Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of February 27, 2012

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Suffering

(The Path of Purpose: Part 1 of 9)

Suffering! We all, inevitably, experience our share of it, some unavoidable, some self-imposed. Naturally, we want to suffer less. And the suffering of others, especially those close to us, awakens our compassion. In these ways and more, suffering motivates us: its avoidance and alleviation offer us a purpose.

Ranging from mild to severe, the levels of suffering guide our dealings with it. We accept a certain degree of suffering to attain goals that outweigh it, for example exercising and doing chores. While severe suffering drives us toward immediate relief.

Yet we do suffer unnecessarily in unproductive ways, principally through our destructive emotions, such as anger, resentment, jealousy, envy, obsession, indignation and outrage. The Buddha taught that the root causes of suffering are attachment, aversion, and identification. So often we take a bad situation and make it worse by layering unnecessary emotional suffering on top of it. For example, inwardly turning away from physical pain does nothing to alleviate it, but does add the emotional suffering of aversion. We want our life to be all smooth. Yet the inevitable problems throw us off balance and out of our center.

Not getting what we want or being subjected to what we do not want causes us to suffer. Rather than forgo our attachments, our wanting and not wanting, rather than accept life’s events as they come, which would minimize this form of suffering, we choose to stay in our obsessions, desires, and attachments and suffer for them.

For example, someone insults me or even just slights me or denies me something I want. My self-image, my dignity is attacked and my emotions react in an unpleasant way. I am disturbed. I am angry. I know that my anger feels awful to me. But I don’t care. I want to feel angry, because I believe that feeling angry will not only make the other person suffer too, but will somehow patch up my damaged self-esteem. So I accept to suffer the putative cure of anger to pay for bucking up my self-image. I feel strong. I can be angry. Anger is strong, even if it feels so terrible to be angry. Maybe at some point I see that the anger does not heal the hurt caused by the insult, it just masks the hurt, hiding it behind the hot wave of anger. Maybe at some point I see that my anger is just adding pain on top of pain. And if I see that clearly enough, the seeing frees me from the automatic reaction of anger. And if see even more deeply, the seeing frees me from identification with my self-image, from the automatic reaction of feeling hurt by the insult, and from that kind of suffering altogether. And this leaves me room to respond to insults and other events if and as I so choose, room to change and improve my situation, yet without all the unnecessary angst.

So much of our suffering is self-imposed in that way, by our emotional reactions to our identifications and desires. To minimize such suffering, we can seek freedom, inner freedom. The spiritual path is designed expressly for that. So suffering can motivate us toward inner work, can strengthen our purpose of engaging in spiritual practice, in presence, in meditation, and in prayer.

But some suffering cannot be stopped, like the pain of illness, aging, and the grief of loss. These are unavoidable. Just living in the world of time imposes the suffering of choice: the gate of time only allows one event to happen now, excluding all the others. We are constrained to choose and cannot have or do the unchosen, our possibilities thereby diminished. This is a kind of existential suffering. Again though, even such unavoidable suffering can encourage our inner work and be lightened by it. Spiritual practice helps us accept the unavoidable and can even increase our possibilities by opening new doors of experience and action.

When we see others suffering, we want to help. Our own experiences of suffering enable us to perceive and relate to the suffering of others. Many do what they can to help in direct, material ways, in acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion. These diminish our ego and purify our heart, essential aspects of any spiritual path.

Our inner work raises our level of awareness, including of ourselves. In that way it can expose aspects of ourselves which we were not fully aware of and which we do not want, aspects we are ashamed of. This causes us suffering. But it can be a healing suffering, which burns out our attachment to some of our unbecoming impulses. It can decrease our identification and lower the amount of effort we put into defending our self-image, our ego. We accept the suffering of seeing because we understand its roots in our false self-image.

We can learn from our suffering. It constrains us, guides us, and teaches us. With unnecessary suffering, we can ask ourselves “why am I suffering?” With unavoidable suffering, we can see how attachment, aversion, and identification cause us to layer on unnecessary emotional suffering; we can learn to accept the unavoidable and thereby diminish the unnecessary. All this gives us a purpose. And despite our suffering, through thick and thin, we do our best to fulfill our responsibilities and continue our inner work.

The Buddha spoke of the end of suffering, a condition attainable through the spiritual path. The more we understand our suffering, the more it urges us along the path. For this week, notice the ways you suffer and how that suffering, or potential suffering, drives your life and impacts your purposes.

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