In the tradition of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a book that explains the transformative power of suffering
Most people understand that suffering and sorrow are inevitable parts of every life and that illness, death, or loss of a loved one are universal experiences, not retribution or a symptom of bad luck. But few of us comprehend the ways in which suffering can give rise to growth.
In this sensitive and caring book, Kathleen Brehony describes the experiences of people who have endured life's trials and consequently found deeper spiritual and psychological meaning in their lives. Drawing on a rich selection of mythological and religious stories from many faiths, Berhony provides a historical and cultural context that enriches the meaning of these deeply personal tales.
After the Darkest Hour explores the qualitiespsychological, behavioral, and spiritualof those who have turned periods of pain and suffering into opportunities for growth and renewal. The final chapters offer exercises that will help readers approach the difficult situations they face in a more conscious, enlightened way, as well as specific suggestions for creating personal healing rituals.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.38(w) x 8.62(h) x 1.08(d)|
About the Author
Kathleen Brehony, Ph.D., is a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist, personal coach, and public speaker who has delivered hundreds of keynote addresses, workshops, and training sessions. She is the author of Awakening at Midlife and Ordinary Grace. She divides her time between Virginia and California.
Read an Excerpt
I was once conducting a group therapy session in a psychiatric hospital. The participants did not have long-term, serious mental ill- nesses but were generally functional people who had been experienc- ing a difficult time--often as a result of a significant loss in their lives such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, or a similar event that had knocked the pins out from under them and sent them reeling. In short, they were people who'd been overwhelmed by suffering.
"I know one of the secrets of life," I said to the group that day. "Really!" they declared, and I could hear them scooting their chairs closer to mine. They sat stone silent and wide-eyed, not wanting to miss a second of this self-proclaimed wisdom. "If you only live long enough," I said, "you will lose everything." There was a brief silence as the words sunk in, then the sound of screeching chairs cut through the air. They were falling all over themselves as they scrambled to put as much dis- tance between us as possible. "We're already having a hard time," one woman yelled. "Why are you telling us this?! .... Because it's true," I said. "And because in understanding this you can learn to live better."
Because something is true does not mean that it is easy to understand, accept, or even to recognize. As with the stereogram, the hidden images of life's truths are there for us to see, but they often elude us. We can almost make out the hidden picture, then the colors blur and the image is lost again. When something is both true and painful, we have an even harder time acknowledging andaccepting it. For in these cases we often do our best not to let the truth come to full light in hopes of trying to avoid the pain we anticipate it will bring. Figuratively, we all want to screech our chairs away from the notion that suffering is in store for every one of us. In fact, many of us choose to live our whole lives trying, in vain, to escape that truth. "There is nothing there!" we say, staring at the picture of life around us in which others are suffering loss and pain, smug in our conviction. "You may be suffering, but that doesn't mean I will!" we can think in our fortunate times, breathing a sigh of relief as we glance nervously over our shoulder. But the truth that suffering is a part of life remains, and only when we let that truth in will we be able to look beyond the suffering to its meaning. To see the image in the stereogram we must shift our perspective. To see and accept the truth about suffering requires a similar shift in consciousness.
First, in order to realize the fundamental truths about suffering, we must first understand that everyone suffers. And second, we must accept that suffering is the force that knocks out our illusionary beliefs about life and thrusts us toward new consciousness about ourselves and the true nature of reality. In spite of all the ways we try to deny the actuality of suffering, I believe most of us know these things in our heads. But that's not enough. We have to know these truths in our heartsin the deepest, emotional places of our being. We have to feel them. It is only then that we can gather the rewards that they bring: the growth of consciousness, compassion, and courage. The stories that I've included here are ones that touch me with the truth and ground me during my own suffering. After my father and Deanne's accident I went back again and again, seeking the truth that is in plain sight.
I came across many stories, myths, and powerful examples from religion, history, my own life, and others I knew and some I heard of and then sought out that I found eloquently speak the truth about what it is to be human. These stories touch me in such a way that my head and my heart recognize the part that suffering plays and I can begin to allow it in. It is my hope, in writing this book, to seek the wisdom of the ages, to revisit and retell the stories that touch our hearts, shake off our illusions, and expand our consciousness. Gently, but with the power of truth, they call us to a new wakefulness. I hope they also help you begin to see the world, and your own life, with a new perspective. The story of Kisagotami is one such story that moved me when I first read it more than twenty years ago as I began to explore Eastern teachings and mystical experience. The tale is from the Buddhist Dharma and dates back more than two thousand years. This parable of a mustard seed takes place in India, but its lessons are universal.
