Transforming Suffering with Mindfulness

Photo by Chinh Le Duc

I’m focusing on slogan practice again this year – this time on my own. Sometimes also called compassion training, the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Lojong uses 59 aphorisms organized into seven main points as a sort of mnemonic for transforming life’s circumstances, whatever they may be, into an awakening of the heart. As B. Alan Wallace put it in his book, The Seven Point Mind Training, we are using whatever life throws at us as “the raw material from which we create our own spiritual path.”

These more intensive practice experiences often bring along unexpected insights. To me an insight feels different from simple data in the way it lands in the body. Often there is a visceral sense of a connection, a coming together, or a sort of “aha” moment, in which something previously only recognized on a cognitive level becomes more clearly realized. One recent insight came from the fortunate confluence of personal experience, slogan practice and an article I ran across by meditation teacher and author, Sebene Selassie. Through these teachings, I found myself awakening to some deeply entrenched conditioning emerging from below the level of conscious awareness.

When I developed a mystery illness in 2021 and no diagnosis was forthcoming, I had this strange and confusing feeling in my body that I can only describe as the type of shame one feels when losing or failing – what I imagine an athlete or performing artist might feel after making a game throwing or performance destroying error. This feeling was very incongruent with what I intellectually understand about illness. It was also different from my conscious self-talk and what I feel toward others when they are suffering. It made me wonder in a new way about the guilt some of my clients have expressed around their pain or illness.

Fortunately I’m well now, but this experience remained a curiosity within me until I read Selassie’s article, Illness is Not a Mistake. She reflected as she was living with advanced cancer that had metastasized to her bones, “When the pain first started, I noticed myself falling into what bell hooks described as ‘a negation of worthiness,’ where the pain was imbued with failure and fault… it revealed to me a subtle but corrosive attitude from our culture that I had unconsciously adopted in my own life… physical health as a marker of worth. ” Her honest sharing of her experience helped me understand where these feelings were coming from – it was a matter of conditioning.

One of the mighty illusions that is constructed in the dailiness of life in our culture is that all pain is a negation of worthiness, that the real chosen people, the real worthy people, are the people that are most free from pain. – bell hooks

These harmful attitudes may be the waters we’re swimming in, but with mindfulness we can awaken to them and exercise some choice over what we absorb and what we let pass through. One translation of Lojong slogan number 8 is turn things around. To me, this slogan is a reminder that where there is uncontrollable pain or difficulty in our lives, we can learn to make use of it rather than fruitlessly trying to fight or avoid it, or falling into despair. We can turn craving and aversion into generosity, compassion and insight through practices that support these beneficial qualities.

Though we wouldn’t seek it out or wish it on anyone, our pain and suffering, at least as much and maybe even more than our joys and good fortune, can become a source of wisdom, when we dare to fully experience them and look closely, with kindness and genuine curiosity. Slogan practice is one way to realize this possibility in our lives. It’s my hope that through increasing intimacy with experience and intentional practice, I might fully embody the truth that our pain doesn’t diminish us. It’s just one of the many sources of transformation available to us in this lifetime – may we be open to it.

This [life] is precious,
our opportunity to awaken.

The body is impermanent,
and time of death is uncertain.

…cause and effect…
shapes the course of our lives.

Life has inevitable difficulties,
no one can control it all.

This life we must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop.
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.

Therefore I recall
My inspiration and aspiration
And resolve to make use
Of every day and night to realize it.

– Adapted from Viveka Chen based on verses by Tsongkhapa (14th century Tibetan master)


Ten Percent Happier: Illness is Not a Mistake — Sebene Selassie

Training in Compassion by Norman Fischer

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