What lies on the other side of suffering?
Many of us seem to fear the loss of suffering. We are attached to our suffering. In our suffering, we see our self-worth. We believe this is what makes us worthy. We think that if we were to suffer no more, we would be valuable no more. For if we are not suffering, surely we are not doing anything worthwhile. Suffering is a sign that work is being done. Not just work, but noble work. Suffering is a sign that we are doing our duty—and, hopefully, doing so well.
Suffering has had a pretty good reputation throughout human history. It was a conventional idea among the Ancient Greeks that through suffering, we gain wisdom. Take a world literature class, and this idea will be pounded into your mind time and time again.
What does it really mean if you are suffering? Is it a sign of hard work? Does it show that you are stretching yourself, going beyond the confines of your comfort zone? Does it make you an exceptional human being to demonstrate that you have, as Victor Frankl said, the courage to suffer?
Does it take courage to suffer? Or does suffering come from cowardice? Or are these just misplaced questions?
Pain vs. Suffering
Consider that suffering and pain are not the same things. Neale Donald Walsch says in Conversations with God that pain is an experience, while suffering is a viewpoint. Specifically, suffering is a judgment of the experience of pain. Pain is something that happens to you—or, rather, happens through you. Suffering is how you view what is happening through you.
World-class martial artist (and chess player!) Josh Waitzkin has said that he reached a point, in his fighting career, where he no longer experienced pain. He has used the phrase, “Living on the other side of pain.” Can a person really experience no pain?
What I imagine is really going on is that he no longer experiences suffering. He doesn’t view pain as something that holds him back or that lowers his quality of life. Instead (to paraphrase him), he uses everything to his advantage. It doesn’t matter whether we’d normally call it “bad” or “good.” Find flow in the chaos.
If it is a piece of reality, then it is good enough. There is nothing “dreamier,” when it presents itself, than reality itself. When the present moment hits, it is like a Godsend. Whatever is happening, for that piece of time, appears perfect. Say what you will about it five minutes from now, or even 2 seconds from now. But right now, it is beautiful.
When a moment is the absolute present moment, it is free of judgment, because the logical mind cannot grasp the present. The present moment is always slipping away, just as it arrives. It is a slippery thing. It is beginning to end just as it is beginning to begin. But in that small window between the beginning and the end, all is well. In that timeframe, where time cannot be perceived, you cannot see through the eyes of suffering. Suffering requires thought of suffering. If you are in a place where you cannot think, then you cannot suffer.
Of course, this does not mean that “Ignorance is bliss.” Not at all. It isn’t thinking itself that is bad. It’s just the way people think that leads to suffering.
Thought is wonderful. Through the use of thought, we can get clear that we want to take things in a new direction. From there, we can use thought to re-imagine what is possible. This is one of the most powerful aspects of the human experience: to reconsider the very being of reality.
This act of re-imagination—this can be quite hard work. It stretches you. You have to go beyond your comfort zone. You must transcend your daily norms—your routines, your comforting habits, the thoughts you hide behind. Re-imagination requires that you produce fresh new thoughts. Producing fresh new thoughts requires that you continually consider that it is possible to do so. You have to remind yourself constantly that the reality you are experiencing is but a dream of your own making, and it is within your ability to dream anew.
What is so hard about this? The status quo is comfortable. It feels safe there. Sure, there are some things about it that appear to be less than ideal. But the status quo is easy to maintain. It’s familiar. I’ve lived in it up to this point and have survived: how, then, can it be so bad?
There lies the other tricky part in this process. When someone wants to take things in a new direction, it is common practice to feel badly about the current reality, and as a result, speak poorly of it. Feeling badly on its own is no problem. Pain is but an experience—so, too, is discomfort. Things hurt sometimes. If something can be hurt, that is a sign that it is alive. My leg can be cut open and bleed.
Where I get tripped up, though, is when I damn that bleeding. I stomp around with my wounded leg and yell, “God damn it, why do these things happen?” Then I might even start yelling at my leg, just for good measure. Really let it know that I’m pissed off about this.
What is the outcome of this frustration? I continue bleeding. Perhaps the bleeding gets even heavier, since I’m running around angrily, like a crazy person. I have effectively damned the hell out of my current reality. Yet it persists. If any variable has changed, it is pain. I have exacerbated the pain. I have done so by seeing it through the eyes of suffering.