Kisagotami was inconsolable. This young woman, married to the only son of a wealthy man, had birthed a beautiful son. Everything in her life was perfect; she was living a fairy tale. But just when her beloved son began to walk on his own, he was stricken with a terrible illness and suddenly died. The young mother, desperate in her grief, carried the dead child clasped to her bosom and went from house to house asking people for medicine or miracles: anything that would bring him back to life.
Naturally, all the people felt very sad for this grieving mother, but no one could help. Finally, one old man said, "My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has."
Kisagotami begged him for the name of the one who could restore her son to life.
"The Buddha can give you medicine. Go to him," the old man said.
So Kisagotami went to the great teacher, Gautamathe Buddhaand, with deep homage, begged him, "Master, do you know any medicine that can help me?"
Buddha listened with infinite compassion and gently said, "There is only one way to heal this affliction. Bring me back a mustard seed from a house that has never known death."
Relieved that so common a drug as a mustard seed could end her suffering, Kisagotami left and walked toward the city. Still clutching the body of her beloved son to her breast, she went in search of a mustard seed.
She stopped at the first house she came to and said, "I have been told by the Buddha to return with a mustard seed from a house that has never known death."
"Dear child, we will happily give you a mustard seed, but many people have died in this house. Just last month, we lost our beloved mother," she was told.
She went to the next house. "There have been countless deaths in our family," she heard.
She went to the houses of the rich and poor, the powerful and the meek. "We have also lost a son," said one. "We have lost our parents," said another. "The living are few, but the dead are many," said yet another. She went to every house in the city, until she realized that the Buddha's condition could never be fulfilled.
At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear. She carried her dead son into the forest, buried him, and returned to the Buddha.
"Do you have the mustard seed?" he asked.
"No," she said. "But I understand the lesson you are teaching me. Grief made me blind and I thought that I was the only one that had suffered at the hands of death."
"Why have you come back?" asked the Buddha.
"I want to know the truth about life and death," she replied.
And so the Buddha began to teach her: "There is only one law in the universe that never changes, and that is that all things change, and that all things are impermanent. The death of your beloved child has helped you to see that. Your pain has opened your heart to the truth. I will show it to you."
The woman knelt at the Buddha's feet and followed his teachings for the rest of her life. Near the end of it, it is said, Kisagotami attained enlightenment.
The simple story of Kisagotami quietly speaks volumes to me about the true nature of reality. Kisagotami dearly experienced more than a "bump along the road of life" with the loss of her child. Her inability to accept her son's death was not neurotic suffering, it was the deep and fundamental pain brought on by real suffering. Kisagotami's story illustrates not only the way in which we often try to avoid suffering but also the fact that no one escapes it. Being human means that we will all suffer great pain. However, when we are in the midst of the searing grief of great lossas Kisagotami wasit's easy to feel that we are the only human being ever to have had to endure such anguish, such loss, such vulnerability. Surely Mark O'Brien may have felt a singular loneliness, lying on his back, with a mechanical breath as his constant companion. We would all probably agree that he had every reason to feel isolated by his fate and be angry in light of it. We would most likely be able to relate to such feelings. But the archetypal drama that is played out through our individual lives is both ancient and commonplace. The losses we experience in our lives are different in their forms and arrival dates, but they inevitably come. Rarely are we not surprised. We all accept the reality of automobile accidents, yet nobody is prepared for the phone call on a Tuesday afternoon from an emergency room nurse who gently asks, "Is this Kathleen Brehony?" While everybody's life is unique, we are all subject to the mortal realities of aging, illness, and death ourselves and in those we love. Existence it seems is, as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wisely observed, "living our lives saying good-bye." But in spite of this, many of us don't accept the companion suffering is throughout our lives.
