Suffering is part of the human journey

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years of incarceration, one of the first pronouncements he made was “you can put my body in prison but you cannotimprison my spirit”.

This is true for all of us. We all experience suffering, no matter who we are, what background we have, where we come from or what we have achieved or otherwise.

The truth is that suffering is an intrinsic part of this journey called life.

Jack Kornfield, an author who wrote the book, The Wise Heart, talks about actually being grateful for suffering.

And although this may sound crazy and counterintuitive for most of us due to our need to avoid suffering, it is in fact very true.

The Tibetan Buddhists often invite suffering and struggle and say “grant me enough suffering so that I can experience the depths of who I truly am”, the depths of true compassion and magnanimity.

Through pain and difficulties we can cultivate an open heart and compassion for ourselves and for others. This is the potential for all of us in this life.

In this human experience often we want to avoid or escape from pain and suffering and cling onto pleasure and that which appears to make us feel content and happy.

And mostly we desire unlimited pleasure. But it usually does end or it loses its original flavour as we grow accustomed to it.

Then we desire and search for the next thing, object, person or possession which we think will bring greater fulfilment until that too becomes a source of discontent and we want to get rid of it.

This is part of the human condition, which in Sanskrit is called Dukkha, commonly translated as suffering, pain or stress.

It refers to the fundamental unsatisfactory feeling and painfulness of mundane life. It is the first of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

There is the possibility of liberation from this psychological suffering through accessing our natural insight and wisdom, by cultivating awareness.

Clinging onto that which brings pleasure and escaping or avoiding that which brings pain, exacerbates and perpetuates our greatest pain and suffering.

Our human experience in this life includes “10 000 joys and
10 000 sorrows” according to the Tao ((in Chinese philosophy), which is the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang and signifying the way, or code of behaviour, that is in harmony with the natural order. This includes being in tune with all that life presents to us.

The human spirit actually grows and strengthens most from difficulties, sorrows and pain.

We can use these as opportunities to transform our lives and deepen our connection to life as it really is.

To acknowledge and work with fundamental suffering allows us to truly awaken and open our hearts.

The ticket for human life includes both joy and sorrow, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, and birth and death. It is not a mistake when painful and sorrowful things happen to us. The difficulties are what actually grows the spirit, not the nice things and the good experiences that we so yearn for and cling onto.

The gratitude is not for the suffering in itself but for its potential to connect us to a deeper part of ourselves, to a Higher Power and to others who are going through or may go through the same experiences.

Our pain is an opportunity to awaken our hearts, minds and bodies to true aliveness and connection to others.

With this in mind we can ask ourselves what is life really?

We cannot grasp life, we cannot put it into intellectual terms, yet we have to deal with it. So the best thing is to understand it. We all can understand life, by opening our hearts to it fully.

And many times it is not nice and cosy. It is like swimming; you cannot stand on the beach and discuss it, you have to get into the water, you have to jump in and get wet.

We need to live this life fully, in its totality, with the pain and joy, the misery and happiness.

All of this is part of the mystery. We cannot fathom this but it is something we have to deal with.

We are led by three existential questions, which children often ask: why? what? how?

Why is there anything rather than nothing. We don’t know. We need to sit ourselves down in silence often and open to this mystery through stillness and silence in whichever form it takes for each of us, be it prayer, meditation, being in nature or perhaps all of it.

What is it? What is this life? When you look long enough it becomes completely mysterious.

Look at yourself: beauty, your baby, birthing, dying what is this? We want to over-stand things, but when we get grasped by life truly, we under-stand, we jump in and allow ourselves to get wet.

How? How can I live this life? By doing it. What do we do? We listen so carefully to that which comes from within, that it leads us to the depths from which it comes. This is the third way we interact with and enter into this divine mystery.

In order to go into this silence, we need to trust in life, we need courage. The opposite is fear.

The two great choices in life is, will I trust life or will I fear it.

Don’t confuse anxiety with fear. Life is full of anxiety. Trust goes through anxiety and opens to not knowing the outcome and still trusting life.

Nelson Mandela must have gone through times of enormous anxiety and suffering, and did not know that he would be released from prison to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa, but I think what he had was a profound trust in life through using his incarceration as an opportunity to be still and grow his spirit.

In this way he gained enormous wisdom and compassion which contributed towards leading us, relatively peacefully, out of apartheid and into a new dawn of socio-political freedom and unity in South Africa.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.