When students first come to my Iyengar yoga classes, it’s often for pain relief. They have chronic back pain, or their knees ache, or they have painful menstrual periods, or they have carpal tunnel pain in their wrists, and so forth. The physical pain is often accompanied by fatigue, or mild depression, or anxiety.
My first task as a yoga teacher is to relieve the pain. Pain is a red flag that things are out of balance, something is out of alignment. So we traction the back and bring the spinal vertebrae back into place, we release tightness from the shoulders so the length of the neck can be restored, we bring the ligaments of the knee into symmetry, and so forth.
Even after the pain is relieved, students usually keep coming to class. Why? Finally there is spaciousness in the body, the cells are oxygenated, the mind quiets, and emotions stabilize. As students benefit further from the practice of yoga, they often want to share their enthusiasm and appreciation with others. They start volunteering at our nonprofit yoga school, they join committees and help out with events. In other words, they shift from the one who is suffering to the one who relieves the suffering of others. This is the spiritual practice we are all called towards: the vow to end suffering.
On one hand this comes very naturally to all of us. You can see it in toddlers who become concerned when someone is crying, or even in our pets who slip their heads under our hands when they see us upset. On the other hand, we evade eye contact with the homeless vet panhandling at the gas station. We tolerate the 25% poverty rate in our city. We may donate to the food pantry but resign ourselves to the injustice that created the hunger.
There are periods in our lives when we need to avert our eyes from suffering. Our own wounds are still so tender that to come too close to the suffering of others drowns us, overwhelms us in anxiety and depression. There are periods when we have to take a media fast. The news of the world—floods, wars, famines—is too much for us to hold. We have to honor those self-protective periods, just like we have to place the oxygen mask over our own faces before we pass them to our children.
In the beginning of our practice, and during these vulnerable times, we must surround ourselves with love and warmth and joy and comfort. We breathe in joy, breathe out pain. Breathe in love, breathe out hatred. Breathe in happiness, breathe out sadness. Breathe in light, breathe out dark. In the beginning of our practice we fill our baskets. We pile up information, and teachings, and treats.
But at a certain point we are called to do the opposite. We are called to empty our baskets. We are called to breathe in pain, breathe out joy. Breathe in hatred, breathe out love, Breathe in sadness, breathe out happiness, Breathe in darkness, breathe out light.
At a certain point we are called not to flee suffering but to walk toward it. What does it mean to take a vow to end suffering? It means we have to go toward it.
As we mature in our spiritual practice, we are called to the edge, we are drawn to the periphery, the precipice. When we have enough inner stability to stand at the precipice without fear, and without losing our footing, that’s where we need to go.
Ironically the only way to end suffering is to go through it. Like going on a bear hunt, can’t get under it, can’t get over it, gotta go through it.
The trick is to not think of suffering as negative. It just is. We needn’t put a charge on it. Can we practice acceptance and equanimity toward both joy and suffering?
It just is. Light just is. Darkness just is. One is not better than the other. Think of the racialized overtones of labeling darkness as evil and lightness as good. This paradigm has created untold damage on so many levels. Our psyches operate through symbol and image, and so symbolizing God as light and the Devil as darkness is a terrible problem. Unconsciously we assign literal meaning to this, and it carries over into our daily dealings. To many people God is a white man. How many images of white Jesus have you seen, when historically we know he came from a part of the world where people are brown-skinned?
You’re probably familiar with the doll experiment where young children are presented 2 identical dolls, one with white skin, one with brown skin. Recently the classic 1939 experiment was conducted again by young filmmaker Kiri Davis, and in 2009 a variation by ABC News. The recent experiments demonstrated that internalized racism still grips us, most children selecting the white doll as the “nice one,” “the pretty one,” the one they want to play with. Go to youtube and type in “A Girl Like Me,” to view the 7 minute film about African American girls and self-image which includes footage of the doll experiment. And if you think you are exempt from the grip of internalized biases, that perhaps you have transcended internal racism, that the archetypes of light and dark no longer apply to your psyche, go to implicit.harvard.edu to take some simple tests. You may be surprised.
I ask you to reconsider the use of the term “fair,” as in “a fair deal” or even FAIR Wisconsin, which works for LGBT rights. One of the meanings of the word “fair” is Iight-skinned. I actually wrote to FAIR Wisconsin and asked them to reconsider their name and what it implies. What does it create within us and within society to equate justice with whiteness? This is the level to which we must become conscious.
Darkness is just as necessary and beautiful as lightness. Night is as wonderful as day. The depth of the cave, the darkness at the bottom of the ocean, the blackness deep in the earth, these are all important and necessary.
And death itself is beautiful and good, just as life is. I believe our fear of the dark, and of suffering, and of pain, ultimately stems from our fear of death. No one is afraid of the state before birth. Why are we afraid of the state after death? It’s the same place, We come from the garden, we return to the garden. We come from the mystery, we return to the mystery.
I’m a huge fan of compost and vermiculture. I’ve instructed my children that when I die, I want to be dropped in a burlap sack into the earth, and have a tree planted over my body. I love the idea of returning to the soil, and being composted and consumed. It’s just my body anyway, my vessel. We come from the garden, we return to the garden. The body decomposes, and the spirit returns to that place of generative and regenerative mystery.
Why run away?