Kisagotami learned the hard way that death, loss, and suffering are universal experiences as she walked from house to house, unable to find one that sorrow had not visited. We would all like to believe, as Kisagotami did, that there is a house, or a place, or a group of peoplepreferably those we lovethat lies beyond suffering's reach. Life often brutally reveals that this is just not so. And although philosophers and thinkers of all cultures have expressed the certainty of change and loss in many different ways, I find that Eastern traditions seem to emphasize the transient nature of existence more clearly than we do in the West. Time and again their poems and stories highlight that change is the natural order of the universe and that everything in our lives is subject to it. An ancient Buddhist text captures the nature of life with simple elegance:
This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.
Surrounded by life's impermanence, still, we've evolved some curious explanations for why we lose those people and things we've become attached to and suffer as a result. Although there's no evidence that suffering is punishment for sin or retribution for "negative karma," we often imagine that such must be the case. This notion sprouts naturally from two flawed assumptions: one, that life should always be fair; and two, that people (especially other people) get what they deserve. What seductive concepts these are! They allow us to perceive the world as orderly and comprehensible. There is no mystery or chaos in this worldviewthere is a God or some creative intelligence who has established rules that we can understand and manipulate. These ideas suggest that that if we are good and play by the rules we may be spared the kinds of sorrow and pain that others are subject to. If only that were true!
Such a view of life is not only false; it's dangerous. If we believe that life should be fair and we suffer only because of some misbehavior, then it becomes a pretty natural response to blame ourselves when we go through difficult, painful times. With this as a foundation for our reasoning, we can easily experience profound shame and guilt, asking, "What have I done to deserve this?" when life deals us one of its inescapable blows. This way of thinking also reinforces a false sense of separation, as if somehow we are different from everyone else in the world. Kisagotami had surely seen pain all around her as she grew up, but the notion that she could also be stricken with the loss of her beloved child was beyond her understanding or acceptance. With such a point of view, she suffered in a lonely place; she could not access the comfort that comes from a community of soul mates who would understand her loss because they had felt the same kind of pain. I had a similar response when my dad was hurt. Given all that my fathera nice guy, by the wayhad been through in the past few years, I felt that he was getting "more than his share" of suffering as I stood by his hospital bed. I was angry and would have liked to vent my feelings, which would have sounded something like this: "Excuse me? Whom do I talk to about this? This does not coincide with my understanding of the rules!" This sense of entitlement to a pain-free existence and the alienation from one another and from the truth about life it breeds can be more isolating than suffering itself. And beyond the consequences of such willful naïveté the assumption that suffering is the result of misbehavior does not fit the facts all around us. Quite simply, it can't explain the suffering of innocents, can't offer a believable explanation as to why terrible losses are so often bestowed on people who have done nothing wrong. How can we possibly offer the idea that pain and an early death are the just deserts for a three-year-old diagnosed with leukemia, a good man who dies while saving the life of a drowning person, the six million Jewish people annihilated in Nazi concentration camps, or the little children starving to death on the arid plains of Africa?
Suffering and loss are intrinsic and inevitable parts of living a human life in our less-than-perfect world. If we look at the way life unfolds around us with a clear view, we see suffering is a visitor upon the good and innocent people as well as upon the greatest sinner among us. Every religion and wisdom tradition teaches us that truth. In the New Testament, Matthew (5:45) reminds us that God "sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous."
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, suffering is brought about by a benevolent God who uses it as a tool to break down the outer man so that the Creator's love can be manifested and revealed to the believer. Suffering forms the ground for man's intimate, unencumbered union with God and occurs so that faith may be deepened, and so that both love and forgiveness can be most fully expressed. In this view, God has made a world that bestows suffering not as punishment but as a way to teach and redeem human beings.
Pain is a common way through which we come to understand that our life has a transcendent aspect, a larger dimension, and realize that "my life is not just about me." This transformed consciousness allows for the birth of true compassion (a word that literally means "to suffer with"). This heartfelt tenderness removes all barriers between oneself and others so that we can experience oneness with each other and the universe. I find that it is easy to recognize those who have true compassion; it is apparent in their interest in other people, their empathy, and in their eyes, which seem to look on the world and everything in it tenderly. What we also usually learn about truly compassionate people, as we come to know them, is that most often they have suffered some great loss.
