Suffering seems to be one of those fundamental human experiences that we all have in common, and is perhaps the one we would all gladly give up. We often feel oppressed and frustrated by suffering because we do not understand it. It can pierce the heart of our being and our identity, and shake every assumption we hold about ourselves and the world. It often seems to destroy our will power and overthrow our commitments, to our dismay.
We fear suffering, and react to it with anger and frustration, because we feel oppressed by it and powerless against it. This is another way of saying that we are the victim of our suffering. We take the victim stance when we assert our powerlessness against something, and then project our power onto the "victimizer," which gets blamed for our situation. We then indulge in feelings of self-righteous indignation, "justifiable" anger, and self-pity. The denial of our own power (and its consequent projection) lies at the root of suffering. We will come back to his point.
Let's look at one example of suffering that many of us experience on our path of personal growth and healing: suffering over lost peace.
Spiritual insights seem to come in waves; that is, when we have a flash of spiritual illumination and understanding (or a "peak experience"), it is always followed, after some time, by a return to our previous "normal" state of mind and spiritual understanding. Our insight will often stay with us in the form of an intellectual understanding or belief, but it may take years for it to really become integrated into our everyday being and our way of relating to the world.
For example, many of us have had the powerful experience of realizing that our lives are guided by a higher purpose than our own, and that every event in our lives is a necessary step in the unfolding of our highest path. When we are actually experiencing the truth of this insight in the moment, it gives us great relief and joy, and allows for a peaceful acceptance that lets us calmly abide in whatever situation we find ourselves. In this space we are conscious of the necessity of every thing that has ever happened, and of the nonexistence of "coincidence;" we have great, loving compassion for ourselves and others, and we are in touch with our desire to "play out our part" in life. In this space we do not suffer.
Unfortunately, we usually "come down" from this experience in short order. With luck, its effects will stay with us for a few hours or days, giving us a chance to reexamine our lives and our assumptions in its light. These can be occasions of powerful and effortless growth and healing. But the peaceful experience always eventually fades, and we find ourselves back in our "normal" state of mind.
Days or weeks later, the experience has faded to a memory, a mere idea, and we can hardly even recall its impact. Struggling to remember and recreate that sense of peace and joy, we find instead the familiar, oppressive "reality" of our doubts and fears, beside which peace seems only a fantasy. It is at this point that we start once again to feel powerless; frustration and anger return, as we feel outrage at the universe or God for having "robbed" us of our peace and joy. Then we experience the suffering of being the victim of this undeserved punishment. We may say, "Now that I have seen that I really, truly want only love and peace, why must I go through all of this garbage all over again?"
Inseparable from our suffering is a belief or an interpretation that we have about it, though we may be unconscious of it. In this example, we suffer because of our sense of powerlessness to create what we want (peace and joy), and the interpretation of our suffering is that WE ARE POWERLESS, and a victim to God (or the universe). In order to transform suffering by understanding it, it is necessary to clearly see what meaning or interpretation you have attached to your suffering. This is because your suffering is, in truth, a RESULT of the interpretation, and NOT the other way around. First, you form a belief based on some experience, and THEN you experience suffering, BECAUSE OF that belief.
A BELIEF CAUSES US TO SUFFER SIMPLY BECAUSE IT IS UNTRUE. Restated, suffering results from believing an untruth. Notice, in our example, that we did not start to suffer until we had given up on creating peace, and decided that we were powerless to do so. That is the point where we start believing the untruth of our victimhood, and simultaneously start suffering. All suffering has victimhood-- the belief in powerlessness-- at its root.
So far we have only looked at the CAUSE of suffering, which is a necessary first step in transforming it. What about the purpose of suffering?
If we allow the idea that all suffering is the result of a false belief in powerlessness, then our suffering is the messenger that reveals to us our areas of disempowerment. Whether or not we then take steps to heal these areas is our choice.
Another way to look at suffering is to see it as the universe's way of showing us what we are attached to. Any attachment is also rooted in a belief in an untruth, and is therefore a cause for suffering. For example, we may be suffering because we have no life partner at the moment, and we believe that we are lonely and unhappy because we have no partner. In this case, our attachments are to (1) having a partner, and (2) the BELIEF that we cannot be happy without one. The way out of suffering is to release the attachments and untrue beliefs at its root. The fact that we suffer over our attachment is what tells us with certainty that the underlying belief is, in fact, untrue.
The harder work, by far, is this matter of releasing our attachments and untrue beliefs; this is truly a lifetime's (or many lifetimes') work. In the meantime, we may take some comfort in understanding the purpose of suffering not as some form of cosmic punishment, but rather as our higher guidance faithfully showing us all of the areas where we are mired in attachment and resisting growth.
When you think about the incredible number of attachments we have, it is enlightening to realize that we seldom suffer over more than one at a time. Perhaps this is because our higher self knows that we cannot realistically work with more than one attachment or belief at a time, so there would be no point in our suffering over more than one at a time.
It is also helpful to remember that suffering is not something that is thrust upon us like a punishment by the universe; it is what we ourselves have created by choosing to deny truth and believe in untruth, and it is our incentive to reconsider these false beliefs. When we are in the midst of suffering, realizing this may not give us any peace. We need to be careful not to BLAME ourselves for having created our suffering. This would only be the creation of more suffering through the false belief that we DESERVE to suffer, which is a self-supporting vicious circle.
Identifying the false beliefs that underlie our suffering will bring us closer to healing our disempowerment, but it will not always bring us immediate release. In the meantime, we can fruitfully use the experience of suffering to teach our subconscious that our suffering comes from denial and giving away our power. To do this, when you are suffering, you could use an affirmation like,
"This is what it feels like to give my power away.
This is what denial feels like.
This is what blaming feels like.
This is what attachment feels like.
I choose to release my false beliefs and attachments,
and remember my Truth.
I choose to take back all of my misplaced power,
and remember my role as the creator of all my experiences."
Using an affirmation like this will help us stop projecting the CAUSE of our suffering onto God, the universe, or others. This we must do in order to remember that only WE have the power to stop our suffering. First we must come to terms with being the creator of our experience-- without blaming ourselves or others. Then we can focus on how and why we HAVE created our experience and suffering. This leads to understanding, and allows us to release our attachments and false beliefs, and thereby release ourselves from suffering.