Poison Into Medicine

Poison Into Medicine


What does it mean to suffer effectively?

MANY YEARS AGO I came across an odd phrase, a phrase that really put me off at first and gradually worked its way into my consciousness in a truly transformative manner: effective suffering.

This phrase was used in a story that meditation teacher Shinzen Young told about the renowned Christian contemplative Thomas Merton. Merton lived quite a bohemian life before he converted to Catholicism. He then entered one of the church’s strictest and most ascetic monastic orders. When he was asked about his decision and the suffering that such a lifestyle involved, Merton said that he didn’t become a Trappist monk so he would suffer more than other people, but that he did so because he wanted to learn to suffer more effectively.

Who in the world wants to suffer? I remember asking myself. Let alone effectively, whatever that means. When I looked deeply at the phrase, however, I recalled several similar comments I’d heard from other teachers I respect. The Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah taught that there are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. On numerous occasions, I heard Ram Dass say “despair is the necessary prerequisite for the next level of consciousness.” His teacher, Neem Karoli Baba, made similar comments. “Suffering is grace,” he was known to say. “Suffering brings me closer to God.” And from the influential Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck: “As you embrace the suffering of life, the wonder shows up. They go together.”

I’ve found it very helpful to make a distinction between what I call “existential suffering” and “unnecessary suffering.”

I think it’s safe to say that no living being, human or nonhuman, wants to suffer. I also think it’s safe to say that every human being (and I imagine every sentient being) suffers at times. There seems to be no getting around the fact that embodied life involves difficulties on a variety of levels. This is what the Buddha pointed out in the first of the four noble truths: Life involves suffering.

My experience is that most people who see themselves as being on a spiritual journey are initially motivated to awaken by a desire to move beyond their personal difficulties. Teachers invite us to see our painful experiences as what Ram Dass called “grist for the mill of awakening.”

How can we learn to make our suffering more effective in relation to our spiritual maturation? It’s tempting to yield to our deep-seated conditioning to avoid discomfort at all costs. In this way, we give ourselves over to the always available options for turning away from what’s happening in the present moment.

A different option is to intentionally move toward the challenges in our lives. This seems counterintuitive at first because it goes against our habitual tendencies. As we are increasingly able to be with our suffering rather than push it away, we become genuinely curious about it. We become like researchers who adjust their microscope from 10x magnification to 50x to get a better look. Our intuitive wisdom tells us that understanding suffering is a key to moving beyond it. We realize that there are different kinds of suffering and that the way to work with it depends on what kind we’re experiencing.

I’ve found it very helpful to make a distinction between what I call “existential suffering” and “unnecessary suffering.” The first type is related to the human condition. We’re all born and we all have physical bodies. We all age with the passing of time and become ill at points along the way. All of us will die when our time comes. We will all be separated from those we love and from the things we care about most.

We all live in a world that is constantly changing on every conceivable level, from the subatomic to the intergalactic. We all experience a seemingly endless stream of physical sensations, emotions, sense contacts, and thoughts over which we have little or no control. We all have a part of ourselves that seeks security and safety in a world that cannot reliably offer either one. I think of these facts as existential givens that apply to all human beings.

What varies a great deal from one person to the next is the way we respond to these realities. This is where the world’s wisdom teachings can help us. If we’re willing to learn, they will show us how to meet our moments of suffering with self-compassion and wisdom. They will teach us to see how our own difficulties can deepen our compassion for others who are suffering. They will allow us to glimpse the possibility of true freedom, to merge into the part of our being that embraces our common humanity while simultaneously residing in the ever-present equanimity of our true nature. In other words, they will teach us the deep meaning of the phrase “effective suffering.”

One skill I’ve observed in people who have learned to suffer effectively is a psychological technique called cognitive reframing, although many of them wouldn’t have thought of what they were doing as a technique. Both Western psychology and Eastern teachings emphasize the role that our own perception plays in determining what we experience. Actress Shelley Winters offered an example of this process: “I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful, and damaging to all things American. But if I were 22 with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic, and a progressive religious experience.”

While this is obviously a light-hearted illustration, it clearly makes the point. She’s showing us that the same phenomenon can be experienced in different ways depending upon our perceptual stance. For those of us who aspire to live awakened lives, this skill of perception has far-reaching implications. What happens, for example, when we bring the practice of reframing to the realities of advanced old age?

In his essay “Growing Old,” the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a view of aging entirely different than the view we’re accustomed to in modern Western society. “How much easier it is then, how much more receptive we are to death, when advancing years guide us softly to our end. Aging thus is in no sense a punishment from on high but brings us its own blessings and a warmth of colors all its own. … There is even warmth to be drawn from the waning of your own strength compared to the past—just to think how sturdy I once used to be! You can no longer get through a whole day’s work at one stretch, but how good it is to slip into the brief oblivion of sleep, and what a gift to wake once more to the clarity of your second or third morning of the day. And your spirit can find delight in limiting your intake of food, in abandoning the pursuit of novel flavors. You are still of this life, yet you are rising above the material plane. … Growing old serenely is not a downhill path but an ascent.”

The last part of the process is to pause periodically to reflect upon our unfolding journey and to remember yet again that we already have what we seek, and we already are what we yearn to become.

When I first read what Solzhenitsyn had to say, I felt a great sense of delight. The friend who sent me this quotation told me the great writer was almost 90 when he wrote those words. It’s not that Solzhenitsyn didn’t suffer from the infirmities of old age. Rather, he had learned how to turn poison into medicine, how to appreciate the life he had been given and the growth potential in the hardships. I believe we are all capable of learning the same life lessons as this inspiring exemplar.

What is it I’m really trying to say? Simply that there are time-tested practices and perspectives that can transform our suffering into a curriculum that actualizes our best human qualities. We start by opening to what life presents, however mysterious or unexpected. We train ourselves to turn toward whatever arises, be it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We then cultivate loving curiosity, a blend of self-compassion and a spirit of investigation. Recognizing the remarkable number of methods available to us, we explore creative ways to open our hearts, quiet our minds, and become instruments of love and wisdom in the world. The last part of the process is to pause periodically to reflect upon our unfolding journey and to remember yet again that we already have what we seek, and we already are what we yearn to become.

Poison into medicine

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.