These themes resonate most beautifully in the Old Testament story of Job. This is a familiar tale to most people raised in the Jewish or Christian traditions, but I'd like you to think of ways in which you have ever felt like Job as you read it.
Here's the story: Job is a very successful man by all accounts. If Job were living today he'd be driving a Mercedes and living in a mansion with a swimming pool. He has every bounty that life can bestow. But in spite of his wealth, he is not arrogant. He is a good man, always "blameless and upright." His life moves forward effortlessly until one day when Satan goes to visit Job's GodYahweh. Yahweh points out Job to Satan and brags about just how good and loyal he is. Satan takes a look and isn't a bit impressed. Satan replies that it is quite easy for Job to worship him and turn away from evil since he's got everything he needs and more. Satan suggests a small wager. He bets Yahweh that Job wouldn't be quite so blameless and upright, so clear in his love for God, if things weren't so perfect in his life. In a way, Satan makes a good point. Isn't it easy to be "blameless and upright" when everything is going our way? Yahweh reluctantly agrees to let Satan test Job.
Soon after Satan and Yahweh make their bet, messengers report to Job that all his oxen and donkeys have been carried off by bandit tribes and all the servants have been killed. Another messenger arrives immediately thereafter and informs Job that a fire has fallen from heaven and burned up all the sheep. A new messenger follows to report that a different tribe has stolen all the camels. Before this messenger can even finish, yet another arrives to tell Job that a great wind came across the desert and struck the four corners of the house where all his children were eating and drinking wine. His seven strong sons and three beautiful daughters are dead.
Job is grief stricken but then rises above his anguish. He shaves his head, tears his robe, and falls to the ground and prays. He says, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." In all this, Job does not sin or charge God with wrongdoing. In spite of his great losses, Job's faith is as strong as it has ever been.
The next day Satan comes again before Yahweh. He says that Job will relent in his integrity, will turn away from his worship of Yahweh, if his suffering increases to include his own flesh and bone. Satan asks to be allowed to give Job illness and physical pain. Yahweh reluctantly agrees to let Satan try this. This time Satan goes out and inflicts terrible sores on Job from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.
In excruciating pain, Job finally calls out to his beloved Yahweh, "Why is this happening to me?" Job knows that he is not an evil man and has never done anything to deserve all the horrors that are raining down on his life. So now, he wants to die, which Yahweh will not allow. Failing that, Job wants answers. What is the justification for this kind of treatment by the Lord?
Job, like many others who suffer, lived his life honorably. He worshiped God and was thankful for all the blessings in his life. Yet, now, in spite of his good behavior, he endured one disaster after another. In spite of his anguish, Job continues to maintain his "integrity," his great faith in the omniscience and benevolence of God.
Hearing of his troubles, three friends arrive to counsel Job. They try to help him understand why all this is happening to him. They mean well, but they cannot tolerate the idea of an unfair or chaotic universe and look for rational answers to Job's plight. Three solutions come to their minds when they consider why a good man like Job should be suffering such a terrible fate: First, God is not as all-powerful as we have been led to believe. Second, God is not as good or as just as we've been told. Third, humanity is the source of evil and the cause of suffering. In other words: It's Job's fault.
Demanding clarity and order in the universe and informed by a theology of "retributive justice," Job's friends fixate on the third possible root of the problem. They offer glib platitudes and stock answers informed by orthodoxy and not by heart. "The reason that all these bad things are happening to you," they say, "is because you must have sinned." "What?!" Job says and refuses their conclusion. He knows he hasn't sinned. Instead, he decides that he's going to endure whatever he must until he learns the truth.
In spite of his continued suffering and lack of understanding it, Job never relinquishes his faith in God. Instead, he seeks a conversation, a union with God that will give him the relationship with that which he worshipsif not the answersthat he yearns for. At last, God appears out of a whirlwind and shows all his power and majesty to Job. God points out all he's done and says something like "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth and put the stars in the heavens? Can you make snow and bears and mountain goats and clouds? Can you thunder with a voice like mine?" It is at this moment that Job is humbled. God never really gives a very clear answer as to why Job has suffered, but He invites Job into a warm and personal conversation and it is here that Job understands that he is loved and that God has suffered along with him. By accepting the freedom of will that God offers to him and all human beings, Job learns that he must open to the presence of an illogical and unjust universe. It is through his breaking down, his "dark night of the soul," that Job comes to a better understanding of these basic truths about life. In the end, like the rest of us, Job realizes he must resign himself to never fully knowing why hea good mansuffers. He can only live with the paradox, experience the mystery.
