The deepest pain (and deepest joy)

This will be a hard one.

The deepest joy of human existence is, without a doubt, to love. There is nothing compared to a mother who holds her child for the first time. Or the moment when two long-term lovers lay silently next to each other, being perfectly still and content just looking into each other’s eyes.

To want feel this powerful feeling is to create desire and this can create suffering. By definition, if I don’t have what I want then there’s a gap between imagination and reality. This is what causes us to feel empty and yearning. The Buddha said that the root of suffering is desire and he was right. There are two ways how this gap can manifest as immense suffering. In truth, they are two sides of the same coin but they are directed at different points in time. However, there is only one chance to face these two.

Two forms of suffering

One of those forms is of course desire. I want you to think about deep desires not superficial ones. Craving a bigger car is a different desire than craving a little brother or someone to look up to. The deeper the desire runs the deeper the pain becomes. Think about the woman who wants to have a child but can’t. Or the neglected child who craves the recognition of his father but will never get it. It’s this itch that just can’t be scratched. Whatever shape it takes, yours will likely be different from mine. This form of suffering is directed at the future, at something we don’t have but wish we did. And with it comes the dreaded feeling guised as fear. Fear that we will never have what we desire.

Another form is loss and it is directed at the past. It’s about something we had but then lost, sometimes irretrievably. It can be the love of a person or, god forbid, the death of a child. The ache becomes so strong, we want it back so badly we would give everything for it. Everyone experiences loss at one point in his life. And the powerful suffering it creates is regret or unforgiveness. Why me? Why my child? How could this have happend? It’s so unfair!

One way to find peace

I said earlier that there is only one way to meet both of forms. It is a brutal one but the only path to inner peace. It’s impossible to say if loss or desire creates more suffering and that is not important. The only way to deal with either of them is to practice radical acceptance. We must learn to accept that we don’t have what we want and that this pains us. Equally, we must learn to accept that we lost what we had and that this pains us. And yet before we can try to accept anything, we have to be aware of it. What are your deepest desires or your strongest regrets?

There’s another way of expressing this. You could say that by accepting that desire is here now, is to allow the imagined future to be different than the real present. Doing so, you let go of some fear. Practicing radical acceptance brings you closer to reality and this is great, because it gives you options. By accepting what you don’t have you might just find out what you can do next. Perhaps there is a step you can take toward what you desire. Perhaps you realize that what you desire is not so desirable after all.

The same argument goes for accepting loss. By accepting what you don’t have anymore you practice forgiveness. Perhaps there is something to be learned. Again, practicing radical acceptance brings you back to the present and helps you see your options more clearly. Sometimes you might even find meaning in your suffering because it is your suffering and you can choose to suffer with your head held high.

Two powerful stories

I want to point to some examples so this doesn’t remain abstract. Recently I read a story about a man who was born totally paralyzed. He is unable to move any part of his body but his face. He was at the hospital more often than he can count and broke more than fifty of his bones during his life. You can easily see how he could be overwhelmed by desire. While the other kids were throwing balls at the school, he was confined to his wheelchair. He was an outsider and normal things like dating were out of reach for him. However, he somehow managed to fully accept his fate and ask the question: If this is my life now, what can I do? His story is truly inspiring and you can check it out here.

My second example is Victor Frankl and he probably deserves an entire a blog post for himself. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who worked in Austria during the 1930s and 1940s. He was a famous contributor to the scientific dialogue and a well-respected clinician. The United States offered him asylum when the situation in Europe became more intense. He refused because he didn’t want to abandon his parents. In 1942, he, his wife and his parents were deported to a concentration camp. He knew he would probably never see them again. And yet, he found that even in the most dark of circumstances he could find beauty and meaning. He radically accepted his fate knowing that the nazis could take everything away from him but one thing. They could beat him, torture his family and even kill him, but they could never take away his ability to decide how to react to their malice. He chose to see meaning in his suffering. You can find his most important book here. It has changed my life and it continues to resonate with readers around the world.

The deepest pain and the deepest joy

There is no life without suffering and it’s completely useless to try to be free of suffering (or pain as the Buddhists call it). I say that pain, desire and loss are part of our existence. Our deepest pains and desires are what make us human and connect us all. And we can heal from the pain by trying to accept what life is giving us. Sometimes this will be the hardest task of all. But we owe it to ourselves to practice deep compassion for ourselves so we can be free, well and happy.

And after all, life is not only pain. It is also full of joy, compassion and love. How do pain and love go together? By accepting desire, loss, and pain we become more whole, and bring fourth more love in the world.

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