“Depth Deprivation”—Why Embrace Suffering?

Ordinarily we tend to cruise along the surface of life. Skimming by on the surface, we are less apt to feel the pain that goes along with being human.  But we also miss the mystery, beauty and sacredness that come from our depths. Most of us have so accustomed ourselves to a comfort zone on the surface of things that we suffer from chronic “depth deprivation.”

Depth both attracts and frightens us. The agonies as well as the ecstasies of life emerge from deep within. One way we can lean into a fuller life and practice deepening is by sustaining awareness.

Attending is a first step in opening the heart and learning to love. Attention reveals the essence of whatever we focus on — our breath, our lover or child, music, a rose . . . or suffering.  With attention we enter another dimension, a qualitatively more interior aspect of people and things.  We  sense a beauty and meaning we miss on the surface.

At the edges of our comfort zone, however, we can only stand so much beauty and love. Love scares us and can activate our defenses tenfold. Because love flushes whatever stands in its way into awareness, deep diving reveals  our underlying pain and suffering.

Much of our habitual depth aversion is simply an avoidance of the pain we have carried from childhood and beyond. When we feel the grief of buried pain, it frightens us and drives us back to the “safe” surface.

But how safe are we, really in our everyday state of mind?

Even in times of complacency and well-being, if we open to the inner world, we sense low-grade anxiety, compulsiveness, and restlessness under our usual busyness and distractions. Our chronic fear and avoidance of depth lead to a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and emptiness, to addictions, or to the pursuit of one distraction after another.

Crisis and Loss Take Us Down

Another way we deepen is through shock, crisis and loss. When suffering strikes, it washes away our habitual defenses. The shattering of defenses that follows trauma, betrayal, loss or other heartbreak mixes the devastation with a dark blessing. It temporarily relieves our depth deprivation.

The pain rivets your attention and takes you down. At least that is how it was for me coping with a traumatic betrayal. These are the times when the reality that “all is suffering,” the first noble truth of Buddhism, seeps into your bones.  In our happiness-obsessed culture, feeling the extent of our underlying suffering is bad news indeed. Yet, this deep truth compels attention.

The most basic, existential questions rack your brain: “Could this possibly be a benevolent universe?” “Why am I here?” Crisis hands us the chance to confront our depth avoidance. But forces are strong when we are in pain that make us want to cling—like a drowning person to a life raft—more ferociously than ever, to the familiar surface.

Whether it is forty straight hours of “Gray’s Anatomy” reruns, getting to sleep every night with a bottle of wine or a quart of chocolate ice cream, falling in love with the first person you meet, going on a binge of intellectual analysis, or the more straightforward panic, rage and obsessing — the surface life beckons.

We need courage plus a major attitude adjustment if we want to mine our depths. Never more than when we face suffering. If we want the benefits of mystery, truth and compassion that depth can bring to our lives, we need to come to terms with the grief and pain we have spent our lives avoiding.  The well-known spiritual prescription to embrace our suffering is easier said than done.

To be continued next time . . .