Touching Great Suffering

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Dear Still Water Friends,

My plans for a Thursday topic were changed this week after a long talk with Peter Cook about responding to the great suffering caused by the violence in Mumbai. This suffering personally touched members of the larger Still Water community who lost dear friends and relatives there. We have often talked about the Buddhist teachings on suffering at Still Water, but the issues raised in the conversation I had with Peter were ones I do not remember us ever addressing. For me, they come down to these questions:

As mindfulness practitioners, how do we relate to the great suffering that others are experiencing? It may be the great suffering of someone close to us, or it may be the suffering glimpsed in an anguished face on the front page of the newspaper. What is it helpful? What is not helpful?

Growing up I learned two basic ways of relating to the suffering of others:

  • I could turn away from it: ignore it, deny it, minimize it, or numb myself to it.
  • I could fall into it: experience without filter the grief and pain of another, and also, his or her sense of being overwhelmed, panicked or crushed.

Neither approach seemed very helpful to the person suffering, or to me.

Much later in life, when I studied mindfulness, I learned another approach was possible: I could turn toward the suffering and not fall into it. I could be “Solid as a Mountain.” Rather than feeling uprooted by the emotional storm created in me by the grief of others, I could be like a conscious mountain: thoroughly feeling the storm, maintaining a centered presence, and letting the storm pass over me.

But how do we do that? How do we maintain our solidity? In the excerpt below, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we need to know our limits and remember the importance of also nourishing our peace and joy.

These practices and many others, such as conscious breathing and walking meditation, help us to be present. How can we be truly helpful? A perspective that makes sense to me is that suffering (as opposed to physical pain) comes from a sense of loss. Someone or something we held dear has been taken from us. Because we love and cherish others, we suffer. As humans, we have the capacity to move through even a great loss. With time, we can accept and grieve the loss and adapt to living life without the presence of that which was lost. However, though the capacity is there, it is not always developed: Most of us know people who have been caught in their loss and grieving for decades. Emotionally, they haven’t moved on.

I believe the people who are most helpful to those who are experiencing great suffering are those who have fully experienced the suffering that is in them, have understood it, and have been able to move on. Paraphrasing the Maha Ghosananda poem offered below: from deep sufferings comes great compassion and healing wisdom.

“Touching great suffering” is our topic for this Thursday’s Still Water gathering. You are invited to be with us and share your experiences. (The best times to join our Thursday evening gatherings are just before the beginning of our 7 p.m. meditation, just before we begin walking meditation, around 7:25, and just after our walking meditation, around 7:35.)

Also, because this Thursday is the first Thursday of the month, beginning at 6:30 p.m., we will be offering a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. If you would like to attend, it is helpful to let us know by emailing us at

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


The Therapeutic Power of Suffering, by Thich Nhat Hanh (from Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism)

The first Dharma talk given by the Buddha was on the Four Noble Truths. This First Truth is dukkha, the presence of suffering. This is the starting point of all Buddhist practice. If we are not aware that we are unwell, we will not know how to seek treatment, and we cannot be healed. The Second Truth is the cause of suffering, the Third is the possibility of removing it, and the Fourth tells us how to do it. These are liberating truths. But we cannot seek for the other three if we do not accept the presence of the first.

Suffering can have a therapeutic power. It can help us open our eyes. Awareness of suffering encourages us to search for its cause, to find out what is going on within us and in society. But we have to be careful. Too much suffering can destroy our capacity to love. We have to know our limits, to stay in touch with things that are dreadful in life and also things that are wonderful. If the First Truth explains the presence of suffering in life, the Third Truth encourages us to touch life’s joy and peace. When people say that Buddhism is pessimistic, it is because they are stressing the First Truth and overlooking the Third. Mahayana Buddhism takes great care to emphasize the Third Truth. Its literature is full of references to the green willow, the violet bamboo, and the full moon as manifestations of the true Dharma.

Interconnections between other beings and ourselves are intimate. When we are peaceful and happy, we will not create suffering in others. When we work to alleviate the suffering in others we feel peaceful and happy. Practice is not just for ourselves, but for others and the whole of society. The meaning of mahayana, the great vehicle, is to help ourselves and others, to liberate ourselves and others.

Buddhist Prayer for Peace by Maha Ghosananda (from Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion)

The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
From this suffering comes Great Compassion.
Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
A Peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.
A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Family.
A Peaceful Family makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
And a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.