Logical answers can never explain Job's suffering. But stripped of all that defined him, Job reached deeply into the well of his true Selfthe souland came to know himself as a part of "all that is," in a direct and intimate relationship with God. In the process of breaking down and relinquishing his false self, Job comes to understand God's awesome power and his own relationship with Him. After all his travails, Job understands that it has been by trusting God in the midst of his suffering that he experienced his faith at the deepest level. So Job's devotion becomes more conscious, more alive, and God gives back to him twice what he had before. Job, now an awakened man with an even stronger character and faith, lives to be a hundred and forty years and sees four generations of his family grow and prosper. In the end, Job dies, "an old man and full of days."
The drama of Job offers much to challenge and teach us all. But don't worry if you are still left with a nagging sense of the "unfairness" of Job's trials. The lessons of Job's story, and our own lives, are never fully learned. Here is the good news AND the bad news: Every life offers many "opportunities" to grapple with these questions, and to learn from loss. These lessons reflect such central mysteries of what it means to be human that all the world's religions and spiritual traditions share the same primary function: to answer the questions that emerge from the universal experiences of suffering. The story of how Buddhism began is another that deals with these same issues about suffering. But where the story of Job presents more questions than it answers, the story of Gautama Siddhartha may lead us to solutions and actions. I've discovered that with each retelling of this true story, I take something new away from it.
The historical Buddha was a wealthy prince named Gautama Siddhartha who was born in a northern province of India (in what is now present-day Nepal) in the sixth century B.C.E. Like Job, Gautama had many, many blessings. Gautama lived a pampered and sheltered life surrounded only by young, healthy friends, excellent food, the finest clothes, and every luxury that money could buy. He knew nothing of sickness, death, or human suffering until his curiosity about life got the better of him and he secretly slipped out of his father's royal compound with one of his servants. On his first trip beyond the walls of the kingdom, he saw a man begging on the side of the road. It was obvious that the man was sick and unable to walk. Gautama had never seen anything like this before and asked his servant about this man's situation. His servant explained that the man was sick and that illness is not an uncommon experience. On subsequent ventures out, Gautama saw a very old man, and his servant explained that this is what happens as people livethey age and wither. At last, he saw a funeral pyre. His servant explained that everyone dies. For the first time in his life, Gautama was shown the reality that human life inevitably contains illness, aging, and death. These realities disturbed him greatly. What could be the purpose of life, he thought, if it was so transient and so filled with suffering?
He was haunted by what he had seen and come to understand. One night, at the age of twenty-nine, Gautama kissed his wife and son goodbye, left his family's home, and set out to answer the question that plagued him. This has come to be known as the "Great Going Forth." He shaved his head, wore rags, and ate a single grain of rice a day as an ascetic in search of enlightenment. He traveled with wandering Hindu masters of the day studying philosophy and the way of raja yoga. He did everything he could think of to find the answer to the question of why people suffer.
Although Gautama tried many different paths to enlightenment, none satisfied him. He determined that he would sit and reflect on the truth about life until he found the answers. In fact, he vowed that he would not move from sitting in this one spot until illumination was his. It is said that the truth was revealed to him one night as he sat quietly meditating under a Bodi tree. He then dedicated his life to teaching others what he had learned. His followers called him "Buddha," which is based on the Sanskrit root word budh that simply means "to know" or "to wake up." Contemporary philosopher Huston Smith, one of the world's leading scholars on world religions, emphasizes Buddha's placenot as a god but as an enlightened, conscious manwhen he describes the beginnings of the Buddhist tradition: "Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like inchoateness of ordinary awareness. It begins with the man who woke up."
