What Am I Meant to Learn from This?: The Purpose of Pain and Suffering

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,

It is natural for us to ask why pain and suffering are necessary. Our answer to this question shapes our perspective on life. That perspective has the power to shape both our responses and how we experience our life situations.

Ignorance is (a Kind of) Bliss

Beautiful Infant

Adult life is largely consumed with attempts to return to a state of childlike wonder and awe. In such a state, even painful experiences are dramatically different for the simple fact that children are fully present in their experience while the overwhelming majority of adults are not. Whereas children are immersed in the sensations of their experience, adults are overcome by mental activity.

For example, when a child gets a bruise or scrape, he or she experiences the physical sensations of pain. When the pain subsides, the experience is over and the child processes the accompanying emotions. An adult in the same situation is subject instead to the activation of the mind as it constructs a story about who is to blame for the accident that caused the injury, how this injury is evidence of the cruelty of life, what this injury might mean for the future if the wound becomes infected, how God is punishing him or her for some reason, or some other narrative that removes us from the sensations of the experience itself.

Naturally, when we find ourselves longing for return to a state we once embodied, it is easy to become disillusioned. We may ask the purpose of a life spent losing and trying to regain our initial state of presence. Some spiritual traditions assert that the very point of the human experience is to lose and then regain that state.

So we have come here to forget the joy and wonder we felt as infants, and then work to return to that state? The irony of this realization can drive a person to despair. The notion that we would live through the challenges and trials of life only to return to the start is enough to leave us questioning the point of these painful experiences at all. So what are we to make of this apparently cruel irony?

The Purpose is Conscious Awareness

Church Candles

In Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, noted Jungian analyst and author Robert A. Johnson offers a beautiful perspective on the purpose of suffering.

As Johnson explains, the suffering is necessary since the quality of our state of being is radically different before and after experiencing the struggle. Namely, upon returning to a state of joy and playfulness following the resolution of a struggle, we are conscious of our bliss. Unlike an infant, fully present in the experience of this moment, but unaware that he or she is present, upon returning to this state of bliss, we feel the joy and freedom of our presence, but this time accompanied by the awareness that we are experiencing this state. The difference between these two states of being may be subtle, but it is profound.

One way we may think about this is by using the example of falling ill with a non-urgent illness like a mild fever or a sore throat. Certainly we all have experienced some form of illness that knocks us out for a few days or even weeks. Upon recovering, have you ever been aware not only that you are feeling better physically, but that you are feeling happy or grateful that you are no longer feeling sick? In addition to having regained full health, now you are also consciously aware of your state of wellness as a contrast to the experience of feeling temporarily unwell.

Yin and Yang: The Contrasts Define One Another

Contrast in life, Johnson points out, provides another element of meaning to our moments of pain and suffering. “Every single virtue in this world,” he explains, “is made valid by its opposite. Light would mean nothing without dark, masculine without feminine, care without abandon. Truths always come in pairs and one has to endure this to accord with reality. To suffer means to allow; and in this sense one suffers the mystery of duality. Whenever you do this [his emphasis], something else immediately does that. Such is reality.”

In other words, we can’t know joy as fully until we have known pain. This explanation alone, however, can lead us yet again to the conclusion that life’s pain is meaningless. If we are to suffer so that we may experience a conscious joy, but joy is only ever one half of a set of countervailing forces, does this mean that we cannot find lasting joy?

Contradiction vs. Paradox

For Johnson the ultimate answer lies in the contrast between contradiction and paradox.  Whereas contradiction places experiences in opposition to one another, paradox unifies them to create a third experience that is a composite of the two.

It is true that all natural conditions exist in pairs, each as the compliment and counterbalance to the other. Indeed, joy always will be a compliment to despair on a perfectly balanced continuum. On this continuum, the two poles represent apparently contradictory experiences of life.

Yet the conscious joy and fulfillment toward which we strive do not reside on the spectrum where the two are in constant tension. It resides as a perspective above that spectrum. In contrast to the apparent meaningless contradictions of life experiences, Johnson reminds us that all religious experience, all deeply significant events in our life bear the imprint of paradox.

“The word religion [his emphasis], ” he explains ,” stems from the Latin roots re, meaning again, and  ligare, meaning to bind, bond, or bridge… Religion means, then, to bind together again. It can never be affixed to one of a pair of opposites… There can only be a religious insight that bridges or heals. This is what restores and reconciles the opposites that have been torturing each of us. The religious faculty is the art of taking the opposites and binding them back together again, surmounting the split that has been causing so much suffering. It helps us move from the contradiction-that painful condition where things oppose each other-to the realm of paradox, where we are able to entertain simultaneously two contradictory notions and give them equal dignity. Then, and only then, is there the possibility of grace, the spiritual experience of contradictions brought into a coherent whole-giving us a unity greater than either one of them.”

Reside in the Paradox to Bind the Opposites

To attain the joy and fulfillment we have come here to know consciously, we must embody certain attributes. For one, we must demonstrate sufficient courage to sit with the discomfort that arises from the paradoxes of human existence. When the mind generates the thoughts that trigger the biochemical cascade that we experience as emotions, when the feelings of the ego generate drives and impulses, we must exercise our conscious will to refrain from action. We must be the conscious observer of the mind as it masquerades as our true identity, manipulating us to act as if our survival depended upon it. We must remain silent, still, and present, remembering that we are not the ego that compels us to react. We must recognize that we are the consciousness having the experience. Then we are empowered to respond from our conscious awareness rather than the conditioned patterns of the mind.

The courage to reside in the tension of the balancing point between apparent opposites gives us patience. With patience we gain perspective. With perspective, we rise above the seeming contradictions to view the dynamic tension of them as life sustaining energy. Consider the analogy of a rope. When you pull the two ends in opposite directions, you generate the tension that gives purpose and energy to the rope. Too much tension can snap it, but too little leaves it without purpose.

Johnson uses a pervasive image in American culture to explain the dynamic at play here: “This ideal of balance is illustrated to us every day of our American lives but rarely noticed. Observe a U.S. dollar bill, which is often in our hands. There is a pyramid with an eye at the apex. The bottom of the triangle represents the duality of our perception. On the [spectrum of life experiences], we see… pairs of opposites: right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark. As long as we concern ourselves with this scale the best we can hope for is an endless contradiction. But if our consciousness is sufficient, we can synthesize these warring elements and come to the all-knowing eye at the central point. On the dollar bill, the eye is raised above the opposites to indicate its superior position… The singleness of the eye, the center of the seesaw, is the place of enlightenment.”

We all are seeking the balance point between the seeming opposing energies at either end of the spectrum. That balance gives us the perspective to rise above the spectrum, and view the experiences of life from a divine vantage point. When we view (experience) life from that perch, we behold our life from a perspective that transcends the seesaw polarities of love and hate, good and bad, joy and despair, light and dark. Finally, then, we can have the experiences, rather than those experiences being so completely consuming that they have us.

Once we are free truly to have those experiences, we can learn from them. We can endure the alchemical process of the painful experience blending with the wisdom of perspective to yield a sort of spiritual gold. Then we see that the experience of the pain is always only temporary, while the growth it stimulates and the joy of wisdom that resides within us as a result, is forever.

No matter how painful your experience may be, no matter how meaningless it may seem, no matter how difficult the struggle feels, please know that it has a deeper purpose than you can know during the moment of suffering. Be observant. Be open. In time, or at the appropriate time, the meaning of your struggles will become apparent. At that point, the struggle will pale in comparison to the wisdom derived from it.

At your service.







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