Happiness has become an obsession, a fad. Last year, more than 1,000 new books were released on Amazon.com alone on the subject.
I know I caught the fever and was deep in the middle of my own “Happiness Project,” complete with hours of daily visualizations, gratitude practices and focusing on my lovely relationship — when my partner suddenly left me.
As long as things are going our way, it is easy enough to feel grateful and satisfied with life, when we are actually sleepwalking on the surface, wrapped up in cozy illusions. My happiness evaporated pretty quickly when my world shattered, and I was left struggling with what felt like a knife in my heart.
When something hurts like hell, when crisis and loss strike, it shakes you awake and takes you down into deep waters. These are places we have spent our lives trying to avoid. In the deep, it is “sink or swim” because suffering either opens or closes us up tighter than before.
Normally, we avoid the truth and mystery (and unlived pain) of our depths. We believe we should be able to find happiness without suffering and so we cling to the surface of life. But when circumstances plunge us into the depths, we need to go beyond our aversion. We need to learn to befriend suffering.
I knew that turning towards suffering can be medicine for soul sickness, a radical remedy for the fear of deep truths and love. I knew that pain taken rightly can bring lots of good things: self-acceptance, compassion and gratitude for what we have. The difficulty lay in knowing how exactly to take pain and suffering “rightly” — when every fiber in my being wanted instinctively to reject both.
Listening to the Messages in Pain
When I was finally able to suspend my opinion that suffering was wrong, or that there was something wrong with me for being in pain for so long, I made a discovery of great significance. I realized that, apart from my beliefs and opinions, I did not know the meaning or purpose of suffering.
Oddly this realization made me happy. When I finally stopped judging and resisting and simply said, “Yes, I do not know what this is,” the pain took me down and down and down. Stripped of my opinions, I found quaky strange movements, sensations and messages in heartache and humiliation,in grief and rage.
Pain forces you to ask what Einstein said is the most important question: Is this a benevolent universe? Does anyone care? When we take the time to listen to what the grief and pain are telling us, suffering not only stirs the deepest questions, it births the answers.
Touched with respect and curiosity, suffering reveals itself as a prayer — a prayer of the heart yearning for freedom, for warmth, for goodness and love, for a way back home. Through the cracks of prayer and longing and brokenness, a power arises that cures the isolation and hollow jitteriness of depth deprivation. It whispers, I do care.
That is the paradox I discovered of both happiness and pain. A warm, life-affirming mystery, a nourishing presence, pulses to be born in the depths of pain. It waits only to hear our yes to pour its sweet strength — our true happiness — into the soul.