Making Sense of Suffering (Part 1 – Awareness & Intention)

Experiencing pain and suffering are a salient part of being human. We have all have been served with hardships and loss, some of us to a far greater degree than others. Pain experienced repeatedly and left to fester becomes embedded trauma. Trauma unhealed metastasises and is triggered again and again. In this pattern, a lot depends not just on what happens to us, but how we process and heal the hurt. I had an ‘aha‘ about our response to suffering reading the framing of The Book of Job by Stephen Mitchell. It cast that Biblical story in a new light for me. 

In this telling, Job is a righteous and successful man. He has a big family, good health, a good reputation, and a prosperous business. One day it all changes. His business fail, his children die one after the other, he loses his health and is reduced to being destitute, living by the side of the road, sick and covered in sores. His former friends passing by accuse him of having done something evil in order to be punished thus. Job knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve his lot and lamented endlessly to God. One day, God takes him up to heaven where he sees for a moment with God’s eye. In a flash, he takes in the breath of the universe and its many interlinked connections that ripple across the span of people, place, and time. It all makes sense. Job bows down with acceptance and humility, Who was I to doubt? 

This story recognizes that we don’t know why bad things happen to good people and we may never know what ripples forth in the grand scheme of things. It offers that there is meaning beyond what we can see and our job is to accept what has happened with grace. This acceptance is a way to release the mental suffering that can eat us up on the inside. 

Another powerful reframe is the story of Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. As a young Jewish psychiatrist from Austria, he was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Trapped in this horrific environment — with brutal labor, bitter cold, starvation rations, beatings, and the constant threat of being killed — there was little reason to feel anything but deep suffering, grief, and despair. But Frankl flipped this script of hopelessness. He decided that he would use the little power he had to make a difference. He chose to comfort his fellow prisoners, help them where he could, and share the little food he had with those who needed it more desperately. Over time, he felt his power grow until he felt more powerful than his captors. He said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”   

What Frankl discovered — the philosophy he called logotherapy — was that we can’t necessarily control what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. The Buddha also focused on this very idea. He said, I come to teach one thing and one thing only. The nature of suffering, and the end to suffering. 

If we don’t transform this suffering, we can retreat in despair, become defeated, or grow angry and bitter, weaponizing the pain for attacks we launch against ourselves and others. We see this pattern play out with some powerful people in business and politics who do enormous damage as a result of the inner hurt they have experienced, often as children. 

At the same time, people like Mandela, MLK, and Gandhi are leaders who create great change precisely because they have suffered great ills and injustice (I will explore this further in future posts). Mandela wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

In all these examples of engaging hardship — with acceptance, resilience, compassion, or transformation — we see that the hinge that swings us backward or forward is the internal meaning we make of suffering. How we process hurt and the story we create around it for ourselves changes everything. The Buddha, in his parable of the Two Arrows, asks: If you were shot by an arrow, would it hurt. The listener answers, yes, it would. And, continued the Buddha, if you were shot a second time, would it not hurt even more. The answer is, of course it would! The Buddha then says, the first arrow is the thing that hits us from the outside. The second arrow is the one we shoot at ourselves in response to the first arrow. It is the suffering we create for ourselves with our response of anger, fear, hurt, or despair. And, it can become a far more grievous wound. This is a lesson I have to continually remind myself about when bad things happen and I reach quickly, automatically, and unconsciously for the second arrow.

So, the key is choosing not to fire the second arrow but to turn our suffering into an instrument for engaging hurt and injustice with compassion and courage. But how? This transformative practice is not easy but possible. We will explore some spiritual ideas and practices for that in a future Spiritual Sushi post. For now, what is your experience with suffering? What enables you to release or transform it?

Related Posts:

Walking in the Garden of Forgiveness

Why Fore-giveness is better than Forgiveness

Healing the Heart of America

Living the Time of Your Life (Sisyphus and Groundhog Day — An exploration of time)

At the start of the year, I saw a cartoon showing a couple of aliens in a spaceship watching the fireworks flash over the earth. “What’s going on down there?” asked one. The other replied: “they’re celebrating their planet making a loop around the sun.” New Year’s is an arbitrary event that we infuse with much meaning. For many of us, it marks an opportunity for a new start. A chance to begin again. A time to try to make things better. But the opportunity for change comes around more frequently than a circuit around the sun. The issue of time revolves around how it is spent.   

The Greek myth of Sisyphus is a story of endless punishment using the weight of time. Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a giant rock up a hill to cast it over the top, only to reach close to the summit after a day of pushing and have the stone slip and roll down to the bottom. The next day, he is forced to begin again. I wonder what Sisyphus felt. He never gave up, determined that he’d one day get the rock over the top. And yet he somehow never changed his actions, repeating the same failed approach day after day.  

