We’re told that the great yogis of the past, including Milarepa, Yeshe Tsogyal, and Bodhidharma, spent years practicing austerities, such as sitting naked on snowy mountaintops and cutting off their eyelids so they wouldn’t fall asleep in meditation.
As we practitioners struggle with our experience, we may begin to associate meditation with suffering. We may even view this struggle as purifying karma, assuming that unless we are uncomfortable, we are not really practicing. When we hold fast to such notions of practice, our suffering grows ever more real along with the “not-wanting” we feel toward the unpleasantness of it all.
The Buddha, in his very first teaching, said, “There is suffering.” Sometimes we mistakenly interpret this to mean that we are doomed to suffer. I take the Buddha’s words as an invitation to practice nonviolence toward my inner and outer worlds. In this simple but powerful statement, the Buddha suggests that suffering is not something we can fix, ignore, or get rid of. Rather, he is intimating that practice provides the ability to make ourselves big enough to include both the pain and beauty of the human condition—not only our own but also that of others.
Our ability to bear witness to suffering without pushing it away or getting overwhelmed is linked to liberation. What is experience before we shrink from it, try to subdue it, or manipulate it? This is the question for practitioners.
The move from “I am suffering” to “there is suffering” allows the pain of the human condition to touch us and releases our deepest wisdom and compassion. In this way, the great practitioners of the past have experienced what we might call suffering as a kind of fierce empowerment ~ Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel