The Nature of Suffering

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For those of you who regularly follow my blog, I apologize for my absence last week.  I had some last minute technical difficulties that precluded me from posting…I missed connecting with all of you, and am glad to be back here this week.

It has been a challenging couple of weeks.  From trying to help patients who were really struggling…to trying to support my daughter through her adjustment to a new grade…to my son who was sick with a viral illness that just wasn’t getting better…to just managing life “stuff” that somehow all seemed to pile on at once.  I suppose the specifics don’t really matter.

All I know is I was feeling worn down, exhausted, and empty.

If I am honest, at points it felt like I was suffering, even though my stressors didn’t seem significant enough to warrant that feeling.

So much has been written about the difference between pain and suffering.  In my work with my patients, and in my own personal work, the difference often feels like a subtle one.  To me, it feels like there are two distinguishing factors.  When my patients feel alone, rather than supported, they are not in pain, they are suffering.  And when my patients continue to resist against the reality of their life situation, of what is, they are not in pain, they are suffering.

These themes arise again and again.  Independent of the details–marital struggle, isolation, abandonment, health issues, substance use, children’s woes, death, loss, trauma–we come back, over and over, to the need for support, and the eventual need for surrender.

Let’s look at these one by one.  Support.  None of us can thrive in this life alone.  We need one another.  During this last week, I had a friend who was there to listen any time day or night, and who could make me laugh when laughing was the last thing I felt like doing.  We don’t necessarily need hundreds of friends.  We just need that one person who can be there for us in the ways that we need.

As a psychiatrist, I often cannot solve what ails my patients, no matter how much I wish I could.  I cannot make problems disappear, and I cannot identify solutions when none exist.  Sometimes all I can offer is my presence, week after week, month after month, in a non-judgmental, compassionate manner.

Often this is all we can do for friends and family who are suffering as well.  Let them know–“I may not have an answer, but I am always here for you.  You are not alone.”

And secondly, surrender.  I often realize that underneath my struggle, is an internal fight against the reality of my situation.  All of the resistance to what exists for us, our unique difficulties.

Many times, we cannot identify a reason why a particular fate was meant for us, be it trauma, illness, or deeply personal loss.  We desperately wish it wasn’t so, or that it was a different way.  And yet, sometimes, there is no changing the hand that was dealt to us in this life.

When we ultimately give up the resistance and accept that we are who we are, it is what it is, that is when we are eventually able to surrender with grace.  That is when we can step into an opening, perhaps even a place of relief.  That is when we can make different choices for ourselves, choices that involve acceptance and letting go and allowing, rather than fighting and struggling and resisting.

Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up or disavowing ourselves of our responsibilities.  It simply means that we can deal with the realities of our situations, instead of wishing so hard for a different reality.

With my patients, a great deal of our work lies in the acceptance of our stories.  It is the step that occurs right before the next chapter can be written.  It can take a lot of time, and arises organically through self questioning and reflection.

Despite the daily work of supporting my patients through their suffering, I often forget.  I forget that I myself am vulnerable to suffering, from small problems or big problems, based on my internal response.  If I isolate myself and choose not to seek support from friends, family, or my therapist, I suffer.  If I resist and continue to wish that my life were somehow different, I suffer.

It is the process of coming back, over and over again, to ourselves, and learning how to meet our needs with patience and self compassion.

So today, and in the week ahead, I invite you to simply notice where you find suffering in your life.  Are there elements of isolation or resistance that contribute to your suffering?

With gratitude, Monisha

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