The Razor’s Edge of Suffering (is Wisdom)
So, a difficulty in re-imagining what is possible is lowly judging what is present. Judgment will happen. If you have no ability of judgment, you would not have decided to take things in a new direction. But your judgments do not have to be harsh and violent. You can keep them simple and short, limited to only what is absolutely necessary. Judging the awfulness of an old way is not necessary. Judging the desirability of a new way is fine.
In truth, both judgments are fine. Judgment is a powerful tool, capable of bringing us great suffering. Indeed, life can be hurt. It can be cut open and let to bleed. Life can feel pain.
But life cannot be damaged. In the present moment of reality, in that timeframe where the moment is beginning to begin and is beginning to end, there is nothing but life. There is no concept of removing life. In that snapshot of a moment, there is an abundance of life. It is hard not to experience this as so.
No matter what happens, no matter what the “stuff” of the present moment may be, you can experience no loss of life within that moment. When you are in a place that is neither here nor there- not in some place far off, but not in a state of logical comprehension and communication, either- you are in a gap. You are in the void.
The secret of that void, which the logical mind struggles to remember, is that things are always emerging from the void. It is the razor’s edge. It exists just to the side of damage and suffering. Why, emergence and suffering exist right next to one another. In the immense realm of the human experience, they are so very close.
This is why it is believed that suffering leads to wisdom. It is so very close to emergence. Many have thought that it is the closest we can possibly get to emergence. But we can’t get any closer. Just beyond suffering there is a void. And if we step into the void, we will never re-emerge. We will never come out of it.
But that belief is only a belief. Indeed, you can do nothing but re-emerge from the void, once you have stepped into it. It would have you do no other. Emergence is the void’s nature. This is its primary function.
You see, we have believed that suffering leads to wisdom because suffering is so close to emergence. It gets us closer to emergence than does any other human experience—except, of course, for emergence itself.
Some people have jumped off the edge of suffering and gone into the void, to emerge again anew. This is why they perceive that suffering leads to wisdom. They saw that they went to the land of suffering, and from there they found the place of renewal. From there, they experienced a major upgrade in intelligence. Suffering served as the diving board into wisdom. It opened up a path to reaching wisdom.
This is a perfectly valid path to wisdom. When you suffer, you can be led to the edge of what you know- of your current reality- and then prodded to dive into the newness of the unknown.
But, this is not the only path. The void does not require that you walk through the land of suffering to reach it. In fact, there is no land of suffering laid out for you to find. It is actually the land of pain that lies next to the void. People only see the land of suffering if they choose to see it.
So, suffering is not a requirement. You can walk the grounds of what you once thought were the land of suffering, and not suffer at all. You will be uncomfortable. You will feel pain. But you do not have to suffer.
For many of us, the void has been reached by way of the land of suffering. We suffered immensely, and after a long while of this we came upon insight, and saw life anew. With this heightened vision, we were then able to cultivate an approach to life that was more functional for us. We were able to live more intelligently.
But it must be asked. If suffering is simply a judgment of pain, is suffering ever a necessary or even helpful component in reaching wisdom?
Decide what you will about your past experiences. You have no access to the rhyme or reason of their ways in the moment that they happened. That moment is gone. But the past, like life, is ever-emerging. It is unfolding right now, in this very moment. This means that you can make new decisions about the past. You can decide now why things happened the way they did. The “why” of events exists only in your mind anyhow. Other people can give you their whys, but it is up to you whether you will accept those whys and let them breed within your mind.
If you perceive that suffering was helpful to you in your past, then own that perception. There is nothing good or bad nor right or wrong about it. If it is helpful to your understanding of your life, which is to be life itself (because knowing is being), then that is a fine perception to have.
As for your present experience, you do not need to suffer again in your pursuit of wisdom if you do not wish to. This does not mean avoiding pain. You will feel pain. Especially if you make the trek to the void, you will run into discomfort. He is a notorious bystander on the path to the void. He will jump out from behind a bush in the middle of the night to scare you. He’ll command you to raise your arms up while he steals a few dollars from your pockets. He’ll shake you up. He’ll make you feel badly.
But you do not have to suffer when you see discomfort. You can laugh at him while he takes your money. Even if you instead cry, you still do not have to suffer. And even if you do suffer, this is not a sign of weakness. This is not an indication that you surely are unwise, and have no reason to be travelling to the void to seek out new wisdom. You may end your suffering at any time of your choosing. You can even suffer and then decide that you did not do so. The past is ever-unfolding. You are always free to make new decisions about it. If you declare now that you have not suffered, then you have not. So be it.
