By Janet Davis
“Our job is to look (at our children) and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” … Brene Brown, TED talk: the Power of Vulnerability
With nearly 50 million views since 2010, Brene Brown’s message of the power of our vulnerability has certainly hit a nerve in our culture. Though it has always been easy for me to agree with her in concept, a big part of me struggles with the real-life application. When I watch one of my grand-daughters struggle to read amid dyslexia and ADHD and the other struggle with stuttering speech, little in me wants to consent to their struggle.
Logically, you might imagine that I would be comforted by the idea that they are wired for struggle, equipped. Somehow, it’s not so. Strangely, I find that this piece of myself has not yet “consented” to the (unavoidable) fact of struggle and suffering as an integral part of all life.
White privilege? (likely) Spoiled brat? (maybe)… Or maybe an Easter-addicted Christian? Though this piece of me is not the deepest wisdom I know and seek to live, it is nonetheless an integral part of my thinking.
“Why is it that in a tradition characterized by the cross, suffering surprises us?” Those were the words of now retired Bishop Dena Harrison to me many years ago as I struggled to lead a repeat round for a rector search committee. The fact of suffering has been “stuck in my craw” for quite some time like those huge vitamin supplements I take each day.
A hand-full of Bible stories speak to the same dynamic and continually offend/intrigue me:
· Why did the angel come to Joseph to confirm Mary’s story of a Divine pregnancy AFTER she had to tell him and suffer the shame of being “put away” for a time?
· Why did Jesus meet Martha and Mary on the road, lost in their grief and tears and questions, BEFORE he raised Lazarus? (John 11)
· Why does God appear to be habitually 3 days late? Why do we have to suffer death before resurrection? Why the cross before Easter?
I think perhaps I run to Easter because that part of me doesn’t know what to do with the suffering. I was taught that if I did things “right” I could avoid it. I am beginning to see that not-so-innocent omission of struggle and suffering as part and parcel with some version of the “prosperity gospel,” a true perversion of the Good News of Jesus.
I run to Easter more quickly than God. That’s a problem.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, I did not suffer well. For the most part, I descended into panic. I told myself I don’t know how to fight. I went numb and waited it out. Thankfully, I had great advocates around me who helped me survive. Yet, the most wise parts of me remained curious about my own distance…
In this moment of pandemic, which for me has meant much less suffering than most, I have begun to recognize that I could do the same: go in, go numb, ride it out. Yet, I didn’t want to run from suffering any more. In my work during the pandemic, I find myself witnessing and listening to a great deal of suffering. In an effort to help others (and myself it turns out), my attention has been, interestingly, drawn toward Buddhist practices.
There is something about meeting struggle and suffering within the vocabulary and practice of a different tradition that is helping me more wisely integrate the reality of it into my own flawed understanding of Christianity.
Here are the practices I’ve found most helpful:
1) Tonglen: being with suffering
“Tonglen” practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In Tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath.” (https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/)
By taking in the pain, I am “confessing” with my body that suffering IS, that I am wired to meet it, and struggle with it. I can let it in rather than going
dead or refusing it. By sending out love, I am reminded that suffering is not the whole story.
2) Mindfulness: Staying with the suffering of this moment
A wise poet I read about a month ago described this pandemic season as a time of being in the trough of a wave, a place where one can see only sky and sea, where one does not know which direction to swim because one cannot see land.
As a systems thinker and planner, it has taken me months and months to finally quit trying to see or plan that which cannot be seen or planned. I have finally arrived in the moment. The moment of this moment.
“Mindfulness is a technique extracted from Buddhism where one tries to notice present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgement.” (https://theconversation.com/mindfulness-has-lost-its-buddhist-roots-and-it-may-not-be-doing-you-good-42526)
Of course, mindfulness is not exclusively Buddhist. Jesus’ description sounded more like,
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Matthew 6:25-34
I hear from Jesus: Look deep into what is before you NOW (birds, lilies, grass) and see what they tell you about themselves and God. Today, your soul can handle today’s suffering. It is enough.
Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but consistent with what I am trying to learn. In order to breathe in suffering, I need to be sure I only take in today’s portion.
3) Metta-lovingkindness: finding openness in suffering
Interestingly, it was another “wiring” statement that got me to the third Buddhist practice I’ve found especially helpful these days.
“Our brains are hardwired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection.” Ryan North (somewhere on FaceBook?)
It wasn’t hard to recognized that my pattern of checking the co-vid cases each morning had set up a negative cycle for my whole being, especially for my limbic system. Suffering, fear, alarm, shut down, shut in, quit breathing, rinse and repeat. I needed a broader practice than tonglen. Some kind of healthier reset.
The question came: Is there a way to stay open and awake, aware of suffering but without the need to contract in panic? If it is true that I am wired for struggle, there has to be a way. My spiritual director offered me this prayer practice:
May this body be at ease/May this heart be open/May this mind be boundless May this being awaken.
May your body be at ease/May your heart be open/May your mind be boundless May you be awakened
May our bodies be at ease/May our hearts be open/May our minds be boundless May we awaken together
May all bodies be at ease/May all hearts be open/May all minds be boundless May all beings awaken together
Thankfully, it seems that the whole of me is freer from suffering having found these Buddhist practices that help me struggle with it in new and wiser ways. I hope they help you, too.