This is the second of a two part series on suffering written byRobert Augustus Masters. He is a psychologist that underwent a hospitalization for an intense psychological crisis.
So where do we go from here?
From here to here.
It’s all the same moment, already perishing and yet never-ending, already shattered and yet still whole, ever inviting us to step out of our minds and into what we never left but dreamt we did. Now, and ever now. A dance we know by heart, even as we play wallflower or get engaged to our crutches.
To know without thinking, to see without eyes, to fly without wings, to die without leaving, to love without expecting -- such are the primordial yet everfresh chords weaving through our living chambers, perhaps muted, perhaps unheard, but nevertheless still here, like wildblue sky behind a sea of clouds.
Everything is the dancefloor.
But we may not yet have the legs nor the ripeness for it, or at least for certain zones or levels of it. More quality time in spiritual bootcamp’s obstacle courses may be needed. If we’re not ready for a particular step but assume that we should be, self-castigation may arise, nailing us with guilt implants. Better to learn to recognize what we actually are ready for, and to not hold ourselves back from or above it, just because we think it’s not sufficiently spiritual or befitting for us.
Fixating on or trying to go toward “the Light” -- an ascent that’s generally more ass than sense -- may only further endarken us, estranging us from that in us which is subterranean, malignant, wretched, or otherwise unwanted. What we won’t dance with, what we refuse intimacy with, what we’re so ambitious to shed, is precisely the dance-partner we need (or at least need to approach), drawing out of us the very aversion, tension, and pain that’s crying for illumination and love.
Take loneliness (which usually gets left all alone on the dancefloor): Become more sensitive to it, noticing its desperation, its craving for release from itself, its commitment to and investment in playing wallflower. Notice its pull to get away from those sensations that characterize it. Fleeing, feeding, filling, emptying, sexing -- anything to provide some relief. But what if we were to just sit there, sit with our loneliness, not doing a damn thing other than give it our undivided attention? We might then see that in our loneliness -- and especially in our dramatization of it -- we are closed off to what we really ache for: love.
And we might also see that our loneliness is a frightened, neglected child that has grown accustomed to being treated as a problem. A painfully troubled softness that we harden and distort by treating as an inconvenience. The more it cries, the more we push it away. The more it contracts, the more we isolate it. But instead we could turn off the TV and sit with our loneliness, letting it settle and rest in our lap, listening to it with an opening heart and curious mind, noticing its shape and breath, its bodily terminals, its tones, its textures, its shifts.
And shift it does, as we continue to give it undivided, compassionate attention, slowly perhaps, but surely, like an abused child entering the steady, well-grounded presence of genuine love and kindness. We can thus hold our loneliness and let it melt in warm-armed embrace, holding it close but not so close that it cannot breathe freely. Letting go of our desire to be elsewhere, we let our loneliness pervade us. Consciously. Letting the desperation go, letting the compulsion to seek go, letting the ambition to let go -- a spiritual “should” that’s so easy to should-er -- also go.
Then our loneliness is not a rejected child, a loser, a misfit, a bog of neediness, but rather a vulnerable fullness warming us, a tender ticket to our depths, a far from dysfunctional catalyst for remembering What-Really-Matters.
And so we sit, our loneliness transmuting into aloneness -- we may still be physically alone, but we are nonetheless palpably connected, especially at the heart, with so many others. Alone we are then, alone enough to be vividly and impactfully together with the raw Wonder of Life, and yet also together enough to appreciate and savor our solitude, realizing that only when we are truly capable of enjoying being alone are we capable of really being in relationship.
We could do worse than to date our loneliness.
The unwanted in us need not be put behind the driving wheel, but only within reach of our heart. The unwanted in us need not be swallowed whole, but rather only liberated from whatever’s nonbeneficial or obsolete about its viewpoint, without necessarily robbing it of its passion, its vitality, its basic presence, until it’s no longer an “it,” but only reclaimed us.
We need not empty ourselves of our undesired elements; we need not eroticize ourselves into a position where we can or “have to” sexually discharge the sensations of our desperation; we need not colonize our dread with lesser fears; we need not convert our rage into aggression, nor our helplessness into depression, nor our shame into guilt. Our darkness asks not to be kept in the shadows, nor to be given mere licence, but to be met face to face, belly to belly, in a manner as vital as it is wakeful.
The distance between us and our suffering is the distance between us and God. A gap made of and populated by fear.
The above doesn’t mean, however, that we should just jump into our suffering. What is called for, at least initially, is to take a closer look at our relationship -- and attachment -- to our suffering. At first, we may simply be committed, however unconsciously, to distracting ourselves from our suffering (or the feeling of our suffering), attaching or addicting ourselves to whatever most potently or pleasurably distracts us. Seeing this with unclouded eyes gets us started. Our condition may remain the same for a while -- and it may well need to, according to our degree of ripeness -- but our commitment to it is, however slightly, undermined.
Our struggle may then deepen -- as we observe ourselves trying to get away from our suffering, we begin to realize that such efforts only reinforce and amplify it. Our suffering intensifies until we find a superior distraction or a more powerful numbing agent, or until we shift from avoiding our suffering to deliberately facing it. Deliberately.
This is where healing begins.
When we no longer ostracize or condemn our suffering, but invite it onto the dancefloor with us, we are on track, however stumbling or sloppy our steps may be. Then we are relating to our suffering; we are apart from yet not cut off from it. Then it’s no longer just another unpretty face, but something we can communicate with, touch, penetrate, gaze into, bring closer.
As we move onto the dancefloor with our suffering, we begin to recognize in it many fractured or distorted countenances, the long-ago yet nonetheless still present faces of our distressed or injured selves. As our heart breaks -- that is, breaks free of its “protective” encasing -- the faces are no longer broken, no longer held in poisonously framed cameo.
