“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” — Jalaluddin Rumi
Can you fathom:
- Holding your arm up in the air for years?
- Rolling naked down a blistering hot highway?
- Standing for your entire life?
- Laying on a bed of cactus for days on end?
- Pulling a car with your — ahem — penis?
All of these acts, and more, are part of religious penitence for the holy naga sadhu of India. On the path to enlightenment, these men (and sometimes women), renounce all worldly pleasures, relying only on the kindness of strangers for food and water.
They live a life of chosen poverty.
They are celibate.
And they perform extreme acts of self-inflicted pain in order to test their self-control and to reach higher levels of spiritual enlightenment — many times enduring this pain for years on end.
For them, extreme pain is a matter of the mind, one that can be controlled, and used for a deeper self-awareness, religious penitence and higher spirituality.
Now I’m certainly not advocating for us to do any of the afore-mentioned self-inflictions (nor am I responsible if you choose to, btw), but I do believe we can learn something from this extreme display of pain-as-growth.
Pain and Suffering Are NOT the Same
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” –Haruki Murakami
(noun) physical suffering or distress, as due to injury, illness
(noun) the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship
Pain is your body telling your brain that something is wrong. It’s the flash of nerves when you stub your toe. It’s the physical wrenching in your sternum when someone special has been lost.
Our bodies are incredible organisms, thoroughly adept at letting us know when we’ve encountered something potentially dangerous or life threatening.
Suffering, however, is the state of undergoing pain, distress or hardship. It is NOT your body’s reaction to blunt trauma or emotional turmoil.
Suffering is your minds interpretation of physical or emotional pain.
Though sometimes overpowering, suffering, as it’s defined, is a choice: you either live in a state of suffering or you don’t.
If you’re living in a state of suffering, you cannot reach enlightenment. But, we ultimately find our way to enlightenment and happiness when we recognize that pain is mandatory, but suffering is not.
By enlightenment, I don’t only mean ultimate spiritual enlightenment. I mean it more as in its dictionary definition:
(verb) to give intellectual or spiritual light to; impart knowledge to
You don’t have to be aiming for ultimate spiritual enlightenment to achieve enlightenment in your daily life.
You just have to go into the darkness of pain and return from it, into the light.
This is enlightenment, to endure pain and then come out of it, into an enlightened state.
How beautiful is that?
True enlightenment cannot be achieved without first withstanding the darkness of life. We cannot understand the light, without first intimately knowing the dark.
Moving From the Darkness into the Light
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
The only way out is through.
I’ve said this many times, in numerous articles, and it remains true in this situation. The darkness of life is inevitable. Bad things happen all the time, senseless atrocities haunt us daily.
The well of human pain is cavernous; the depth of the bottom is unknowable.
But there is a different way to live so that pain in all forms can be moved through, and used as a means to the light. To discover this path, I’m going to borrow from the first two of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:
1. The truth of suffering (dukkha)
2. The truth of the origin of suffering (samudaya)
3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhadha)
4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)
In rather bleak terms, Buddha states that all of life is suffering. Or, as Ven. Ajahn Sumedho, a Theravadin monk and scholar, translates dukkha as “incapable of satisfying” or “not able to bear or withstand anything.”
The Buddha’s insight is that we do not find ultimate happiness in anything that we experience.
Even positive and joyous events are dukkha because they will come to an end.
This is kind of a downer, huh?
Except it isn’t.
Yes, bad things happen, we’re often disappointed and frustrated with life, and good times will always end. But if we can belong so fully to ourselves, and understand that true happiness is within us, not something that is found outside of us, then dukkha isn’t actually that bleak.
Dukkha is just a way to understand the world and accept that life is inherently sufferable (and joyous, and wonderful and beyond our wildest dreams, too). But life isn’t ideal: it will never measure up to our expectations.
Which leads to the second Noble Truth:
“You only lose what you cling to.” — Gautama Buddha
Samudaya, is the origin of suffering, and develops from desire, which comes in three forms:
- Ignorance and delusion
- Hatred and destructive urges
When we approach life within any of these three categories of desire, we’re going to have a bad time.
But I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume you don’t operate from any of these three places. So how does a good-hearted, spiritually inclined person to do with all this suffering in the world and in our daily lives?
To start, I would add the word “expectations” to the description of samudaya. Having expectations is the surest way to suffer.
On daily terms: we expect our spouses to do the laundry, wash the dishes and tell us our ass looks great in those jeans, but when they fail to do so, we suffer (and angry-clean the kitchen). Our expectations weren’t met, we relied on something outside of us to make us happy, and now we’re pissed off and looking up divorce contracts on the web because we’re also a smidge melodramatic.
On a larger scale: we expect (and hope) our loved ones will be alive forever, until we ourselves slip peacefully into death. So when we lose someone unexpectedly, we’re understandably wrecked by pain and suffering. Even in this grave scenario, we can argue our expectations were not met, which is the cause of our suffering.
We must allow the teaching of dukkha to guide us to find happiness within ourselves, and not through outside influence, as samudaya teaches us.
As dukkha explains, the world outside is riddled with disappointment and strife. Seeking joy and happiness outside of ourselves, and having expectations, is a losing game, one of endless suffering — you will always be disappointed.
“To live is to suffer. To survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” –Nietzsche
We will suffer, because we’re imperfect beings who cannot always operate from a place where we expect nothing out of life or other people. We can try, however, which is the basis of the teachings of Buddha, but it can take our entire lives to live from a place where daily disappointments and traumatic events don’t cause us to suffer.
The small print in the contract with life is that we’re going to get hurt.
- Our hearts will shatter.
- We’ll be betrayed.
- We will know losses so great we can’t imagine living without.
- We will have our autonomy, our deepest selves taken from us.
But the point is to come back. The point is to belong fully to ourselves and try to live from a place of internal love, without the need for outside influence to find happiness. To try and live without expectations, while, of course, having enough self-respect to leave situations that do us harm or do not serve our higher purpose.
This is not easy, but in the trying we find enlightenment. We find small, incremental doses of enlightenment. It’s a journey and a destination.
So tell us of the depth of the darkness you endured and of the light you made because of it. That is the point.
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