Awakening to Our Suffering

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Thursday Evening Online Program
August 4, 2022   7:00 to 8:45 pm Eastern time

Dear Still Water Friends,

It’s not without some embarrassment that I share my reaction to contracting COVID. Despite being fortunate to experience relatively mild symptoms, like those of a bad a cold, I was consumed with disbelief and resentment at having to cancel a long-planned vacation and instead isolate at home. I knew that most Americans will likely contract COVID and that the majority already have, many with far worse consequences including death or debilitation. Still I struggled with the thought, “How can this possibly be happening to me!?” I found myself unable to stop thinking about how my infection was both unfair and avoidable.

The experience prompted me to think about the Buddha, who at the age of 29, was shocked by his first encounter with old age, sickness, and death. While I have not been shielded from suffering, I realized that this part of his story spoke to me more than I had previously been aware. Despite my personal experiences with sickness and suffering, I still am surprised and find it hard to believe when they reappear in my life.

I know I am not alone. It is our fundamental difficulty in accepting suffering that prompted the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths — that the spiritual path begins with the recognition of the suffering in our lives. We are constantly forgetting, denying, and planning ways that we can avoid this basic fact. In Practicing Peace, Pema Chödrön describes this struggle to accept unwanted feelings:

Yet it is so basic in us to feel that things should go well for us, and that if we start to feel depressed, lonely, or inadequate, there’s been some kind of mistake or we’ve lost it. In reality, when you feel depressed, lonely, betrayed, or any unwanted feelings, this is an important moment on the spiritual path. This is where real transformation can take place.

As long as we’re caught up in always looking for certainty and happiness, rather than honoring the taste and smell and quality of exactly what is happening, as long as we’re always running away from discomfort, we’re going to be caught in a cycle of unhappiness and disappointment, and we will feel weaker and weaker.

I stopped running from my suffering by just admitting to myself and others that I was not feeling OK. I had to let down a façade of cheerfulness and put aside my judgment of myself for struggling with such a minor setback. The less I tried to hide my disappointment and all the feelings associated with it, the more I was able to accept it.

Chödrön suggests that shifting towards the pain, instead of trying to figure our way out of it, is the key to healing.

Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I find security and happiness?” we could ask ourselves, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace—disappointment in all its many forms—and let it open me?” This is the trick.

This Thursday night, after our meditation, we will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:

  • Do you struggle to accept your own suffering?
  • How does your non-acceptance manifest? For example, in denial, distraction, or problem-solving?
  • What helps you become present to your suffering and the suffering of others?

After the announcements is a related excerpt from No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Warm wishes,


From No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, by Thich Nhat Hanh

We all want to be happy and there are many books and teachers in the world that try to help people be happier. Yet we all continue to suffer.

Therefore, we may think that we’re “doing it wrong.” Somehow we are “failing at happiness.” That isn’t true. Being able to enjoy happiness doesn’t require that we have zero suffering. In fact, the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well. When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less. Not only that, but we’re also able to go further and transform our suffering into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others. …

If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness. But the art of happiness is also and at the same time the art of knowing how to suffer well. If we know how to use our suffering, we can transform it and suffer much less. Knowing how to suffer well is essential to realizing true happiness.”

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