If you had told me when I was ten that I would be spending my life immersed in suffering, frankly, I wouldn't have been surprised. I would have looked at you with a thousand-yard stare and said, "I'd hoped things would get better." What I couldn't know was that most of the suffering wouldn't be mine.
Some say we can find peace in two ways; the first is to be so blessed, so naive, that you imagine the world as safe. The second is to have been so buffeted by suffering that you have surrendered all illusions of safety, your demands dissolved in awe. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
Since this book has found its way into your hands, it's probably too late for the blessed and naive path. Instead, you hold an atlas to the spaciousness and wonder of the second type of peace. If you have ever noticed that you find yourself in the same painful situation over and over, this book is for you. If you have ever struggled to find the right words to soothe someone else's grief or rage, this book is for you. And especially, if you have to chosen work with people who are in trouble or confusion, if you work in healthcare or law enforcement, counseling or care-taking, this book is for you.
An old Hawaiian woman once took my hand in hers. She opened my palm and ran her finger along its lines. "A healer path," she said softly, "starts out so hard, but it gets better." In the end it won't much matter whether the suffering is from the events of your own life, or what you witness others bear.
But why, why should we sit with suffering? Why not work to stop or remove it? If the goal in life is to be free of suffering, most of our religious teachers were moving in the wrong direction. Jesus on the cross, Buddha tormented under the Bodhi tree, Muhammad mocked, Mandela and Gandhi incarcerated - when we peer into the lives of great souls, we find great suffering. And it often occurs in the moments before transformation. These teachers were not trying to avoid suffering; they were trying to show us what it could do.
But before we go forward, let's go back to a time when we were truly in flow.
The Swing Set:
Find a memory of swinging in a playground. Let your body remember stretched arms, straight legs, leaning back into the glide. Remember how, when you reached the top, you would pull yourself forward, looking down at the blurring ground, knees bent, toes pointing back. Remember the seat bouncing slightly as it swung to its furthest reach and how you would sail for a minute before starting the process again. Remember the breeze on your face and the squeak of the chain, the cool metal links in your hand. Now go back a little further to just before you learned to swing. Can you remember sitting on the swing, jerking it back and forth, pumping your legs and going nowhere?
Imagine if you had no experience with playgrounds and someone asked you to push a kid on a swing. You might grab the chains in both hands and run back and forth - giving it all the energy you have. Eventually, you might collapse at the base of the swing set and as you fall, you see the swing hanging, unmoved. We can exhaust ourselves; work at something until we collapse, and yet do little lasting good.
Sadly, this is the way many of us approach healing professions.
The statistics are daunting – one study showed that palliative care workers have stress levels twice as high as women who have been recently widowed or diagnosed with breast cancer. Across several studies, the rates of burnout and stress in mental health workers ranged from 20 to 70 percent. In another study they found that the levels of traumatic stress in psychiatric caseworkers was comparable or higher than soldiers who had faced active combat.
In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll gives a wonderful example of stress. The Red Queen has Alice by the hand and they are running...
Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying 'Faster! Faster!' but Alice felt she could not go faster, thought she had not breath left to say so.
No matter how fast they go, nothing much seems to change. The Queen rushes her on, faster and faster until the poor girl is just hanging on the Queen's hand, flying behind her. Finally they stop...
The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, 'You may rest a little now.'
Alice looked round her in great surprise. 'Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!'
'Of course it is,' said the Queen, 'what would you have it?'
'Well, in our country,' said Alice, still panting a little, 'you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.'
'A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. 'Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'
Whether the Queen is a job or an internal voice, stress pushes our nervous system into overdrive. We become hyper-reactive and, as we feel our performance flagging, we tend to compensate by over engagement; there is a sense of urgency, of hyperactivity. Stress calls up the sympathetic nervous system. We move into fight or flight. We have trouble digesting food, we find it hard to sleep, our muscles tense and pull on our spine causing neck and back pain. We just want to catch us, and there is a sense we could, if we could just "run at least twice as fast."
We can only push for so long before the system starts to collapse. If stress is the climb, burnout is the fall. What was hypersensitivity and hyperactivity becomes disengagement and emotional blunting. Our urgency turns to hopelessness. We stop wishing we had more energy and suddenly we find ourselves without motivation, ideals or hope. As our systems continue to shut down, we may become dissociative or distracted and have problems with language or memory. We find it hard or impossible to care. Physical damage becomes spiritual damage.
