Not long ago, I sat with one of my students, wracked with pain and grief, as she sobbed tears of suffering. I felt so deeply for her. She was under the impression that she, and she alone, was the only one suffering in high school. Oh the compassion, if only she knew that we all suffer. This is a journal entry I wrote a few years ago that I want to share, if for nothing else, to share with her that she is so not alone.
Life is grand…and then it’s not. Life is grand…and then it’s not. The thing about adversity, risk, and trauma is…it sucks. Suffering is not fun, plain and simple.
In my studies of resilience, and through personal experience, I note that there is often shame and guilt when we experience hardship. Don’t ask me why, there just is. When we hurt, it feels like we are the only ones hurting and we feel, dare I say it, weak.
Likewise, those who have experienced adversity and negative consequences due to the choices they have made often struggle with shame and guilt. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see how our spaces, places, context, and shared histories with other people have contributed to the choices we have made. Meaning to say, life is co-created and as I have expressed, we are not in this alone, we are all connected, a thousand threads bind us to others. We don’t personally “own” our decisions quite as simple as we might think. It’s more the case that our decision-making is based on our environments, relationships, and our shared histories.
Nonetheless, what I wanted to talk about today is healing from adversity. I think there is a notion that when we experience adversity that it will either last forever or that we will immediately heal, feel great, and the adverse experience will be behind us and forgotten, as if it never happened. I feel that both of these beliefs miss the mark.
Our suffering is not likely to last forever, we will be able to move on and find peace again, but it may also be the case that our symptoms don’t ever entirely go away.
What does happen in healing from adversity, is that we learn to “sit with” all of our life’s experiences. We accept the positive and negative experiences in our life and we become expansive enough to hold them.
Aimee Mullins, in her outstanding TED talk, The Opportunity of Adversity, views adversity as “shadows.” Sometimes, she sees more of her shadow (the shadow of adversity, symptoms) and sometimes she sees less of it, but the shadow is always there.
In recovering from adversity, it does not mean the symptoms or the pain will go away. In fact, the symptoms may be with us for the rest of our lives. What recovery does mean is that we learn to acknowledge our adversities, accept them, and co-exist with them. We become able, in a comfortable manner, to be with ourselves and accept what is there. The pain does not change, in many instances, but our perspective of it changes. Our ability to be with it and settle into it allows us, paradoxically, to move on and heal.
For example, in speaking with people who have lost a loved one, the sadness and pain of loss almost never go away, but people do find a way to accept the black hole in their chest and sit with it, coexist with it, and engage life in new and meaningful ways. Oddly, they heal.
I had an opportunity to spend a week at Spirit Rock, a Buddhist monastery, meditating in silence. Strange, but true. During this time, I had insight, a spiritual experience, that clearly showed me that life is bright, open, cheerful, and full of possibility. And at the same time, life can be twisted, dark, wrecked, and thrashed.
What I saw in both, however, was beauty. In each presentation of life, the way I saw it, there was life, growth, connection, and beauty. It is interesting, is it not, that pain and beauty often overlap?
One of our lead dharma guides during the retreat shared how he “bows down to his life’s trauma” because he has become a better man for it, his trauma has made him more expansive to all of life.
I understand what he is saying. Even in suffering, there is beauty. In healing from adversity, I don’t think our efforts to run from the pain or pretend events did not happen are the best course of action, rather I think we are better served in learning how to sit with all of life, the ups and downs, and being honest with ourselves about what is present for us.
I guess I simply want to say, to my students in particular, if you are experiencing pain from adversity in life, begin, if you may, to learn how to accept…the pain…and sit with it. As our dharma leader also shared, “sometimes the only way out, is through…”