The world is a marvelous, magnificent and beautiful place. I may never see all of it myself, but I still love the world in all its variations, in the way life finds a way to grow in all conditions, all circumstances. And there is beauty in it all. Life adapts and thrives, adapts and thrives.
And what of people? We are also experiencing life in the world with its changes, its challenges, its circumstances that are sometimes kind and sometimes hostile, but always ultimately indifferent. Through this maze we feel our way, find our way, make our way. We look around to see how others are adapting, thriving, fighting. We seek models for a different way or reflections of our own way. I try to imagine the whole array of human lives in the infinite ways there are of being in the world, infinite variety of experience and choice, call and response, that make us the way we are, the way we appear to ourselves and to the world. It’s really too much to imagine. Like counting grains of sand. But I don’t need to imagine it all, I only need to know that each life and each expression of life is precious.
And what of pain? Of suffering? Again I see beauty in the flexibility, resiliency and creativity that expresses itself in people when we have experienced suffering. We suffer with change, with the seemingly twisted array of curve balls that come our way. Yet we rise from it stronger, more confident. And I don’t know what’s more beautiful in a human face than the look that comes from confidence of self and love of self.
There are two events in my life (one of which repeated three times, and one of which was extended over a period of hours) that clearly stand out to me as having the most intensity of pain. The first was the births of my children. Pain, yes. But strictly physical and the kind that evaporates as quickly as it descends. It’s so intense we cry out, giving voice to sounds that arise without words from deep inside. And why not say it again: What is more beautiful than a newborn baby? Or than a mother looking at her child for the first time? These peaks of beauty cannot be separated from the experience that brought them into being.
The other event in my own life that peaked with pain was of a different nature, with intense emotional soul suffering. Although it ended in birth of a kind, the suffering had almost no relation to that of giving birth. It was dark, utterly dark. It was inwardly directed and self-consuming. It was like a prison in a cave on an island, dark and cold and without hope of freedom. My heart was rent into pieces. In the depth of that pain I pleaded without words to be released from this life. There was nothing I wanted except to disappear. I didn’t want to die and certainly didn’t want to kill myself. I simply wanted to not exist anymore. And though the suffering itself has passed, how is it that the experience continues — after years have passed — to be a font of joy and peace, of love and compassion? It is a reference point that reminds me: I can do anything. I can change whatever I want to change. The awakening and transformation I experienced is larger than any smallness or pettiness I may experience. I am strong. Stronger than absolutely anything that comes my way.
The experience also reminds me that the pain of suffering is very real. When others are suffering I can’t know their specific suffering, but I can know its nature. I may not know the territory but I have a map. In the midst of my suffering there was one person, a single hand, that reached out with sweet and unclouded compassion to keep me from drowning. That hand held me up until I could find my footing again. That hand held mine and stayed close and did nothing but show me that there was still love in the world, which meant that there was still possibility, there was still hope.
What was it that made me want to disappear? I knew that I had utterly failed at life. I didn’t know exactly what that meant but I knew it was true. Whatever life was for, I wasn’t doing it. I couldn’t see past the dark prison walls that had descended around me to see what else there might be for me, for this life that I called mine but felt like a something foreign, something other, something I no longer wanted to claim as mine. As happens in life, in ways that seem miraculous but are common enough to be ordinary, I got precisely what I wished for. I wished to disappear and I did. This intense desire and complete release of my life as it was pushed the reset button. I woke up the next morning and I was new. The world was new. The darkness had lifted and my vision was clear as it had never been. I felt I had become a child again, but without losing the wisdom I had gained through 40 years of living. Externally, few would notice anything different. I didn’t change my job, I didn’t buy a new car or color my gray. My body, my brain, my memories were still intact. But I was different – and over night. Not only was I different, the world was different. I was actually physically awkward for a few weeks like a newborn colt finding her footing, aligning the soul and heart and mind with the thoughts and actions of a body in the world. I found out that the important thing about your heart being torn in two is that it heals. And when it heals it’s like a bone that is stronger for having broken. Another important thing that happens when your heart breaks, is that other things also crumble: all the armor, all the walls that you had built to shield your heart from…what? From life, from pain, from feeling too much, too deeply? So I also spent the next few months laughing, loving and weeping, with ups and downs so large I didn’t know if I could handle this new life. But I did handle it. And I also promised myself I would never put up those walls again. I had been through too much to go back to the way I had been. The new view without the walls was too spectacular, the highs too wonderful. So this experience remains my touchpoint. I don’t go back into the pain, I don’t wallow in it or rejoice in it, but I remember it. I don’t forget what I learned or ever desire to stop learning more.
There are problems everywhere. There is pain. There is war. There is hunger and poverty. There is torture and abuse. There are locked doors and compulsory attendance and shackles and bars on freedom. And the only way to change any of it is to change ourselves. To see with clear eyes and an open heart we must tear down the walls inside of us, around our hearts, that we imagine keep us safe. Fear breeds all manner of evil, anger and hatred. And the only way we can recognize fear, anger and hatred is by seeing it in ourselves. This is why forgiveness is the only way to heal, and why we need to forgive ourselves too. It isn’t the other that we hate or fear, it is the reflection of the other that we see in ourselves. Somewhere deep inside we hate that we judge or we fear, we know that it isn’t the way to peace or joy or anything else that we desire. I love the Buddhist direction to use it all. You have a beautiful thought? Wonderful. Let it lift you up and share it with others so that they may also be lifted. You have a dark, sad or angry thought? Don’t push it away, use it. Embrace it. As Pema Chodron says: “There’s a richness to all of the smelly stuff that we so dislike and so little desire…Only to the degree that we’ve gotten to know our personal pain, only to the degree that we’ve related with pain at all, will we be fearless enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be wiling to feel the pain of others…because we will have discovered that their pain and our pain are not different.” This is how the healing of the world begins.
Love is contagious. When you share it you are softened and others are softened. Walls crumble and fear is abated. What ill in the world didn’t begin with fear? This is why, at the heart of life there is simply this one meaning and purpose: extend love. With love you are transformed and your neighbor is transformed. With transformed perspective the world too is transformed. Scars show where once there was a wound that is now healed. They are proof that we are stronger than the pain, and that pain can be transformed into beauty.
Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/bw9Gh8