Are You Experiencing Suffering? Or Are You Suffering Your Experience?by Robert Meagher on 06/03/20
So…here we are! Smack dab in the middle (a metaphorical expression) of what has been labelled a global pandemic. This surely must be fertile soil for suffering! Or is it? The currently evolving situation reminds me of the somewhat-whimsical Buddhist parable about suffering:
The student runs to the spiritual teacher. “Teacher, teacher,” says the student. “I am experiencing suffering.” After listening to the student’s tales of woe, the teacher responds, “You are not experiencing suffering. You are suffering your experience.”
The first change I experienced in my life was that my local recreation center closed. I would faithfully go to the center on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a noon-hour swim. I had been swimming laps for more than 40 years. Now, all of a sudden, I couldn’t. What was I to do?! After a couple of days I adjusted to this new state of being with an acceptance that, for some reason that has not been revealed to me yet, life (my name for God) does not want me swimming at this time. I dusted off my yoga mat, resurrected some of my Yin, Hatha, and Ashtanga flows, and designed some brand new cross-training workouts I could easily enjoy from the comfort of my home and that would keep my healthy and fit.
The next change to my lifestyle was I could no longer go to the grocery store and simply walk in to the grocery store. I now had to wait in line to get in. Public health authorities were limiting the number of people allowed in the grocery store at any one time, and this meant I would sometimes be faced with having to wait to get into the grocery store, if the store capacity had already been reached. After a couple of occurrences of waiting in line, I accepted this new experience as an opportunity to welcome a new meditation session in my day. I would often wait for 15-30 minutes to get in the store. What better way to pass the illusion of time than to ground myself, get peaceful, and meditate—yes, while standing, waiting in line to get in the grocery store.
The next change to my lifestyle was caused when our neighboring province closed its borders to our city. I live in a city that is situated on the shores of a river. On the other side of the river is another province. The river is only a few hundred meters across and is spanned by several bridges. Police had set up posts on each bridge and were stopping all pedestrians, cyclists and motorists from crossing the bridges and entering the other province. This situation was initially quite a jolt for me. I am an avid cyclist and the terrain on the other side of the river is outstanding for cycling. I quickly accepted that given the predicted trajectory of the evolving pandemic, I would not likely be cycling on the other side of the river for the upcoming season. I turned my attention to other options to enjoy cycling for the season. I realized that I had never explored the towns and villages south of the city. When I researched cycling options south of the city, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that there were many hundreds of kilometers of dedicated cycling paths that offered the cyclist many options for short-, medium-, and long-distance cycling rides. I am looking forward to discovering all the new pathways this upcoming season.
The preceding anecdotes are only three examples of how I was able to look at a situation differently and transcend suffering. In each situation, I did initially feel sadness, frustration, and even anger. I felt like something was being taken away from me. In each situation I asked myself “How is my sadness, frustration and/or anger helping me?” In each situation the answer was “It’s not!” And I proceeded to look for others ways to get physical exercise or adjust to a new way of living.
Adjustment was key for me. I needed to change. In the case of my recreation center being closed and not being able to go swimming, I needed to change the form of exercise I did in order to stay physically healthy. My ability to adjust to the change was only possible through an acceptance of life on its terms. If I resisted the change, then I suffered. But if I accepted the change, I opened the door to opportunities for peace.
As the Buddhist teacher imparted to the student in the parable that started this article, it wasn’t about experiencing suffering. It was about choosing, or not, to suffer my experience. I chose not to. And that choice allowed me to accept what life was offering me. And the acceptance of what life was offering me, removed suffering and offered peace.
Robert Meagher has been ordained as an Interfaith Minister and certified as a Sacred Attention Therapy (SAT) Therapist. Robert is the Founder and Spiritual Director for Spiritual Guidance and Co-Founder of the Center for Human Awakening.