10/27/2014 10:52 am ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

Suffering as Transformation

Hiroyuki Ito via Getty Images

Learn more about by watching "Cultivating Grace & Transforming Suffering" film and webcast with Jack Kornfield.

If we learn to take a look at our own suffering in this life, whether it be suffering from isolation, inadequacy, failure, loss, or grief, we realize that they've all hurt like hell. If we open up, our hearts end up broken; but here we are anyway. I am sure some of us can see the way in which our suffering burns deep into us and creates a different quality of being, but it's still very hard to imagine a curriculum in which Suffering 102 is part of the coursework for becoming a fully realized human being.

There is a tremendous fear of vulnerability to our human hearts. "I can't bear it. I've got to look away." Many of us first had this experience when we were very young, when we had our first love affair, our first intense attachment, and having it go awry which broke our hearts, and thinking, "I'll never open my heart again; it's too painful." Yet most of us, after awhile, after we grieved for our loss, something changed, and we were ready to start again. Many of us have opened our hearts many times, and had them broken many times, but we just keep growing and growing. Instead of looking at these heartbreaks as the failures of life, we learn to look at them as the natural process of life, it just takes that little flip of your consciousness.

When I look back on the suffering in my life, I see it now as a gift. I would have never asked for it for a second, I hated it while it was happening and I protested as loudly as I could, but suffering happened anyway. Now, in retrospect I see the way in which it deepened my being immeasurably.

There's an interesting distinction here that's important to point out: In the noble truths that the Buddha enunciated, he spoke about suffering being inherent for everyone as part of the natural way of things, and he refers to the end of suffering, pointing out that the cause of an individual's suffering has to do with the way in which their mind responds to certain phenomena. The example I usually use comes from when I was much younger when I had hair, and then I started to lose it, and in my mind I was still somebody who had hair, so I let the remainder of it grow long, and I wrapped it around my head, so I could be someone with hair. I was constantly aware of the way the wind was blowing; I was like Auguste Rodin's Thinker. I was always holding my hair in place; and I was suffering. I was suffering because my mind was holding onto a model of who I was that didn't exist any longer; and finally I let go. I just decided that 'I am'; and just because the car was a little worn around the edges - I would not self-identify with my aging body.

I began to see that aging, like everything else in nature, is built into the system. When you pit yourself against the system, against the nature of things, against the way in which it all unfolds, that's where the real suffering exists. So suffering, as the Buddha pointed out, is directly correlated to the way the mind holds onto certain things that are disparate from the way something actually is. Knowing that, we can begin to understand the Buddha's Four Noble Truths; the way in which one can begin to let go of the clinging of mind by meditative practice, by drawing the awareness back from the identification of thoughts; and to appreciate the realization that every experience of suffering is an opportunity for growth.

When you begin to understand Buddhist teachings about suffering, you can't use them to rationalize other people's suffering. You cannot say, "Well, they're suffering because of their mind" - which forces us to deal with an interesting paradox: You understand that for an awakened person, suffering is actually grace, because suffering shows you where the mind is caught, and in that sense, is an extremely useful gift. However, you can't walk up to someone who is suffering and say, "It's a useful gift!" You don't have a moral right to try to take away somebody else's suffering. What you can be, however, is a spacious environment for that person to let go of their suffering if they are ready, but it is not your right. If someone says, "I am suffering and what I need is a new car," and you say, "That won't satisfy you," or "Take your desire for a new car and turn it into grace," it probably won't work.

I think the best thing you can do is to relieve suffering in any way you can. For different people, suffering manifests in different ways; for one person its hunger, you give them food; for another person, you invite them to fast. The more you can appreciate the levels at which suffering is created, the more your awareness is extricated from identification with the finite time and space associated with your body and your personality, and the more your awareness permeates and is part of what is. Out of that quality of being arises compassion, because it's us suffering, it's the suffering in the universe, and just as if your body were suffering, you would do something about it. If your left hand were suffering, your right hand would pull it out of the fire or do something to help it, so you do what you can to relieve suffering, because it's no longer their suffering; it's no longer her suffering or his suffering; it's the suffering. It's no longer your compassion, it's the compassion; and you begin to see the dance of suffering and compassion, and you're just part of the dance.

So you do what you can to develop the awareness to embrace the mystery of the universe, and to expand it to allow for the appreciation of the beauty of the laws of the universe. Those unified planes of consciousness balance out and give perspective to the plane of consciousness in which you are a separate entity, where your individual heart is breaking when you see suffering. It gives you a perspective that allows your heart to break open again and again.

In the work that I do with people who are ill and dying, it has taken me quite a long time to understand how deeply I fall in love with each of these beings while spending time with them. Accompanying that quality of falling in love is the pain of the loss of the Beloved, and while there is the pain of the loss of the beloved, there is also the idea of being with that person independent of the loss. It's the idea of "I'll miss your form, but our essences are always here."

I don't have a formula to keep your heart from breaking but I do have a formula to keep you from getting so caught in your broken heart that you end up bitter, cynical and closed off from life. I think the art form is to stay wide open and vulnerable in life, sitting with the mystery and awe and pain, just sitting with it all. If you want suffering all you need to do is read the newspaper, and watch what happens to your heart with each item: Famine, tribal war, rape, theft, exploitation; just sit and watch. To read a newspaper meditatively is a really interesting experience; to find spaciousness within yourself and then read the newspaper as these phenomena arise that are part of the human condition is truly fascinating. What the human condition is at any moment is greed, lust, fear, anger, and violence, it has all of that stuff; and it also has beauty, tenderness, care, joy, play. I'll tell you, if you think you can be happy by denying the pain and sadness in the world, that isn't true happiness.

The cost of armoring your heart against reality is more costly than you may appreciate. I've found that in the wonderful catch phrase, "Be here now", which I've been growing into for the last several decades is that "here now" has within it a richness that is enough. When somebody says to me, "Ram Dass, are you happy?" I stop and think about it, look inside and I say, "Yes, I'm happy." Somebody else comes up and says, "Ram Dass, are you sad?" I think about it, "Yes, I'm sad." "Ram Dass, are you hopeful?" - "Yes, I'm hopeful." "Ram Dass, is it hopeless?" "Yes, it's hopeless." It's extraordinary. I mean, I realized in just honestly answering these questions that all of that stuff was present.

Now imagine what heaviness there is when a moment in time contains everything; this exact moment encompasses people who are hungry; this moment has the richness and thickness of the broken heart, of joy, of the mother and father holding their new baby, of a rose in bloom, of the grief over the loss of a long-term partner; it has all of it, and it's thick. It's thick with living truth and to be a part of that is to really be a living spirit within nature.

There's a line in the Dao that says, "Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing." When you wish something were different, you can't see what really is, so we must expand to keep embracing into ourselves. Instead of "I'm this fragile little thing; keep away from me; I can't stand that; don't get near me; I don't want to deal with that suffering today; thank you; I've got to protect myself," versus, "Ahhhh...ahhhh."

Many years ago, I took a nine-minute acid trip, and I turned into this huge woman; she was black; she was naked, sitting spread open, with great breasts; she was reaching out and drawing all of the children, all of the beings, who are all children, into herself; and she was gorging on them; I was gorging on them and the people I was with were running for a bucket, thinking I was about to vomit. But at the same moment, I was in absolute ecstasy and I realized it was the ecstasy of not turning myself off to the life around me, to all of eternity; and it scared the hell out of me because to bear the unbearable is to die. Who you are dies into the One; and you no longer have compassion, you become compassion.

Learn more about by watching "Cultivating Grace & Transforming Suffering" film and webcast with Jack Kornfield.

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