Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Pain is Inevitable - Suffering is Optional

Yesterday was the warmest day of the year so far, with temperatures in the 80s by midafternoon. I finally tore myself away from the computer and headed out for a walk. It's still extremely lush and green here, with wildflowers including lupines, buttercups and Douglas Iris blooming in gratuitous profusion. A steady breeze kept the temperature from becoming unbearable, with the added benefit of wafting all the smells of a flower scented heaven into my nostrils.

About half way through my walk, the breeze also blew some pollen into my eyes. As a contact lens wearer, pollen and other irritants are a regular part of the "isness" that I deal with on a daily basis, especially in spring. Knowing this, I had even brought a bottle of special drops for my eyes in case my contacts started to bother me. I knelt down at the edge of a grassy field next to some young cedars, but carefully placed my hat upside down and proceeded to pop my contact out. To my surprise, the breeze grabbed my contact and tossed it into the grass. Now, this grass was between six and 12 inches deep, and my immediate reaction was something quite a bit stronger than "darn."

There I was on my knees, one contact lost in the grass, trying to locate a tiny, nearly transparent circle of blue plastic less than a half inch in diameter. The bright sun shone like gold on the grass and the breeze waved the green shoots around in a friendly frenzy. With my contact gone, I had to get down within 6 inches of the ground in order to see anything clearly. I was right on the edge of getting really upset with myself, as this is a new contact and would cost $50 to replace. If you really knew me, you'd know that I spent most of my life with a severe inner critic, and I could feel it wanting to pounce on my apparent screw up. I chose not to engage, and quietly celebrated remembering that I had a choice in the matter.

Invoking my spiritual practice of staying fully present in the moment, I took a couple of deep breaths and begin to notice the astonishing beauty spread out before me. Miniscule flowers the size of an ant's head grew underneath the tall grasses, miniature pink blooms serving as exclamation points for this lilliputian world. For a moment, I forgot all about my contact and just marveled at the intoxicating beauty of this tiny little patch of ground.

As my breathing slowed, and I became increasingly aware of every blade of grass, every grain of sand and earth, each ant and insect busily crawling around in their world, and realized what a gift losing my contact had been. I had been so focused on my walk, on the trees and the astonishing view, that I had been paying no attention at all to the amazing spectacle at my feet.

After a couple of minutes simply enjoying this extraordinary little world, I noticed the glint of my contact and picked it up. I congratulated myself on my patience in my ability to see the gift of losing my contact. I gently set the contact down on the brim of my hat, which was still turned upside down in the grass. I took out my water bottle and my drops so that I could clean my contact and place it back in my eye. However, the wind had other plans. As I reached to pick up the contact, the breeze effortlessly picked up that petite piece of plastic and flipped it back in the grass. I couldn't believe it.

Obviously, I had not become sufficiently present the first time I went through this process, so I had the opportunity to do so again … quiet my breathing, focus on the beauty in front of me, choose not to make myself wrong, and simply be available for the contact to show itself again. After a few more minutes of kneeling in the beauty of the day, bowing to the sacred all around me, sure enough, the contact "showed up." This time I didn't let go of it, and within moments it was safely back in my eye. As I stood up and prepared to head home, I spent another moment in quiet reflection, honoring my experience and grateful that I had chosen to accept the moment as it was without creating any suffering for myself.

If that had been the end of the story, I would have felt it worth the telling, but opportunities for me to keep choosing not to suffer continued showing up. My contact continued bothering me all the way back, about a 45 minute walk. I did not attempt to take it out and clean it again; rather, I simply stayed present, noticing that in each moment. I could choose to turn the pain into suffering … or not. My eye kept tearing, and it was difficult to keep it open through the pain. And yet, the beauty of the day called insistently through the hum of innumerable bees collecting nectar from the veritable explosion of blooms. In particular, the hillsides along the road were carpeted with flowers, particularly vetch, a low green vine bursting with millions of small purple blossoms. Whole sections of hillside were blanketed in this glorious profusion, this spring riot of life. I was amazed. Sometimes my eye would clear up for a few minutes, and I was grateful. Then the pain would return, and I felt grateful that I was not creating suffering for myself in addition to feeling the pain.

I was so touched by this experience that I felt compelled to write it down as a teaching opportunity. Pain and suffering are not one word. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. It is a core component of my teaching, as it is of many who use the path of inquiry to discern our true nature. Remember, in each moment we have a choice. We can welcome the pain that inevitably comes with the gift of life as an opportunity to become fully present in the moment. Suffering is simply not necessary. I am grateful to life for every chance I have to explore this perspective, and to share what I learn with you.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,
Pain is also optional

Anonymous said...

I agree with both of you