A friend wrote me an email sharing how after a period grooving along in a place of gratitude and acceptance, he experienced an extremely painful and debilitating cerebral hemorrage that has left him unable to do almost all activities even after six months of rehab. He shared that he lives in fear everyday of the hemorrage reoccurring, and asked if I had any wisdom to share. Here is what I wrote in reply:
I am so sorry to hear about your health problems. They can be one of the most challenging experiences that we as humans face.
I will suggest that the real cause of all of our suffering is simply the gap between what is happening and what we think should be happening, what we are afraid might happen, or more simply, what we are paying attention to. I wrote a bit more about this here:
The most important question is: Are we paying attention to our direct experience here and now, or are we paying attention to the desires, hopes, dreams, worries, doubts and fears running through our thoughts?
However, it is "easier" to suffer when we are having a very intense experience whether that intensity comes from extreme sensations from illness or injury, or from extreme experiences of loss or limitation, or both. When the experience is extreme, then the slightest gap between the experience and what we are paying attention to can cause extreme suffering. In contrast, during more ordinary experiences the gap needs to be larger for the suffering to increase. In these ordinary moments your attention can wander a fair amount before the suffering becomes noticeable. And it will have to wander a long ways into a mental story about how things could or should be different before the suffering becomes intense.
This explains why some people who have everything they could ever want are still suffering. They are just so lost in their stories about what should or shouldn't be happening that they can be suffering horribly even in the midst of external plenty and relatively good health.
But it also points to the possibility of not suffering at all when there is great difficulty, limitation, loss and/or pain. The key is to give 1000% of your attention to the experience just as it is. If there is extreme pain, then notice everything you can about the actual sensations in your body in this very instant. And then notice how it has changed or shifted in the very next instant. Any time you can do this, you will find the suffering quickly dissipates, even if the sensations do not. (continue reading)
If there is an emotional, practical or financial setback or loss, then again simply notice the actual experience in this moment, and the next moment and so on. The more intense or extreme the loss or sensations or emotions, the more critical it is to keep your attention completely in the present moment.
With this approach, our most difficult experiences can become our greatest opportunities to move into a direct way of being that is free of suffering or at least freer of suffering. However, suffering is caused by thought and therefore the suffering itself is just a thought. The good news is that even in the moments where we let our attention wander to a fear, hope or desire, and so start to suffer a little or even a lot, there is no actual harm done. In the very next breath we can bring our attention back to the here and now and the suffering will disappear. Recognizing this can bring a sense of holding all of life lightly as we move in and out of moments of suffering and moments of greater presence and ease. And sometimes the best we can do is invoke some compassion for ourselves and for the often overwhelming circumstances of our life, and then perhaps bring just a little more attention to the experience we are having in this moment just as it is.
It is not at all easy to do this under extreme circumstances, and again I am so sorry that life is testing you so drastically. But it is possible to not suffer under any circumstances, and it is really this simple. My teacher, Neelam, used to say that if only life was more complicated, we all would have figured it out a long time ago :)