There is a better way, and it starts by understanding that moving energy into a system is different from expending energy. In this way, supporting psyche is like pushing someone who is on a swing. If we wish our efforts to be of lasting effect, we must step back and give the system some space. We need to observe and honor psyche's process, as it exists before our intervention, and develop the humility to intervene in support of its movement instead of in opposition. We need to use resonance and timing to create flow.
Using this book
This book is about allowing our inevitable suffering to create transformation in our lives. Its ideas and techniques are helpful when we face our own suffering, and they are particularly helpful when, by inclination or profession, we find ourselves supporting someone else who is doing the work. The first section of the book defines suffering, empathy and compassion and shows how they work together to support or block the healing process.
We start with a discussion about suffering, what it actually is and how it differs from pain, why so many of us are afraid of it and the benefits that come from processing suffering such as equanimity, courage and depth.
Next we turn to the concept of empathy and define it precisely. We look at its biological basis and clarify what empathy is good for. We begin to see precisely how over-reliance on empathy is responsible for the stress and burnout that plagues so many in the healing professions.
After getting clear on the ways that empathy is problematic we consider compassion as a distinct and preferable way to sit with suffering. Although compassion is quite simple, simple is not the same as easy. Chapters 9 through 12 acknowledge some of the challenges and obstacles we may face as we develop our compassion.
The second section of the book is a manual for sitting with suffering in a compassionate, productive way. It describes and gives examples of the principles of spaciousness, honoring, humility, reflection and resonance.
Perhaps you have already been practicing some or all of these techniques. If so, may you find support for work that can often draw on all the courage you have and more. I send you a psychic fist bump and the reminder to hang on to your miner's helmet when things get sticky and dark.
Or maybe these ideas and techniques are new ways of meeting suffering in the people you support. I encourage you to meditate and feel your way into the examples and suggestions. If you are accustomed to guiding your clients toward positive thinking, perhaps you might begin by postponing your advice for a minute or two and see what is forged from darker and heavier material. If you've been wearing a Teflon suit, I challenge you to become a little more permeable to the feelings and a little less resonant to the story.
If you believe your mission is to staunch the hemorrhage and march your patient back to the battlefield, this work may feel subversive or even dangerous. This may be doubly true if your answer to suffering is pharmaceutical nepenthe. From my perspective, sometimes suffering must be condensed or tempered before it can find its edge. Perhaps this is the work you do.
Sitting with Suffering is based on deep faith in a salmon sense that allows the soul to find its way. This work is designed to water the flowers that can't be suppressed and keep trying to grow where convenience would have them paved over. This work is based on patient and profound love, may you find in it whatever best supports the love in you.
Finally, the third section of the book looks at challenges and conditions where it is particularly difficult to sit with suffering. We start by examining the role of self-protection in bitterness and cynicism and look at ways to honor our entrenched and embattled parts. We investigate how sitting with suffering can help when we are working with addiction, and discuss models for addiction that make it more permeable to transformation. There is a chapter on trauma and post trauma, grief and complicated grief. We review the triangle that spins between victim, villain and hero, and ways to dissemble that geometry. Finally we will look at how each step of the process and the book works when we are sitting with our own suffering.
A Little About Me
The techniques and observations shared in this book have been developed over four decades of sitting with suffering as I worked, first with refugees, then on people's physical bodies, then with abused and neglected adolescents and finally, for 20 years, with thousands of court mandated clients. Every life and body I have touched and heard has taught me something about courage, something about honor and something about spaciousness, but the journey started with myself.
If suffering is an inexhaustible human resource, I have been blessed with an abundant supply. When I was twenty-nine I attended a program that provided free therapy for trauma survivors. Each week I held a box of Kleenex in my lap and described why I'd learned to turn pain into heat, to turn off my body, to float up and away. I spoke without emotion; the tissues were not for me. Instead, I pulled wads out and handed them to the young woman sitting across from me. I waited for her to regain her composure. She would apologize, wipe her eyes and ask me to go on. I watched her, an intern, question whether she had made the right career choice. There is no doubt that her tears were a service to me; it was the first time I considered the true emotional weight of what I had been through. She wept for me until I could cry for myself. In the old teaching stories, tears are the holy water that keeps the devil at bay.
I hope she went on to finish her internship; I hope her supervisor realized that the ghosts in that room required tears; I hope that this book finds it way to her.