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron reminds us, “Gloriousness and wretchedness are both necessary. One inspires us, the other softens us.” That’s what suffering does to us: it softens us. And why do we need softening? To teach us compassion and forgiveness so that we become appropriate vehicles for healing.
So taking a vow to end suffering is also a vow to embrace suffering, or at least to accept it, not push it away. Remember, we attract what we resist. The more I try to run from suffering, the more comes my way.
It’s easy to see in yogasana. Let’s say my hamstrings are tight, so I avoid bending forward, because it hurts. But the more I avoid bending forward, the tighter my hips get, the shorter my hamstrings become, the more I strain my back. So avoiding pain is increasing my suffering in the long run. The only way to relieve my suffering permanently is to move into the discomfort with awareness and discernment, and slowly, lovingly, create more length in the hamstrings, more flexion in the hips, and more space between the vertebrae. I have to go through it, not around it.
The other day "Pan’s Labyrinth" filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was on the radio. He was saying how he tells his daughters that if you find anything difficult, face it and vanquish it, because every time you avoid a difficult situation, life sends you one twice the size two years later, and if you avoid that, you get another difficult situation twice that size. We attract what we resist. What is that thing you have been avoiding? That conversation you have been delaying? Do it today.
This law of resistance, so to speak, happens on a literal as well as figurative level. How did one dirty dish turn into 20? Take 30 seconds to wash it now to avoid spending 30 minutes cleaning up later, Keep the sink empty. Empty your basket.
To end suffering we must go through the threshold of pain, but as we stop resisting pain, it ceases to be suffering.
I tell my students that the difference between pain and suffering is the emotional charge we place on it: the judgment and resistance. Instead can we just observe the pain, say, ah, there it is, and accept it. In fact Pema Chodron says, welcome it, because here is yet another opportunity to learn compassion, to practice lovingkindness, to transform ourselves, and become more centered.
What does it mean to be centered? I think it means to be able to stand in the midst of strong sensation, stimulation, turmoil, without being overwhelmed. In yoga, we practice Tadasana, the mountain pose, and I instruct my students in how to align their bones and muscles so they can stand with stability and symmetry so that even if a hurricane blew through the room, they would still be standing, stable as a mountain.
To be centered does not equate being cold or passionless. In fact as we walk toward pain, we become more feeling, more sympathetic, more sensitive. Just as when you stop smoking, smells and tastes become sharper, when you stop resisting pain, you experience both pain and joy with a new intensity. But you are no longer afraid of pain. It can no longer crush you.
Joanna Macy was on Krista Tippett’s radio show with the new title, Being. pointed out that pain and joy are 2 sides of the same coin, and when we really love something or someone, we gladly walk toward the pain. It’s our intense love for the earth that compels us to examine ecological harm. It’s our intense love for our child that compels us to nurture them through illness. We don’t turn our backs on the suffering of the planet, the suffering of the child. When we love deeply, our hearts break deeply. Suffering breaks our hearts open more and more so that we can love even more deeply. And so the cycle goes: we love, we suffer, we open up, we love, we suffer, we open up.
This summer I began practicing a Tibetan Buddhist meditation called tonglen, which means giving and taking. In this meditation we practice being with someone in their suffering, or being with ourselves in our suffering, then committing ourselves to taking away the suffering and replacing it with well-being.
We open our hearts wide to transform the suffering. We merge the suffering with the grace of the divine within us, that largeness of the eternal and universal that we all contain, that wellspring of compassion and forgiveness within. This merging transforms the suffering into a healing force.
To end this talk, please join me in a brief tonglen meditation.
Place both feet on the floor, sit upright, pull your shoulders back, and balance your head at the top of your spine. From here close your eyes. Take a slow soft inhale, opening your chest, and as you exhale, keep that heart center open as you release tension. Listen to your breath become soft and steady.
Allow someone who is suffering to come to min d. It could be a friend or family member, it could be someone from your community that you don’t know very well, it could be someone in this room. Picture this person before you.
First sit quietly with this person and open your heart. Invite this person to share their suffering with you. It might be a physical ailment or injury. It might be emotional or mental pain. It might be a long-term chronic condition or an acute short-term condition.
With each inhale, draw this person’s suffering out as a dense heavy cloud that hangs between the two of you. With each breath, you pull the pain out, and the cloud becomes denser, heavier. Take a series of soft breaths to draw the suffering out.
Now, take a vow to end this person’s suffering, to transform their pain. You long to alleviate this person’s pain. Some trepidation is normal, but know that you have the compassion needed to help this person. Now you will take a series of inhales to draw this cloud of their suffering into yourself. Hold this cloud of pain in your heart center.
Now draw this cloud in to the back of your chest where a small flame burns. This flame is your protective self-centeredness. On your next inhale, touch the cloud of pain to this flame, and watch the flame of your selfishness transform into compassion, which turns the cloud of suffering into a golden, effulgent light. Let this light fill your entire being, from your head all the way into your fingertips and toes.
On a series of soft exhales, breathe this golden light out to your friend. Bathe this person in this glow of lovingkindness. Let this light fill them and surround them, and picture them completely free of suffering. Bathe them in the glow of wellness.
Before we come out of this meditation, dedicate the good karma generated here to someone else who needs support. Pass it forward.
Let your eyes open and continue to sit quietly.
Namaste and amen.