Learning from suffering

 Store consciousness is a kind of chamber where the films of the past are always being projected. It is there that we keep our memories of trauma and suffering. We know in principle that the past is already gone. But the images of the past are still there, and from time to time – whether in our dreams or when we’re awake – we go back and experience the suffering of the past. We have the tendency to get imprisoned in the past. In principle, we know that the past is no longer there, that our memories are only a film, pictures of the past. But the films continue to be projected, and every time the film is projected, we suffer again.

Suppose we’re in a movie theatre and a film is being projected on the screen. Sitting in our seat and looking at the film, we may believe this is a true story. We may even cry. The suffering is real; the tears are real. But the experience isn’t happening right now, it’s only a film. If I invite you to come up close to the screen with me and we touch the screen, we can see that no one is there, there’s only light flickering on the screen. We can’t talk to the people onscreen, we can’t invite them to have tea with us, because this is a fictive story, something unreal. Yet it can create real suffering, real depression.

It’s very important to realise that the inner child is still there, caught in the past. We have to rescue him. Sitting stably, establishing ourselves in the present moment, we have to talk to the child within: “My dear young brother, my dear young sister, you should know that we have grown up. We can protect and defend ourselves now.”

If we were abused as a seven-year-old, we’ll carry within us an image of that seven-year-old who is vulnerable and full of fear. When we hear something that reminds us of our suffering, it automatically put us in touch with that old image. Many things that we see, hear, and experience in the present moment have the effect of bringing us back to that memory of suffering.

If we have been abused as a child, almost anything we see or hear can bring us back to that image of being abused. Being so constantly in touch with these images of the past can give rise to feelings of fear, anger, and despair. We call this “inappropriate attention” (ayoniso manaskara) because it takes us away from the present moment and into a place of old suffering. It’s very important that whenever our attention is brought to that place, to that kind of image, we have ways of dealing with sorrow, fear, and suffering that arise.

The sound of the bell is a reminder for us to stop our thinking and talking, and go back to our in-breath and our out-breath. The sound of the bell can take us away from the image of suffering and remind us to enjoy breathing in deeply, calming our body and mind, smiling. When suffering arises, our practice is to breathe in and out and say, “Breathing in, I know that suffering is in me.” Recognising and embracing the mental formation is our practice. And if we do well, we can go further. With mindfulness and concentration, we can go back to the image and know what has made it arise: I have this because I have been in touch with that.

Many of us can’t get out of the world of images. With the energy of mindfulness, we recognise that our old suffering is only an image; it’s not reality. And we can see that life with all its wonders is here, that living happily in the present moment is possible, and then we can change the whole situation.

Our capacity to understand suffering can bring forth our compassion, our love. Happiness is not possible without understanding, love, and compassion. Understanding and compassion are born from suffering. When we understand suffering, we don’t blame anymore; we accept, we’re compassionate. Therefore suffering is useful. If we don’t know how to handle suffering, we can drown in the ocean of suffering. But if we know how to handle suffering, we can learn from suffering.

There’s a tendency in us to turn away from suffering. There’s a natural tendency in us to seek pleasure and to avoid suffering. We have to instruct our mind that suffering can sometimes be very helpful. We can even speak of the “the goodness of suffering”. Thanks to the suffering, we begin to understand. And because we understand, we can accept, we can love. Without understanding and love there cannot be any happiness. So suffering has to do with happiness. We should not be afraid of suffering. We should be able to hold our suffering and look deeply into it, hold it tenderly and learn from it. We need to know that we can learn from suffering. The goodness of suffering is something real. Without suffering there cannot be happiness. Without mud there cannot be any lotus flowers. So if you know how to suffer, suffering is okay. And the moment you have that attitude, you don’t suffer much anymore. And out of suffering, a lotus flower of happiness can open.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Reconciliation, pp. 29-32