"Waking up" is a simple but powerful metaphor for consciousness. It suggests seeing the world anewfor the first timeas it really is. If we need a shift in consciousness to see the inevitability of suffering, we can understand how it takes the force and disruptiveness of suffering to wake us up to the truth about the nature of ourselves and of reality. In Buddha's case, his whole pursuit of enlightenment was propelled by the shock that he experienced when he encountered suffering for the first time. He saw his tidy, pleasant, overly indulged view of life as the false image it was. To me this story is so important, and I tell it often because it speaks directly to the shift in consciousness that suffering offers us. Through it we see that suffering is the way to wake up to the truths about ourselves and life itself. Of course, we cannot capture such enlightenment in an instant, though sometimes we get dashes of insight with blinding suddenness. We might not be able to see the world with the vision and clarity that Buddha did, but we can learn a great deal about it by knowing and applying the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. They can act as a "wake-up call" to a new life of deeper meaning and purpose.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism emphasize the nature and inevitability of suffering as well as ways of transcending it. The First Noble Truth simply states that "life is suffering." The uninitiated may take this basic precept as evidence of a very pessimistic worldview, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The whole of Buddhist philosophy deals with discovering and accepting "what is." It aims at one single question, and that question is: How do we alleviate suffering?
The First Noble Truth is commonly translated into English incorporating the word suffering. But the Sanskrit word dukkha is not easy to translate. "Suffering" is not entirely accurate. Dukkha, actually, is better described as meaning "dissatisfaction" or "discontent." But really, even these words fail to convey the full meaning. Dukkha is used in Sanskrit and Palithe languages in which Buddhist teachings were historically writtento describe a bone that has come out of its socket or an axle that is off center in relationship to its wheel. The word really implies that something has gone wrong or become "dislocated." Imagining the way a disjointed wheel on a cart would wobble and shake as the cart moved forward is the best way to understand the actual meaning of dukkha. A wheel such as this could be expected to create constant hardship and pain to the rider of the cart. And so, the First Noble Truth acknowledges our accurate human perception that things are "out of kilter" as we travel along on life's rocky road. Psychologist and author Polly Young-Eisendrath clearly explains the subtle, multifaceted nature of this concept when she writes: "When we begin to notice that we are not in control, that bad things happen no matter how much we try to be good and plan for the future, we are thrown into a noticeable state of dukkhaincompleteness, dissatisfaction, and confusion."
What I have witnessed as a therapist who has accompanied many people during times of great suffering, and as a human being who has suffered, leads me to believe that a great deal of pain arises from a failure to understandor maybe a refusal to acceptsome basic truths about life that these stories and others from religion, wisdom traditions, and numerous philosophies try to teach us. In refusing to see the truth about suffering, we can expend our whole livesthe best of who we are, what we have to offer, and what time we have on earthin willful denial.
Recognizing and accepting the truth about lifethat everyone suffersgives us a larger context, a framework, in which we can better understand our own suffering. This wisdom also reveals ways in which we can use our pain for personal transformation, to gain the experience of true compassion, and for greater ongoing spiritual and psychological growth. Some of the things I know to be true can be stated simply:
A Few True Things
1. Change is the natural order of the universe.
2. Change always incorporates loss.
3. Although we cannot always control the events of our life that create suffering, we can consciously determine our responses to them.
4. There are hidden gifts in the power and pain of suffering.
We can spend our lives approaching, confronting, and denying these truths or we can open our minds, hearts, and souls to them and let them ease our pain and enhance our experience of life in many ways.
Change: The Natural Order
The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Just as the rushing waters of a moving river are in constant flux and change, so are we. This is not a merely figurative notion. Quite literally, all the cells in our bodies will be replaced by new ones in just a few years' time. The leaves fall from trees, the seasons show their faces with cycles of snow and sun, infants grow into little girls into women into old ladies, and death is our inevitable destination. Such is the pervasiveness of change.
The commonly held idea (perhaps, even hope) that life is static, predictablethat we can hang on to our present realities foreveris both illusionary and false. Yet most of us live with, and expect life to conform to, the idea that continuity and permanence are the order of the day. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, most of us see change as an interloper, a radical, often painful, departure from the way "things are supposed to be." Most of us live as if we will never have to let go of anything, and as though we can count on things staying the way they are now. So, when we experience what we consider to be a negative change such as illness, death of a loved one, divorce, or dismissal from a job that sets us back, we can't believe that this is happening to us. Even as you read this (or as I write it!), we may be "making our deals" with the greatest powers: "Well, that's all well and good provided this loss business does not include my beloved ____." Whether we fill in the blank with a spouse's name or a pet's, our financial status or professional security, we show our reluctance to accept fully the truth about life and loss. And when we refuse to accept the impermanence of all things, it's no wonder we feel sandbagged when life delivers one of its inevitable blows. It's no wonder that every time it happens we scream, "Why me?"
