It’s the end of a rough health week for me. I mustered enough steam for my day job, but I didn’t have the proper focus or energy to select a few poems, really spend some time with them, and share my thoughts. I was going to let the Poetry Chaikhana be silent this week, but then I remembered this note about health and suffering I wrote a few years ago. As something that was written in the midst of a particularly difficult bout, it’s not exactly an “all is light” sort of statement, but I hope that it helps to awaken that inner fire and grit we all need sometimes to get through life’s challenges…
Here’s the thing: Not every disease or discomfort is meant to be overcome.
That’s a hard thing to say, and even harder to accept. But it’s true. If disease dares to show up in our lives, we want it fixed, removed. We want to get on with life and refuse to see disease as being part of life. Even in the holistic health community which views illness as a teacher, we often want to learn the “lesson” so we can quickly dismiss the teacher.
Sometimes, though, dis-ease is an annoyingly persistent teacher. It teaches us interior awareness. Not something learned quickly. It teaches sheer endurance. And, maybe the most difficult lesson, surrender. Many of us get into the world of “alternative” health as a way to take control. But surrender, that’s much more difficult to achieve with grace. It requires real subtlety to even distinguish between surrender and defeat. I don’t think we should give in or give up. I personally keep trying new things, new approaches, new… strategies. Maybe it’s my Aries nature, but I sometimes think of it as a sparring match. I don’t necessarily get into to it to win. I just like the sparring. Like a martial artist. The back and forth teaches me more about myself.
Don’t speak of your suffering — He is speaking.
Don’t look for Him everywhere — He’s looking for you.
One other thing that has come to me over the years — one of the mental reflexes for suffering is jealousy. That’s not the first emotion one normally associates with illness, but it’s often lurking in the background. I’ve certainly noticed it.
Why should I have so much of my life and attention diverted by this, when everyone else has it easy?
I thought I was alone who suffered.
I went on top of the house,
And found every house on fire.
– Baba Sheikh Farid
I’m always being reminded that no one has it easy. Sure, some people have less struggle, while others have heartbreaking levels of suffering. But, when the weariness clears, I glimpse a surprising truth: None of that is the point. The purpose of the human spirit isn’t to be free from difficulty.
That may sound like a cold statement, but it is not. When deeply embraced, this understanding opens us to greater levels of empathy and compassion, and it begins to create a profound resilience within ourselves, allowing us to encounter suffering without shutting down. In other words, if you hold in your mind the idea that suffering is inherently and always wrong, then when you encounter it, you will instinctively shut down. If, however, you accept the existence of suffering — in yourself, in others — your eyes and heart remain open and your hands become willing in the midst of struggles. Accepting suffering gives you greater ability to genuinely alleviate it.
Spirituality and Health
There is a related unconscious thought we often carry that suffering and illness are the sign that something is imperfect about ourselves spiritually. Saints get cancer and have heart attacks. Sages suffer epilepsy. Medicine women get migraines. The body, being a limited vehicle designed to operate in a sometimes disharmonious environment, will sometimes ail. The mark of attainment is not a lack of struggle, but how we respond to that struggle.
Our lives are simply stories. Sometimes the drama and the heat are high, sometimes they are quiet. What is important is the meaning we discover and reveal through that drama. It’s a supremely difficult paradox: We have to engage intensely in the body and the challenges of life, yet, at the same time, it’s not personal… it’s a fascinating story being told through us.
The hallowing of Pain
Like hallowing of Heaven,
Obtains at corporeal cost
The Summit is not given
To Him who strives severe
At middle of the Hill
But He who has achieved the Top
All is the price of All
– Emily Dickinson
Meaning and Suffering
The ultimate question is one of meaning. When we discover meaning in suffering, the suffering becomes endurable. Even comfort and ease, without meaning, eventually become unbearable.
Illness may be devastating, but discovering meaning feeds a hunger even more fundamental than the desire to be free from pain. It feeds the hunger of the soul to know itself.
That hunger, when left unfed, is the real source of suffering in the world.
how can the heart in love
ever stop opening
I also have to acknowledge the heartbreaking murders that took place at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Not only does my heart go out to the suffering families and friends of those who were killed, but my heart also goes out to a country, my country, that wants so much to declare racism to be a thing of the past, but has yet to honestly confront that history and its repercussions today.
Finally, to all my Muslim friends, I hope this Ramadan is a special time of reconnecting with the Divine and reconnecting with what is pure and true within oneself.
Blessings! And have a healing weekend!