The Wisdom Of Conscious Suffering

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

When I had cancer, a close friend asked if I ever wondered: why me? I told her that I didn’t. I told her that given that one in three Americans will, at some point, be diagnosed with cancer, I felt why not me? Cancer happens. It’s sometimes random. It happened to me. There was neither rhyme nor reason. It just did.

A different friend recently asked the same about a close friend of mine, who was just killed in an auto accident. A speeding semi veered into his car, in a national park, in Uganda, killing him and leaving his wife widowed for the second time and seriously injured. My friend wondered: why? Why him? Why her?

Another friend asked how I took the news. If I tried to think my way through it. If I tried to look for cosmic explanations, or if I was angry at the Universe, or if I was trying to look for silver linings. I wasn’t. My friend wanted to make sure that I wasn’t trying to think my way through it, because he wanted to make sure I was allowing myself to feel my way through it. To allow the pain to wash over me, and through me. Which is the only real way to respond to emotional trauma. Did I allow myself to cry? I certainly did. And I have, off and on, for days.

As I wrote, some time ago, when first I was hospitalized to be tested for what turned out to be cancer, I was alone; but a saintly nurse came to my room, just to check in, and to let me know that although her shift was ending, she wanted to introduce herself, because she would be my nurse the next day. And she asked what I knew, how I felt, was I frightened. And then she asked if I’d cried. Don’t be afraid to cry, she told me. At that point, it had been literally years since I’d cried. I’ve gotten better at it, since.

In some schools of Buddhism, there is a concept of conscious suffering. That suffering is a fundamental part of life, and that we shouldn’t fear it or hide from it. That we should, in fact, nakedly embrace it, no matter how painful. We’re all suffering, all the time. The most basic reason for it is our mortality, and our consciousness of our mortality; but we all have plenty of other sorrows, many of them profound. And while it’s not good to wallow in conscious suffering, unconscious suffering- running from it, or trying to numb it- which is how most people deal with it, even though it doesn’t work- at best only creates a sort of emotionally displaced equilibrium. It leads to psychological and emotional stasis. To really learn and grow and evolve and heal and work things through means facing suffering head on, however complicated or intense.

If we don’t consciously come to terms with our suffering, we don’t consciously come to terms with life itself. If we don’t consciously come to terms with our suffering, it comes back at us in unforeseen and even more damaging ways. Conscious suffering shouldn’t be the focus of our lives, but neither should we ignore it. To fully experience life’s joys and wonders necessitates our also fully experiencing its pain and sorrow.

There is so much beauty and love in the world, but there also is so much horror and alienation and hatred. They are all part of the matrix of existence. We have to look deeply into all of them. We have to keep our eyes open. We have to try to understand them, but we also have to understand that some things are beyond understanding. We have to experience them for what they are, as they are. We have to feel them. When they arise, as they arise. Without fear.  


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  1. … on your loss, Turk.

    Beautiful essay.

    We have to experience them for what they are, as they are. We have to feel them. When they arise, as they arise. Without fear.  

    That’s living as a full human being, imo.

  2. dream consciously, and ultimately to die consciously.  

    Yes!  Beautiful!  Thanks, Turk.

    • rb137 on June 13, 2009 at 1:10 am


  3. You are brilliant and you shine.

    • TMC on June 13, 2009 at 2:25 pm
    • kj on June 13, 2009 at 6:55 pm


  4. I’m so sorry for what you’ve suffered, but your courage shines through this diary. Thank you.

  5. You are in my thoughts.  

    Wishing all the best for you, and for the pain you acknowledge to wash away soon.

    I’ve learned a little bit about acknowledging pain.  It is an amazing concept and yet so simple.  I first read about it in an account written by a married couple.  My Lyme addled brain cannot recall their names.  The story was about a motorcycle ride during which the woman burned her leg badly.  Her partner taught her to acknowledge the pain (while of course taking her to the hospital).  It struck me, and I decided to try it.  To my amazement, it worked, even with my imperfect application of the technique.  I can’t say that I am always able to be conscious and do things this way, but just the fact that I was able to apply and achieve results blew my mind a little.  We are so focused on making pain go away with drugs, etc.

    Again, all the best.

    • TMC on June 14, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I thought I would leave them here, as well:

    Grief is painful not just mentally, but physically. It, literally, hurts. The first tears burn your eyes and sting. You feel like someone has stabbed you in your chest. There is an element of disbelief. I felt all of that when I was told my father had died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm in 1966. I was in Germany and because of the weather could not get back to NYC to sit Shiva with my mother. I am an only child, so for her it must have compounded the grief. I came home, briefly, on my way to another overseas assignment 3 years later, and it was like Pop had died yesterday. I don’t think I have ever experienced that kind of pain since. Now, the memories are in little things, music, old TV programs and the sea, especially the sea and I feel joy.

    Don’t be afraid, It’s OK to cry. I had to say that twice last night. Thank you for reminding me that it is OK for me to cry, too. Yet, there is still so much beauty & love in the world, like this beautiful diary.


  6. man, Turkana. You have not allowed the suffering and pain we all share to kill your soul or your love. It’s hard to grasp the spectrum of what being human means, body mind and spirit. Were all only human my grandaughter said as a 6 year old. We all suffer loss everyday, but to lose a friend in this abrupt way is a hard one. My heart goes out to both you and to the world as your friend was one who made all our suffering a little less.    

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