There is another story from one of my favorite films, Groundhog Day. In the film (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it), Bill Murray, an arrogant news reporter is somehow forced to live a single day over and over in a small town he detests. At first he tries to escape, then he runs wild and crazy knowing that his actions have no consequences as the day will repeat. In the end, he’s finally redeemed when he chooses the day to make things better for the people he encounters. It is his way out of the endless loop into a life he loves. 

I had another encounter with the concept of time that was real and mythical all at once. I had been invited to Chile to receive an award and was seated next to a rather unassuming Norweigan who also was invited to receive an award. He was Erling Kagge, a remarkable adventurer who was the first person to make it to the three poles of the earth — North, South, and Everest. His story was quite remarkable. He had travelled to Antartica to ski to the South Pole solo. On arriving, he disposed of his satellite phone battery so he’d be truly alone. To make the journey with the food he could carry, he had to ski 16 hours a day for 50 days across the endless terrain. I asked him what happened to his mind in this time of being alone, skiing endlessly over an endless terrain. He said his mind just emptied. He was one with nature, the way a tree is alive, present, and growing quietly. This is a target state in mindfulness, to achieve a blissful state of just being in the present. 

In the mindfulness teachings, the message is that all we have is now — the present. In the Power of Now and Be Here Now, we are reminded that we only exist in the present and we often miss it reliving in the past or planning for the future. But what do you do when the present is what you want to escape from? 

There is a lesson about this in another one of my favorite films is the Damma Brothers. It focuses on a group of prisoners in a maximum-security prison who are locked up for life. They are angry and trapped. Many feel that they don’t deserve their punishment. In the film, they learn to meditate using Vipassana and find a measure of freedom. While still locked in prison, they find a place of peace and joy within themselves to escape to. The endless weight of time is lifted.

Truth is that we don’t know how much time we have. But we have a choice about what we do with our time. Do we act like Sisyphus, helplessly bound to fate and routine? Do we choose to be like Bill Murray at the end of Groundhog Day and find meaning in making a better life for others? The choice of focus on the outer world is also contrasted by the choice to tune inwards. In Vipassana, the teacher Goenka repeats the catchphrase at the beginning of each session: “Start Again.” Every moment — not just the New Year — is an opportunity to start again. This echoes words attributed to the Buddha, “Each day we are born again. It is what we do today that matters most.” 

In the end, it’s not just what we do with time but also how we engage it. Sisyphus perhaps found meaning in his endless pursuit as much as the Norweigan skier did and the prisoners did by shifting their mindframe. The Bill Murray character transformed his endless day through a simple but profound shift in mindset. The day that dawned as a result was the same and yet completely different. This in the end is the power we have over time. We can’t stop time but we can still ourselves. We thus transform from being slaves of the clock to masters of our days. 

Related post:

An Encounter with Eternity

Out Beyond Right and Wrong (Seeing our Way Through these Troubled Times)

The mystic Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

We are in a time in history when fierce battles of righteousness are being waged. In the US, in the wake of the bitterly contested elections (and long before), we are outraged by the actions and perspectives of others, who are also outraged by our own actions and perspectives. There are calls for unity but often these call for adversaries to unite behind our own positions. Is there another way?

When I worked in Africa I heard a story at a school that stuck with me. At the boarding school, a student was caught stealing from other kids. Based on the honor code, the student had to be expelled. On the morning he was to depart, he was encircled by other students and teachers who knew him well. One by one they spoke, sharing the things they appreciated about him, naming the good he did and was, and wishing him well. While the student was expelled for his actions, his actions didn’t negate the good that he represented. It was important for him to hear this. It provided a basis for healing — for him and them.  

When I was in Arizona visiting a Native American settlement, I heard of a tradition of how spirits would come to visit a village seeking out naughty children. The parents would loudly call out an apology for the child’s misdeeds but also name all the good qualities they had, beseeching the spirits to spare the child. The spirits were of course fellow villagers in costume and the calling out of the good qualities by the parents was not for the spirits to hear, but for the child. We can certainly name the wrongs others have done, but we can also see and acknowledge the good that they do? 

Along with a couple of colleagues, I have created a tool for community dialogue named I See You ( It is meant to help us see and hear others. The expression I see you comes from the Zulu greeting Sawubona. What does it take to see someone more fully? Part of this is hearing their story, their struggles, their hurts, and their dreams. This builds empathy. 

In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill attacks in the US, I was struck by a statement offered by a protestor from North Carolina, the state where I now live. The 67-year-old retired landscaper had said: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!” 

Indeed, people everywhere are hungry to be seen. I believe that much of the harm that we do to others is a result of the pain we feel. The columnist David Brooks who writes about the state of America honed in on this as well. He said:

“Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites. Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites. Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone. People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension. Employees feeling invisible at work. Husbands and wives living in broken marriages, realizing that the person who should know them best actually has no clue.”

