Embrace Suffering

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“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”
– Rumi

Pretty much all the Eastern teachers express the same sentiment, which is that the experiences we consider painful and unwelcome are absolutely essential for our growth and well-being. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the metaphor that the lotus flower can only grow out of the mud. The basic idea is that instead of turning our backs on our suffering to try to protect ourselves we should embrace our suffering in order to set the stage for transformation.

You can’t really blame us as Westerners for finding this idea contradictory. We tend to be pragmatic in our thinking, and on the surface it seems obvious that the pursuit of happiness is achieved by getting as many pleasant experiences as possible and avoiding as many unpleasant experiences as possible.

But as much as we would like to ignore it, suffering is an unavoidable part of the human experience. We all must deal with growing old, getting sick, and eventually being separated from everything and everyone we love. But suffering teaches us compassion, and without the painful experiences we would have no frame of reference for appreciating the pleasant ones. Without the left hand there can be no right hand.

When suffering comes your way in one form or another, you can bear up under the pain by taking Rumi’s idea to heart, that these experiences are necessary to help you see the truth of who you are. It’s natural to try to run from suffering, and we should run from the kind that can be avoided, but some suffering is unavoidable. The only viable solution is to treat it as the mud out of which our lotus flowers will eventually grow.