However slightly, we are now broken enough to be whole (and empty enough to be open), making more and more room in ourselves for our pain. And, eventually, others’ pain. The dance continues, and we notice we are stumbling less, and that an appealing warmth is slowly arising. A quiet happiness suffused with a growing ease, softly pulsing and so, so spacious. So much room, so much love. And such rich intimations of a love beyond love. Dancing with our suffering allows a sobering joy to bloom. Flowers of love, flowers of disappointment, flowers of death, flowers of no-big-deal arrival. Compassion, and a deeper compassion.
But sometimes it’s hell.
Sometimes the suffering is just too much. The key at such times is not to force yourself onto the dancefloor (and nor to deny yourself pain relief), but to simply keep a spark of faith alive, the faith not only that this too will pass, but also that the dance you have begun will continue. Doubt your doubt. And remember not only that Life outlives you, but that you are Life. And more. When you first experience keeping your heart open in hell, know that it will happen again. Don’t worry about when.
And also know that every time you deliberately dance with your suffering you are, bit by bit, breathing strength and dignity and integrity into your capacity to bear the unbearable. Hell can be grace, too. In fact, when we’re in hell and we don’t forget God, then we’re not in hell. Real joy is not an alternative to suffering, but rather the full flowering of our unconditional acceptance of suffering -- which renders our suffering so transparent to Being that we begin to realize, right down to our toes, that maybe it’s really true that there is only God.
Such acceptance is an act not of submission, but of surrender.
In submission we collapse our boundaries; in surrender we expand them.
In submission, we deaden ourselves; in surrender, we die into a deeper Life. In surrender we may lose face, but we do not lose touch. Submission flattens the ego; surrender outdances it.
Surrender is the unarmored heart enlarged through radical acceptance of its aching, its longing, its naked yearning, its Homesickness. Submission is passive, but surrender is dynamic. Submission shrinks us, but surrender, sooner or later, makes us the right size for What-Really-Matters.
One size fits all.
Stretching for God. Stretching until we birth a deeper self, stretching until inside and outside are lovers, stretching until there’s no self to birth. Stretching beyond imagination, all stretchmarks left in the dust. Stretching a little bit here, a little bit there, stretching beyond any need for applause, no longer reducing God to Santa Claus. Letting our suffering stretch us, extend us, show us where we are refusing to look, or are only looking superficially. Appreciating the chance to investigate where we’re being hooked. Appreciating how it all works.
We don’t graduate until we’ve learned the lessons by heart. Otherwise, we wouldn’t sufficiently appreciate God, wouldn’t be sufficiently prepared for realizing who and what we actually are. We get only the very best schooling, each of us with our own unique curriculum. Be careful not to dismiss this as mere metaphor; it is, and it is also something more.
If we won’t dance with our suffering and the pain around which it is constellated, then we are likely to become enslaved to the search to end it, to somehow be rid of its symptoms, to so thoroughly distract ourselves from it that it seems to no longer exist to any significantly troublesome degree.
But being relieved of the sensations of our suffering no more frees us than does masturbation. All our pain, all our hurt, all our woundedness in its primary form exists, in part, to alert us to our condition, to remind us of what we are actually up to, to clarify the dramatics in which we are encapsulated.
Suffering can both obstruct and catalyze our needed purification. It all depends on how we use it. We perhaps best ripen in the presence of awakened, unconditioned love; our suffering, if well used, makes more of us available to that presence. We just have to get out on the damned dancefloor with whatever potential partners are eyeing us from the places where we’d rather not look. Especially those who keep showing up day after day, night after night, their presence snaring our attention, reeling in our “I.” Forget your breath mints and your allegiance to your distancing strategies -- go to these partners, strike up a conversation, get them out on the floor, invite them closer.
Do what is needed to continue the dance, including pausing. At times effort is called for, and at other times effortlessness needs to take the floor. Sometimes we dance, sometimes we are danced, sometimes we get stuck, freezing in our own headlights, and other times we flow, converting frozen yesterday into fluid now. As we move from the periphery to the heartland of our pain, we start to encounter what exists both prior to and beyond all our suffering. And again it is so obvious that God is not elsewhere, that God is not an alternative reality.
Everything is the dancefloor.
Everything that seems to be other than us -- whether outer or inner -- is our dance-partner, asking for more than just tolerance. So we pick this one or that one, but do we remember also to look for and dance with our preference-making capacity? And do we inquire into who -- or what -- is doing the choosing? We’ll explore these questions shortly, but for now let’s close this chapter by returning once more to the dancefloor, turning the spotlight on an unpopular, particularly common yet uncommonly rewarding partner -- disappointment.
Lonely are the flowers of disappointment
Who picks them, loves them, cradles their scent?
Who sees their beauty, their shy petalling?
In our grief, our ordinary daily unsung grief
We break in so many tiny ways
Not seeing beneath the debris
Bits of upstart green, minute pulsing surges
Making subtle quicksand out of our too solid ground
So many buddings, emerald lips moistly aquiver
Some become flowers of hope, some flowers of disappointment
We become seduced by the flowers of hope
Drugged by nostalgia for the future
And we turn away from the flowers of disappointment
Not letting their fragrance reach far enough
Yet it is that fragrance that reminds us
Of a deeper land, where entrapping dreams must shatter
A land where What-Really-Matters cannot help but matter
Disappointment, unrejected, embraces me
Its touch is cool, softly crystalline, sweetly sobering
Is it what I want?
That’s the wrong question.
Disappointment’s gift is rooted not in questions
But in something closer to home
Disappointment bleeds into the warped frames of our dreams
Interrupting our intoxication, disrobing our trance
The torn fabric is not something to repair
But to see with undreaming eyes
Eyes for which
Disappointment is not disappointing