“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” This is a popular adage in Buddhism and often a theme for discussion at my Vipassana (Insight) meditation group. While experiences such as sadness, anger, and disappointment may be a natural part of life, we can free ourselves from the agony of resisting those experiences. We do this through mindfulness and equanimity. Sometimes the hand of fear and anxiety can be gripping my heart without my even knowing it. When I pause and take a moment to watch my breath and notice what I am feeling, only then do I become aware of the grip itself – and it loosens.
The intention of mindfulness practice is to liberate ourselves and to awaken. It is not to “cure” ourselves of those unwanted experiences. Yet, almost as a side effect, the practice tends to relieve those very uncomfortable feelings and experiences. By acknowledging a feeling of pain, not only does the resistance dissipate, often the pain itself is transformed. We are humans though, and along with this human journey comes a desire for pleasure and an aversion to pain. It is simply built-in as an evolutionary survival mechanism. The trick, it seems to me, is to strive for mindfulness and the rest follows. We must “back into it” so to speak. What a delicious paradox! If you try for it directly it will elude you.
I remember a phone conversation with a long-distance relationship of mine. We were planning a visit which would be our first face to face contact in over a year. There was a great deal of unspoken tension and trepidation. Without realizing it we were immersed in the heaviness of not knowing what was to come. At one point I heard myself say, “I’m scared.” One second of silence then the voice on the other end of the phone replied, “Whoa! I just felt a wave of peace wash over me. I’m scared too.” There it was. In the instant we named it the fear no longer had power over us. We felt joyful and excited… and without our trying the fear dissolved.
Where else in life does this phenomenon occur? What other treasures will hide when you pursue them head-on, but can be reached by letting them come upon you? Companionship is my first answer. Finding a loving relationship, whether it be friendship or romance, cannot be forced. We all have an innate urge to seek human connection. Yet, wouldn’t you agree, it can never be forced. Whenever I’ve tried to “get” someone it did not work. When I am curious about life and interested in the people on this planet I usually meet interesting people. When I am openhearted I make heart connections. When I am loving, love finds me. Not when I go looking for it.
And what is even more important than love? Comedy. (Yes, that is meant as a joke. Maybe.) I am an Improv Comedy actor, and obviously when performing I want to make people laugh. Once again though, the harder I chase after that laughter the more it runs away. “Do not try to be funny”, is an important rule for improvisers; and I include it in my Spiritual-Improv Covenant. When I go for the zany choice I might get a big laugh for the shock value. But at what cost if it does not support my scene partners and help move the plot forward? Rather, when I seek only to be true to the character and true to the situation, is when I have experienced the most brilliant, creative, and funny moments on stage. It cannot be forced, but the spirit of laughter can be invited.
Truly lasting pleasures in this world may not be attainable through striving. The real rewards of love, laughter and life itself can rise up through us when we are open and aware, willing and sincere. Perhaps this is the intent behind Matthew 6:33 NRV (Ned-Revised Version) But seek ye first the kingdom of God and its Truth, and all these other gifts will be realized as well.
Note featured image: Foreground – Buddha statuette, anonymous. Background – “The Journey Home” painting by Jenny Hahn www.jenspaintings.com.
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