How to see beyond pain

Whatever arises in the moment is our experience to discover. We add the gloss of good or bad. But we aren't required to do so.

In the course of our lives, we're well-advised to learn how to clean up after our suffering.

It's a part of our world. For anyone who's had a dog or a toddler, you know the mess will come. We need to know how to tidy up without much fuss.

With apologies to those delicate sensibilities, the causes of suffering are like poop. They're coming. They're an inevitability. And it's our responsibility to take care when poop happens. Expecting someone else to do this for us will only create more mess. We're sure to step in it... eventually.

So scoop it up, we must.

To do so with a good attitude, it's helpful to establish a decent view of the situation. Like, we can take in the whole life scene.

And here is a core teaching of yoga philosophy. The terrain on which our suffering grows, treads, and wreaks its havoc - the source and impetus of suffering - is the ground of avidya. This word, avidya, means without correct knowledge. It's often translated in English as ignorance.

Because our western egos don't easily bear accusations of ignorance, I like to describe it as not knowing how to see. From that perspective, we can gently acknowledge that sometimes, or often, we just don't see well. Practically, we may need to adjust our vision with glasses. Poetically, we may need to broaden our scope, peer into deep horizons, or soften our gaze.

In my grandma's words, look at this mess you're making.

In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes the obstacles that provoke our suffering. These are the pitfalls into which we fall. Sometimes, we get very comfortable in the traps. They become our most familiar stories. We even believe we're the star.

They are, in order, the failure to see correctly, ego, desire, aversion, and fear of death. The order is important. Our wrong knowledge is what generates every trouble that follows. (Read more at chapter 2: 3-12.)

Patanjali explains our incorrect knowledge in the fifth verse. He says, avidya is mistaking the impermanent for the permanent, the impure for the pure, and our identities, personalities, ideas, and conditions for our soul. In other words, when we say 'I am hungry, I am a girl, I am angry, I am sick,' we're confusing these changing conditions with an eternal, never-changing essence. This essence is clear in the light of wise awareness but if we can't see well, we stumble around in the dark.

This is why we practice.

In practice, we create personal strategies to kindle the light of wisdom, compassion, and understanding. We learn how to direct that light upon the obstacles that keep us from peaceful, loving well-being.

Consider how this helps us.

  1. We often believe suffering happens to us. A better view will show us that suffering is our response to something we didn't want to happen or something that didn't happen that we wanted. We can take breath and realize and expand the space between what is happening and what we're feeling about it.
  2. We often believe suffering will never end. A better view will show us that everything is constantly changing. Whatever is happening will eventually shift, like everything else. We can choose to observe, patiently, and determine the proper response to whatever change has our attention.
  3. We often believe suffering is ours alone. A better view will show us that everyone alive has lost something they cherish, encountered something they weren't sure they could surmount, experienced something that hurt every nerve ending.
  4. We often compound suffering by reacting in ways that further its pain. A better view will show us that we do not need to add insult to injury.
  5. We often forget that we may suffer in beautiful experiences and terrible experiences. A better view learns a little something about equanimity so we don't always demand perfection of others, ourselves and every situation. (Perhaps an even sweeter view may be to realize that every moment, every person, and even you are absolutely perfect through every change, even as we all progress together.)

When we feel hurt, upset, disturbed, down - and goodness knows, we will - what if we pause and examine how we might see beyond the pain? Even this simple choice will create a buffer that softens the sensation.

We can look to see how we may have expected something different, or how we've grown impatient. Maybe we can recognize that our dreams are not dashed but will require course correction. Maybe we can take a breath and give time a chance.

We can talk to others about our challenges and learn that we're not alone. When a young woman asked the Buddha to bring her son back to life, he asked her to collect a mustard seed from a home that had not known loss. Every family wanted to share a mustard seed but none could assure her that they had not known death. We are in this life together. Our losses are our common ground.

Maybe we observe our instinct to indulge in blame, resentment, jealousy when we're hurting. We can ask if these emotions are helping our injury or simply adding additional pain.

Finally, all of us can remember that whatever arises in the moment is our experience to discover. We add the gloss of good or bad. But we aren't required to do so.

Sometimes, when we demand a shinier gloss or throw dirt into gloss we've got, we fail to see whatever magic the moment had for us.

Our choice to appreciate these precious lives, through our every twist and turn, is a powerful way to see beyond our transient pain.

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