Who wants to embrace pain and suffering? We all have our own ways to anesthetize ourselves from discomfort but sometimes, once that numbing wares off, we’re right back to where we uncomfortably started. Or sometimes we are in a worse spot.
One of the most influential books I have read over the course of my personal healing journey is No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book resonates so deeply and profoundly with me. It was one of the lifelines I reached out to when I was drowning in the early days of shock and tremendous pain.I still have it at my beside as I constantly refer back to it.
If you do get your own copy, have a pencil or pen handy because you will want to take notes in the margins. In the meantime, here are my crib notes:
When something bad happens in our lives, or to someone we love, we just want get through it and have it be over. The truth is there is no such thing as that "bad" thing being 'over' because once it has happened, it is now a part of our lives and a part of who we are. So instead of trying to power through it, we should seek a way to embrace that suffering and find joy.
In this book, Thich Nhat Hahn writes about the lotus ponds at the Plum Village practice centers. Lotus flowers, which are quite fragrant, need mud in which to grow and that mud can have a rather unpleasant smell. But without that mud, there would be no lotus. Just as you cannot have a left side without the right side, or darkness without light, the lotus needs the mud. He writes, “ ... suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there is no happiness.”
The mud and lotus analogy are carried even further when he says, “If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can produce happiness.”
He offers a 3-step mindfulness process for building an awareness of and transforming suffering:
Say "hello" to your pain. Acknowledge it is there.
Do not judge or question it (this is key!).
Cradle your suffering with tenderness (just like you would your survivor).
Do not fight it.
Sooth and relieve your suffering.
Generate and turn that energy into energy of compassion and understanding.
Every day I practice recognizing my suffering. When I feel pain, guilt, anger, or sadness rising in me, I embrace it, let it wash over me, then let it go. I also work on recognizing, then letting go of, the habits and energy that feed my suffering.
I do a lot of this through stillness and mindfulness, which for me is often found on a long walk (What's mindfulness? Watch this cute video). It is during these walks where I find I can easily access and get in touch with what is going on inside of me — my thoughts and feelings. Quite often as I’m walking, I’ll even pause and dictate a notes to myself. Sometimes that how I end up with one of these blog articles!
Whenever I feel a pang of distress, I acknowledge my thoughts and feelings and gently embrace them without any sort of judgment — no asking, “Why am I feeling this way?” Or “Shouldn’t I ______ (fill in the blank)?” Once I achieve compassionate recognition of my feelings and thoughts, I am able to gain liberating insights into the nature of my suffering. I can understand what might be triggering the pain and suffering I feel, which means I can then begin to release and transform that energy of suffering into compassion, understanding, peace, gratitude, and even joy.
Sometimes this is easier said than done. That's what it's called a daily practice. And really, isn't that what life is -- it's not daily perfect, right?