Suffering:anxiety, fear, depression, insecurity, anger, sorrow, heart-break, worry etc.
Some years ago, in a rural village in Scotland there lived two families who on the surface had much in common. Each family had four children of around the same age, of whom the youngest was a boy. This being a farming community, having a son is highly prized as families like to leave the farm to a son who will carry on the name of that family into the next generation. This traditional way of life still continues to this day.
The boys were born about one year apart. When each of the boys were ten year old they were killed in freak accidents. Needless to say these events caused much grief and sorrow, not only in their families but in the whole village.
It was a few years after these events that I met a teacher who worked at the school where the boys had attended and she told me that the two mothers had responded in totally different ways to the tragedies. One mother, let’s call her Mother A, had become supportive and loving to the class her son had been in. She had come to their Confirmation ceremony, with a gift for each child in the class because, she told them, they had been her sons friends and had brought so much fun to his life while he was amongst them. She invited all of them to always remain in contact with her. The children loved her and felt loved by her.
The other mother, let’s call her Mother B, became resentful and angry with the children who now lived while her son was dead. She insisted that “it is not fair” and made it clear to the children that she resented them. She became bitter and withdrawn. The other parents withdrew from her also finding her accusations too painful.
The question is; what had been going on with each of these women to cause them to react so differently to such similar circumstances?
How can we prepare ourselves for when tragedy does strike us, if it does? The nature of human life is that we are always vulnerable to tragedy. The word tragedy is strong and refers to the more intense set-backs we suffer but it is part of everyday life to suffer minor set-backs. My teacher Richard Rose referred to the mundane type of set-back as “afflictions to the ego”.
Mother A reacted to her tragedy by medicating the pain by becoming more outwardly loving and generous. Mother B reacted by medicating her pain with anger and resentment.
The thing is that both reactions are mere medications and here I am judging them only on outer actions. I do not know either woman so I cannot say what was going on interiorly with either of them. Some reactions are more acceptable to society than others but that does not make them any more valuable to the reactor. In fact, it may be even more toxic to the individual because it is just another form of conformity. It may be just another version of adapting to the demands of society at the expense of one’s own inner peace and contentment.
The point is that reactions prevent us from deep inquiry, self-inquiry. I am using the word suffering here in the sense that The Buddha used it. It is about our psychological and emotional pain, as experienced in everyday life. Contrary to what is generally thought, it is possible for humans to live without suffering and this is the point of all spiritual paths. One method of coming to the end of suffering is by self-inquiry.
Self-inquiry is about being willing to look at the fundamental questions of life: What’s it all about? Do I have any control over what happens to me? Am I a victim of life or can I do anything to effect how I experience my life?
What’s more real, my emotions or my thoughts? And, how are they connected to each other? Which comes first, thoughts or emotions?
Am I a victim of my emotions or can I have any effect on them? Where do emotions arise?
Can I see patterns to my behaviour, thought streams or emotional life?
What are my most important goals in life and what are these goals based on?
What matters in light of the fact that I know my body is going to die one day?
Am I really only this body or maybe something else as all the spiritual teachings suggest?
Is there something permenant about me? And if so how do I go about finding it for myself?
Can I afford to believe what others say, especially in light of the fact that I have to live my life, endure my sufferings: tolerate my insecurities, meaninglessness, and desire for love?
Am I willing to take my own suffering seriously enough to try to find a lasting solution to it?
This is what spiritual work is all about.
All the great teachings, Christianity, Buddhism, Vedanta, Sufism, and many more offer teachings which are aimed at showing each of us a path to the end of our suffering. It is by its nature a personal path in that nobody else can walk your path but these teachings offer guidelines for how one might approach their own inner journey.
Tragedies and affliction to the ego are often the first step on the path because they show us that worldly happiness is not secure. Our carefully constructed lives can fall apart at any time. This is a great opportunity to turn to the spiritual teachings but we don’t have to wait for tragedy to strike.
Reacting to our suffering only prolongs it. The same pattern will arise next time we suffer a set-back. It’s only by examining the underlying assumptions, motivations, beliefs and patterns of behaviour that we will come to see how we are in fact causing our own suffering.
My own spiritual unfolding was greatly helped by the TAT Foundation from the USA. (www.tatfoundation.org)