The Play of Suffering and Compassion

We all know the experience of suffering: from subtle to horrendous, it is the feeling that something has to change in order for us to be happy. It is the need to get away from that which we don't like, or to grasp what we do like. More directly, however, suffering is the associated conviction that we can attain happiness through striving for it. But, paradoxically, true abiding happiness is not to be found this way. We can and do experience periods of relative happiness through striving, but these are transient because they are contingent upon circumstances which are always shifting and changing. The real cause of suffering does not pertain to worldly events or situations, but rather to a pervasive sense of isolation, which is the actual driving force in the struggle for happiness. This is a spiritual problem, and in our attempt to struggle for resolution through worldly means, our sense of spiritual isolation can become even more deeply entrenched.

Compassion, on the other hand, appears as an inherent empathic regard for suffering; it can be characterized as both a sense of outward kindness and, more subtly, as sublime spaciousness. It manifests out of the non-dual nature of form as a passionate spiritual counterbalance to our suffering sense of isolation.

The experience of separateness arises from a simple perceptual error in primordial Consciousness in which one of these multitudinous forms is experienced as separate from itself. This imaginary distinction is perceived as separate from that which is aware of it and thereby suddenly veils inherent unity. In this simple misattribution, in which Consciousness perceives something apart from itself, the experience of a 'subject' is cognized as distinct from its 'object.' This distinction, though imagined, becomes the basis for the experience of suffering as this imaginary 'subject' struggles to feel whole while simultaneously protecting itself from that which appears to be foreign and threatening.

This conflicted sense of isolation becomes an ongoing cascade of imaginations as it seeks to define its self-identity as real and complete in itself. It does this through an impossible struggle for happiness based upon affirmations and negations, which veils the reality of underlying abiding happiness. This struggle, made up of self-centered likes and dislikes, comes to manifest as a spectrum of afflictive emotions such as craving, jealousy, pride, anger, and depression, all of which we struggle to resolve.

The spectrum of suffering emotions arises out of a sublime sense of isolation, which manifests as fundamental restlessness in this moment and gives rise to these experiences of obsessive craving and profound sorrow. Yet despite the ignorance and potentially horrendous difficulties it engenders, suffering turns out to be our foremost spiritual teacher and, if we listen to it, becomes a direct guide back to wholeness and truth. Here, we can discover the actual unity of suffering and compassion within direct experience. Compassion arises within suffering as attention is relentlessly returned to the fundamental predicament of unhappiness. Here is where a committed practice of meditation and contemplation can serve to bring increasing clarity and discernment.

Such practices really captivate our attention when we discover that suffering always arises from a mental outlook that is in fundamental conflict with the way things are. How are things? Anandamayi Ma, a Hindu sage of the last century, tells us that "Everything in this world is transitory. So also worldly happiness: it comes and the next moment it is gone. If permanent abiding happiness is to be found, that which is eternal will have to be realized."

She lays it out plain enough. We need to realize that which is eternal in order to find real happiness! This may sound daunting, but keep in mind that the eternity she is speaking about is our own true Self. To find abiding happiness, we need only to discover, uncover, and unveil this true Self by embarking on a compassionate journey into the suffering sense of who and what we have taken ourselves to be. Happiness is not some rarefied state. It is our nature right now, in the midst of whatever suffering we seem to experience. Our nature is already whole. The isolated sense of separate self, which is made up of all the ways we resist suffering, is the very filter that prevents us from recognizing this abiding happiness. It is ultimately in seeing directly the futility of the struggle to resolve unhappiness that we begin to surrender the effort to do so. It is this dawning wisdom that ultimately gives rise to compassionate surrender while simultaneously providing us with a direct pathway to wholeness.

This pathway to wholeness is through compassionate embrace of these states that we struggle to avoid. Through intrinsic compassion we discover the willingness to recognize and feel this which we resist, and in so doing, allow it to be recognized as 'sameness' or 'wholeness.' Compassion is the willingness to be present within an afflictive emotion as it arises and to allow it to show itself, and to witness all the ways we resist. Listening is the key. When we listen to the sorrow that arises when a loved one dies, for example, we recognize how we want to turn away from our sadness, not realizing that the sense of despair is actually a manifestation of our love. It is our loved one speaking to us, and it has only been our self-centered perceptions, beliefs and reactions that have prevented us from listening. In this way, through recognizing love in its most distressing forms, we begin to heal our hearts and to remove the layers of armor that have become the source of our isolation.

Through compassion, inherent unity is recognized within the transient nature of isolated forms. Because we are not so fixated on ourselves, we begin to feel the suffering of others more and more as our hearts open. We discover that our own feelings of sorrow are theirs, and theirs are ours. Sorrow itself is transformed as we discover there is no real separation anywhere. This is love; this is the happiness we seek. It wants nothing and thereby, has it all. It is through this boundless love that imaginary distinctions are enabled to return to their natural expression in abiding happiness.

-Todd, Spring 2012
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