitation in moments of suffering:
Breathing in, I return to the island of just this moment.
Here is where the sky, the ground,
and the air hold me up, comforting me.
Breathing out, I begin again.
The author of the book Close to the Ground: The Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Geri Larkin is spending spring replacing the plants she has lost with more drought-resistant varieties.