As we follow a genuine path of practice, our sufferings may seem to increase because we no longer hide form them or from ourselves. When we do not follow the old habits of fantasy and escape, we are left facing the actual problems and contradictions of our life.
A genuine spiritual path does not avoid difficulties or mistakes but leads us to the art of making mistakes wakefully, bringing them to the transformative power of our heart. When we set our to love, to awaken, to become free, we are inevitably confronted with our own limitations. As we look into ourselves we see more clearly our unexamined conflicts and fears, our frailties and confusion. To witness this can be difficult. Lama Trungpa Rinpoche described spiritual progress from the ego's point of view as "one insult after another."
In this way, our life may appear as a series of mistakes. One could call them "problems" or "challenges", but in some ways "mistakes" is better. One famous Zen master actually described spiritual practice as "one mistake after another," which is to say, one opportunity after another to learn. It is from "difficulties, mistakes, and errors" that we actually learn. To live life is to make a succession of errors. Understanding this can bring us great ease and forgiveness for ourselves and others - we are at ease with the difficulties of life.
But what is our usual response? When difficulties arise in our life we meet them with blame, frustration, or a sense of failure, and then we try to get over these feelings, to get rid of them as soon as possible, to get back to something more pleasant.
As we quiet ourselves in meditation, our process of reacting to difficulties will become even more apparent. But instead of responding with automatic blame, we now have an opportunity to see our difficulties and how they arise. There are two kinds of difficulties. Some are clearly problems to solve, situations that call for compassionate action and direct response. Many more are problems we create for ourselves by struggling to make life different than it is or by becoming so caught up in our own point of view that we lose sight of a larger, wiser perspective.
Usually we think our difficulties are the fault of things outside us. Benjamin Franklin knew this when he stated:
Our limited perspective, our hopes and fears become our measure of life, and when circumstances don't fit our ideas, they become our difficulties.
A Buddhist writer I know began his practice with a well-known Tibetan teacher many years ago. The writer didn't know much about meditation, but after some preliminary instruction he decided that enlightenment was for him. He went off to a hut in the mountains of Vermont and brought his few books on meditation and enough food for six months. He figured six months would perhaps give him a taste of enlightenment. As he began his retreat he enjoyed the forest and the solitude, but in just a few days he began to feel crazy because as he sat all day in meditation his mind would not stop. Not only did it think, plan, and remember constantly, but worse, it kept singing songs.
This man had chosen a beautiful spot for his "enlightenment." The hut was right on the edge of a bubbling stream. The sound of the stream seemed nice on the first day, but after a while it changed. Every time he sat down and closed his eyes, he would hear the noise of the stream and immediately in tune with it, his mind would begin to play marching band songs like "Stars and Stripes Forever" and the "The Star Spangled Banner." At one point the sounds in the stream got so bad he actually stopped meditating, walked down to the stream and started moving the rocks around to see if he could get it to play a different tune.
What we do in our own lives is often not different. When difficulties arise, we project our frustration onto them as if it were there in the children, the world outside that was the source of our discomfort. We imagine that we can change the world and then be happy. But it is not by moving the rocks that we find happiness and awakening, but by transforming our relationship to them.
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition instructs all beginning students in a practice called Making Difficulties into the Path. This involves consciously taking our unwanted sufferings, the sorrows of our life, the struggles within us and the world outside, and using them as a ground for the nourishment of our patience and compassion, the place to develop greater freedom and our true Buddha nature. Difficulties are considered of such great value that a Tibetan Prayer recited before each step of practice actually asks for them:
Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and sufferings on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened and my practice of liberation and universal compassion may be truly fulfilled.
.... In difficulties, we can learn the true strength of our practice. At these times, the wisdom we have cultivated and the depth of our love and forgiveness is our chief resource. To meditate, to pray, to practice, at such times can be like pouring soothing balm onto the aches of our heart. The great forces of greed, hatred, fear, and ignorance that we encounter can be met by the equally great courage of our heart.
Such strength comes from knowing that the pain that we each must bear is a part of the greater pain shared by all that lives. It is not just "our" pain but the pain, and realizing this awakens our universal compassion. In this way our suffering opens our hearts. Mother Teresa calls it "meeting Christ in his distressing disease." In the worst of difficulties, she sees the play of the divine and in serving the dying poor, she discovers the mercy of Jesus. An old Tibetan lama who was thrown into a Chinese prison for eighteen years said that he viewed his prison guards and torturers as his greatest teachers. There, he says, he learned the compassion of a Buddha. It is this spirit that allows the Dalai Lama to refer to the Communist Chinese who have occupied and destroyed his country as "my friend, the enemy."
What freedom this attitude shows. It is the power of the heart to encounter any difficult circumstance and turn it into golden opportunity. This is the fruit of true practice. Such freedom and love is the fulfillment of spiritual life, its true goal. The Buddha said:
Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the Way, and this is the taste of freedom.
This freedom is born out of our capacity to work with any energy or difficulty that arises. It's the freedom to enter wisely into all the realms of this world, beautiful and painful realms, realms of war and realms of peace. We can find such freedom not in some other place or some other time but here and now in this very life. Nor do we have to wait for moments of extreme difficulty to experience the freedom. It is, in fact, better cultivated day by day as we live.
We can begin to find this freedom in the everyday circumstances of our life if we see them as a place of our practice. When we encounter these daily difficulties, we must ask ourselves: Do we see them as a curse, as the unfortunate working of fate? Do we damn the? Do we run away? Do fear or doubt overcome us? How can we start working with the reactions we finds in ourselves?
Often we see only two choices for dealing with our problems. One is to suppress them and deny them, to try to fill our lives with only light, beauty, and ideal feelings. In the long run we find that this does not work, for what we suppress with one hand or one part of our body cries out from another. If we suppress thoughts in the mind, we get ulcers; and if we clench problems in our body, our mind later becomes agitated or rigid, filled with unfaced fear. Our second strategy is the opposite, to let all our reactions out, freely venting our feelings about each situation. This, too, becomes a problem, for if we act our every feeling that arises, all our dislikes, opinions, and agitations, our habitual reactions grow until they become tiresome, painful, confusing, contradictory, difficult, and finally overwhelming.
What is left? The third alternative is the power of our wakeful and attentive hear. We can face these forces, these difficulties, and include them in our meditation to further our spiritual life.
. . . Our difficulties require our most compassionate attention. Just as lead can be transformed into gold in alchemy, when we place our leaden difficulties, whether of body, heart, or mind into the center of our practice, they can become lightened for us, illuminated. This task is usually not what we want, but what we have to do. No amount of meditation, yoga, diet, and reflection will make all of our problems go away, but we can transform our difficulties into our practice until little by little they guide us on our way.
Jack Kornfield - A Path With Heart