As human beings we are all of us very familiar with pain and suffering. The first formal teaching of the Buddha was about the Four Practices for Noble People (usually called the “Four Noble Truths”) of which the first was to look deeply into the pain, the stress and the discontent, that seem innate and unavoidable in our lives as human beings. The other three look at the cause of suffering and the ways in which we can reduce the suffering. Today, I would like to point out some practical aspects and ways of working with the pain and suffering that we encounter every day.
Being aware of suffering
The first step is to see and identify suffering. This would seem so glaringly obvious as to be superfluous to even mention, but in fact it is often the greatest barrier to working with pain and suffering. We are so keen on avoiding pain and suffering that we have developed amazing abilities and strategies to not see the obvious.
So a first step could be this practice:
Contemplate this daily: Everyone you meet is (exactly like you) going through hardship and suffering, the details of which you know nothing about. But we all of us know suffering and pain, one way or another. Know this to be true and recognise the common shared experience of suffering and pain.
My pain I know, because it is mine. Your pain I know too, because it is my pain also.
Because of this recognition, because we allow ourselves to expand so that all the suffering really is our own, awareness of suffering and pain are immediate gateways to a tremendous reduction of self-centeredness, a deep sense of interconnectedness and to the continuous practice of loving kindness and compassion.
Express the wish to reduce suffering
Recognise (and whenever appropriate and possible express) the wish that you and all beings may be free from pain and suffering. In “The Path of the Bodhisattva” Shantideva, the eight century Indian Buddhist monk, gives these vows:
“May I try and become at all times, both now and forever
A protector of those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship or a bridge for those with oceans or rivers to cross
A refuge for those in danger, or who lack shelter
A light for those in darkness
A medicine for those who are sick
A servant to all in need
For as long as living beings remain
May I remain too, to dispel the suffering of the world.”
I really helps to create your own version of this (there are many available online) and remember and say it on a daily basis (you might want to shorten it a bit). Even if we can not do anything to practically alleviate suffering and pain, just giving rise to this intention can really change lives.
Create a (small) daily ritual
In combination with this, give yourself a daily ritual of kindness. Sit, meditate, go outside if you can, preferably sit or take a walk in nature if possible. Create some quiet and silence in yourself and around you. Do it every day.
It’s not at all about distracting ourselves from suffering and pain. It’s about remembering that all our personal drama, in which we can feel so lonely and lost, takes place in an endless, vast and beautiful “background”, a space that doesn’t judge, neither rejects or clings and that has no opinion about anything whatsoever. This space is around us and within us (in fact it IS what we are).
Perform small kindnesses
Practice small kindnesses, small acts of compassion towards others. Give small gifts, like a smile to someone in the street, a short conversation with a neighbour. Ask the check-out person in the supermarket how he or she is doing (and make sure that it is a genuine desire to know more about this person and not just a polite phrase). Pick up garbage on the beach, open a door for someone. These seem so trivial and hardly relevant but it is these small acts, these tiny miracles, that can change someone’s day, or week or life. It’s also really fun to do.
Make your heart as wide as the universe, make your acts small.
Also recognise that you probably actually do this already often, but without awareness. Be aware and eventually this becomes a continuous practice.
Be careful with comforting
Offering comforting words or “helpful” actions for someone in pain is often not helpful at all. Be aware of your motives for offering comfort or help. Often it’s done just to alleviate our own discomfort at witnessing suffering. In that case it only dulls the pain temporarily at best, but often it just deepens the pain and the loneliness of the one we try to comfort. It is often better not to go and help or offer comfort, but to be truly present for someone in pain.
Look at those who have caused us pain
One of the most difficult aspects is to see that those who we feel have caused us pain and suffering, have suffered and/or are suffering also.
First, try not to hate. Then try to love. Then love everyone.
Know that this is often very, very difficult, so don’t blame yourself at all if you find this hard or even impossible to do. Just keep trying.
Notice the changes in you
Notice that practicing kindness and compassion brings about self-compassion, happiness and joy, selfless joy, naturally. It also leads to deeper equanimity. And the happiness, the selfless joy and equanimity as they deepen, in turn deepen our practice of kindness and compassion. It’s a circular process (with ups and downs) which widens our hearts all the time. It may be slow, but it works.
Rest in this spacious, selfless, open joy and the gentle inner calmness that it brings. And act with kindness and compassion coming from this natural wholeheartedness, that encompasses the entire universe, that lies clearly within us, that is our home, that is what we are.
Just remember that.