In spite of the many blessings that open to us by accepting the true nature of reality, many of us desperately want life to remain as we have come to know it: predictable, dear, and secure. Like the stereotyped residents of the fictional 1950s black-and-white TV town of Pleasantville from the film of that same name, we resist what is new, untested, unproved. We don't want anything to change our sense of what our lives are and will be like. Things are better, we surmise, if they are predictable and dearly defined. Desiring to remain safe on familiar terrain, we adhere to patterns, ideas, and ways of being that we adamantly refuse to relinquish in spite of their failure to accommodate the truth about the realities of life. Some of us try to anesthetize our fears with drugs, alcohol, or addictions to work, money, or questionable dogma: anything to insulate us from the truth about what it means to live as a human being. We run from our fear of change on the assumption that it brings loss and loss means suffering. In doing so we can forfeit any real experience of life we have in the short time we are here to live it. The truth is we suffer no matter what. Heraclitus spoke honest words again when he said, "Nothing endures but change." If we learn from our suffering instead of trying to run from it, we can enrich our lives.
Change Means Loss
As you might imagine, people have been struggling with the unpredictability of change in their lives probably since man came into existence. In fact, the idea that life is a constantly changing series of personal experiences, of fortune and misfortune, is found in every culture throughout time. Buddhists refer to samsara as the uncontrolled cycle of birth and death, this illusionary ocean of suffering in which human life takes place. Taoists revere the truth about fluid, flowing spirals of change as the nature of all things and explore the wisdom inherent in understanding this through spiritual teachings such as the Tao te Ching and the I Ching, or "Book of Changes." Native American cosmologies look to the rhythmic changes in nature's seasons as instruction for learning the truth about beginnings and endings and the undulating course that characterizes all existence. Like Buddhist monks in Tibet, the Navajo even create their greatest art in colored paintings made entirely of sand: Images of Father Sky and Changing Woman are painstakingly and lovingly trickled onto the earth, grain by grain, using a medium that is itself impermanent and will be swept away at the end of the day. The medium is their message: Life consists of never-ending cycles of creation and destruction. Images showing change and fate as having a wheel-like, constantly turning shape are widespread and found throughout every culture from mandala figures in the East to the Rota Fortuna at the center of the Tarot's Major Arcana in the Western esoteric tradition.
Have you ever considered, while watching or flicking past the television show Wheel of Fortune, that it is based on esoteric medieval symbolism that addresses one of the fundamentals of human existence? I didn't think so. But, long before popular television game shows of the same name, the "Wheel of Fortune" (sometimes called the "Wheel of Life") was in the hearts and minds of human beings as a convenient method of explaining how life works. Few people could read in the Middle Ages, and until the mid-fifteenth century when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press there wasn't a whole lot to read anyway. Teaching often took place through pictures and symbols that presented complicated ideas and expressed them in ways that ordinary people could relate to and remember. This circular symbol called the "wheel of Life" was ubiquitous throughout Europe. A variety of interpretations were delicately drawn in miniature in fine manuscripts, carved in the majestic granite walls of Europe's great medieval cathedrals, and colorfully depicted in stained glass in the rose windows at Basel and Amiens. In every case, this popular image attempts to explain the cycle of change in life and the common psychological reactions to different stages of that cycle.
The late Roman philosopher Boethius, who lived in the early sixth century, strongly influenced people of the Middle Ages about the vicissitudes of life through his writings and offered the most popular interpretation of the "wheel of Life." He was, and still is, considered to be a very important thinker who shaped a great deal of Western philosophy. But it was his own personal experiences, particularly those contained in his major work, The Consolation of Philosophy, that informed his understanding of how the wheel of life turns for everyone.