Filling the Void
Whereas discomfort is a thieving highwayman on the path to wisdom, pain is more of a gentle guide. Pain is there for you after discomfort has robbed you of your supposed treasures. Pain is the catalyst of the realization that you are not these treasures. Rather, you are the beholder of them. Losing these treasures does not make you any less you. Even if you have been cut open and let to bleed, you can be sewed up, and your body will produce new blood to fill you again with life.
You are the holder of life, you see. Life can be spilled out from you, and then produced anew within you. Indeed, you are the producer of life. You return yourself from near-death. How do you do this? It is not you that has nearly died. Rather, it was your treasures. You saw that they were about to fall prey to the concept called death, and you decided that you would inject into them new life.
You did this because you chose to do this. And, indeed, you can do this. You are the beholder of life. Life is where you say it is. It is produced at the total convergence of your will. Each moment of your aliveness is created by a complete desire for aliveness. There are no degrees of desire here. Your will cannot be split on the matter of aliveness. Either you desire it, or you do not.
When your treasures have been taken from you, pain comes to fill the void left by discomfort. Notice the language there—pain comes to fill the void. Discomfort’s misdeeds become more intense as you head down the path to wisdom. His role is not what it first appears, you see. For after he has robbed you many times, discomfort at last pushes you straight into the void.
When this happens, there may be temptation to think of discomfort as the greatest evil there ever was. Discomfort has robbed me of all I have treasured, stripped me of all I have known, and now he has killed me. What crueler being ever existed on this Earth?
But discomfort has done you no damage. He has simply prepared you for your descent into the void, and now he has pushed you beyond the edge and into the unending unknown.
When this push happens, you are in much pain. Discomfort pushes hard. He must, lest you try to escape, and run back to the land of the familiar. Pain attempts to fill the void left by discomfort. Pain wishes to comfort you.
For some time, you accept pain’s comfort. At least you have something to hold on to, after being humiliated and robbed. At least someone is here to walk by your side, rather than pounce upon you and attack.
But the comfort of pain cannot remain to nurture you. Pain cannot fill the void. The void can be filled only by travelling to its very depths. Pain can take the journey there with you, and it likely will. But do not look to pain to fill the void. You will be tempted to do so. In fact, you probably will do so. When this happens, remember pain’s proper place. It is a guide, but not a destination. It is a healer, but it is not the healing. It is a means, but not an end.
Life in the Void
And so it is, that discomfort and pain have their roles in the attainment of wisdom, but suffering need not. Discomfort and pain are the neighbors of wisdom. Suffering moves in only when he is asked to do so.
There is a deeper truth here, however: that even discomfort and pain can be transcended. Many will traverse the land of suffering to reach the void. Many more will travel with discomfort and pain, while choosing not to suffer. Yet there are few who will eschew travel altogether. They will opt, instead, to live in the void.
Not many make the decision to do this, let alone whether to do this. To live in the void is a major commitment. It is an eternal sentence.
So it appears, anyway. We all have known the void to be a painful place. The process of being suspended in the space of emptiness as we re-imagine what is possible is difficult work. It lends itself easily to fear. We may catch ourselves in imagining possibilities of terror, rather than the desirable possibilities which we came to this place to conceive.
But the truth is that to live in the void is to exist in a state of flow. To live in the void is to ride the wave of perpetual emergence. The void provides opportunity for continuous growth. Your growth is much more easily unfolded when it is continuous, even if intense. The more intense the better, in fact. Stay on the wave.
When you live in the void, you recognize that you’ve no need to leave. The void is the source of life. It is the holder of life—just like you. The void contemplates life anew. By this contemplation, it produces new life. When this contemplation is continuous, there can never not be life. Life is ever- and always- emerging anew from the void.
The even deeper truth here is that you cannot not live in the void. In fact, you have always lived there. But you have believed that you can leave and come back, and have created experiences of this in your imaginings. Indeed, to dream is to imagine oneself as outside of the void.
There is nothing wrong or inferior in this act. It simply is not in full awareness. The only difference between those who are said to live in the void and those who are said to not is that those in the first group embrace the void, and behold life anew in it by fully conscious choice. By their choice, they dive deep and arise high, there expanding the void in order to experience ever-deeper depths and higher heights. Through the endless space of the void, they rise and they fall. Yet never in their travels are they devoid of life. This cannot be so in the void, which is the holder and producer of life itself.
The Other Side
So, what lies on the other side of suffering? The full embracement of an unabashed, ever-expanding experience of life. It is quite simple, yet it is profound.
Would the holder of life have it any other way?
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