The call to see others is a call not to ignore them but it is also not a call to ignore the actions that have may have caused harm and hurt. In the African practice of Truth & Reconciliation, truth-telling precedes reconciliation. Our actions have consequences and there is a need for justice and restitution. Yet, the Truth & Reconciliation process recognizes that we truly want in the end is peace and reconciliation.

So, we have much that we disagree about today, much to feel angry about, and much we want to change. We want others to tune in and pay attention to us. Will we offer them the same? Listening is not offering agreement, but in listening, we might find an open space to build a fresh relationship. This is the field of possibility that I believe Rumi invited us to discover. Let us meet each other there.

Related post:

The Parable of the Stonecutter (and a Message about Goals and Grace)

The New Year is a time when we focus on setting goals, framing intentions, and sharing aspirations. We think about what we want to create in our lives. Wanting things that are different and better is a part of being human. It is also a delicate dance with acceptance of what we get and may not want. There’s an old story that illustrates this.

A stonecutter was laboring chipping away at the face of a mountain. It was hard work, and it was his reality day after day. As he cut the rock, a wealthy merchant passed by, carried on a palanquin by a team of porters. How fortunate is he, said the stonecutter to himself, while I labor endlessly his life is effortless. How I wish I were him. There must have been some magic in the air because he was immediately transported into the body of the merchant. He found himself on some plush cushions. Ah, this is life, said the stonecutter. But in a few minutes, he began to sweat profusely. It was a hot day and the sun was beating down. His silk gown was soon soaked. Glancing up, he said, how I wish I was the sun. It is up there unencumbered, overlooking everything. 

Once, again, in an instant, he became the sun. Up in the sky, he could see the world. But soon the sun found his rays blocked. There was a giant cloud. Again, discontent kicked in, the stonecutter wished to be like the cloud who could float through the sky and block the sun. And, in an instant, he was the cloud, floating freely in the sky. Suddenly, however, he found himself being pushed firmly against his will. It was the wind moving him around. How I wish I was the wind, said the stonecutter quickly. And he became the wind. The wind roamed about, rushing through the sky, through the trees. And then, it was stopped abruptly. It had collided with the mountain. I wish I was the mountain, said the stonecutter, and once again, there he was the mighty mountain, standing tall and firm. But, only for a moment, for there was a sharp pain at his base. Looking down, he saw a humble stonecutter, chipping away. The stonecutter wished himself back to his original form. 

This story illustrates at one level that desire is endless and no existence is beyond hardship. Many spiritual teachings emphasize acceptance. This act of making peace with our lot and finding meaning in it is illustrated in another story, that of a stonemason. 

A man was walking through town when he saw a team of men stacking rocks. What are you doing, he asked one of them. The man glanced up, annoyed, can’t you see?, he said, I am stacking this pile of rocks. The walker turned to a second man and asked again, what are you doing? The man looked at him with a joyful smile and declared, I am building a cathedral. 

This story illustrates the power of transforming our lives by transforming the meaning we attach to what we do. As you likely have, I have encountered and been inspired by people doing repetitious and difficult work with a sense of grace and joy. I wrote about this in a blog post when I lived in Mauritius (The Power of Positivity link).

Yet, desire and discontent is an essential trigger for improving our lives. Because we want things to be better, we work to address problems and create new things. Without this, we’d be relatively static, stuck wherever and with whatever we find ourselves. Our modern socialization emphasizes agency, empowerment, and innovation; it differs from the times when people were encouraged to be content with their lot and not rock the boat. People thus accepted lives of great hardship and poverty because that’s what was expected. Yet, because they accepted this, they may have suffered less than we who have much more and are less satisfied.  

Finding the balance between desire and acceptance is among the biggest balancing acts we face as humans. Continual desire for what we don’t have can place us in a constant state of stress and turmoil, where nothing is good enough. Passive acceptance of what is given to us can put us in a place of being at the mercy of circumstance and sometimes exploitation. 

Finding the place between action and acceptance is delicate dance. The sweet spot is expressed in the Prayer of Serenity by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference

The quote speaks of wisdom. Finding the wisdom to know the difference between what to accept and what to change is not easy or obvious. In the parable of the stonecutter, it is often what we only find through lived experience, finding that advancement doesn’t necessarily mean that problems go away. As we set our goals for the future, we need to leaven our desire for change with grace and acceptance for what happens. Finding ways to rise with courage and fall gracefully is a dance (much more on this in future posts). 2020 has given us much experience in encountering the unexpected. We can build on that, even as we reach forward with new hopes for the future. The future may not be as we hope but our effort matters in shaping outcomes. May you step boldly towards your goals in the year ahead and may you find grace in the dance. 

A Sufi dancer swirls but stays centered; motion and stillness, in balance