Boethius had a fabulous career at the court of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths and the ruler of Rome. He was widely renowned as a gifted statesman, scholar, and orator and held an esteemed place in his society. In fact, Boethius was given the kind of attention that we give to present-day celebrities and movie stars. He was kind of the Warren Beatty of the sixth century. He was happily married and had equally brilliant sons, who were made consuls of the court. Like Job, Boethius was leading an absolutely charmed life. He was, that is, until certain advisers of the king began to speak against him and others, suggesting to the aging and somewhat nervous monarch that he had enemies in high places. Boethius, they said, was among them. Without warning Boethius's whole life changed. His brilliant career was finished. He was thrown into prison and charged with treason. And it is here that he raged at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is here that he was comforted by the Spirit of Philosophy and enlightened by the idea that life's greatest gifts are not due to Fortune, after all, because she is capricious and erratic in her bestowal of these. Instead, Boethius was reassured that there are other, more powerful forces that offer greater gifts to humankind.
In his dank prison cell, far from the high life he had enjoyed, Boethius came to understand that there are things of more importance in life than one's station, wealth, or position of power. "Honour is not accorded to virtue because of the office held, but to the office because of the virtue of the beholder," he wrote. He pointed out that short of death, the center, the only part of the wheel that does not move or change, is the only place where one can truly be protected from Fortune's fickle touch. This center contains deeper, more axial truthsthe laws of God and naturethat remain untouched by Fortune's waxing and waning. These higher truths, to Boethius, revolve around a broad, transcendent perspective that identifies what is truly of value in life. In The Consolation of Philosophy, written as a dialogue between a character named Boethius and the magical Spirit of Philosophy who appears as a beautiful woman, the spirit reminds Boethius that man has a divine destiny and that he suffers not because of his situation but only because of his bad attitude and failure to endure his agony with a calm mind. In his wretched pain, he's forgotten who he is and what the divine aim of life is all about. Fortune owes him nothing just because she took back what she had loaned him, the Spirit tells him. Gems, servants, clothes, noble birth, power, money, and status are no good in and of themselves. To pursue them is to seek value in worthless things. Rather the true blessings in lifereal goodness and happinesscome from knowing and mastering oneself, realizing our divine nature, and following the force of love. This is the core, the heart of the matter, untouchable by changeable Fortune. Residing in the hub of the wheel moves us away from our own self-absorbed nature and into a centered place in which we can experience the right relationship with something greater than ourselves no matter what happens in our lives.
Boethius's influence on the philosophy of the day was powerful. People in the Middle Ages needed a way of understanding the events of their lives, plagued as they were with war, slavery, and the "Black Death"all life-threatening, horrific events that were entirely beyond their control. They greeted his interpretation with open arms. The "Wheel of Life" was depicted by artists and writers throughout the Middle Ages. Dante, in particular, offers an excellent description of the way that Fortune influences human lives. His images extend from earlier portrayals of Fortune as a woman standing on a globe and turning it with her feet. In the Inferno, he wrote:
No mortal power may stay her spinning wheel. The nations rise and fall by her decree. None may foresee where she will set her heel: She passes, and things pass. Man's mortal reason cannot encompass her. She rules her sphere as the other gods rule theirs. Season by season her changes change her changes endlessly, and those whose turn has come press on her so, she must be swift by hard necessity.
Table of Contents
|Part 1||Reflections on Suffering|
|1||The Truth about Life--Everyone Lives a Drama||29|
|2||Lead into Gold, or the Alchemical Process of Making the Best from the Worst||67|
|3||Brick Houses and Straw Houses: How Prepared Are We for Hard Times?||89|
|5||Rowing versus Flowing: Luck, Destiny, and Free Will||141|
|Part 2||A Dozen Strategies for Growing Through the Pain|
|1||Discover a Larger Perspective||166|
|2||Turn Toward Compassion and Help Others||172|
|3||Recognize and Stop Self-Imposed Suffering||178|
|6||Build Good Containers||207|
|7||Count Your Blessings and Discover the Power of Optimism||213|
|8||Find Courageous Role Models and the Hero Within||219|
|9||Keep a Sense of Humor||225|
|10||Express Your Feelings||233|
|11||Silence, Prayer, and Meditation||238|
|12||Come to Your Life like a Warrior||245|
|Conclusion: "Living in the Guest House"||255|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent work on the power of human beings to survive and find joy from suffering.