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Using My Suffering to Get Free

By Sharon Shelton 

Photo by Diane Ronayne

In the past couple of years, I have experienced some of the most difficult times in my life. I’ve been shaken, and often it’s been difficult to find my peace and ease. We all share this experience of suffering, whether it be small irritations and disappointments or significant traumas, so my details are less important than how I am being with these experiences and the insights emerging. 

Years ago, I committed my life to being an advocate, an activist for the expression of love in all its forms—not just the sweet, sentimental kind of love but also the deep, creative, all-encompassing, and sometimes fierce ground out of which life itself manifests. 

I don’t think I fully appreciated what would be required to live into this commitment authentically. This is not just an exercise in personal development to feel better in my life. Instead, it’s the complex, humbling, and often painful process of noticing and confronting ways in which I cling to my ego for dear life, move from my personality instead of from deeper truths, and rely on spiritual bypassing as a way to distract from, reject, and speed through the painful moments of my life—all ways of being that interfere with love’s genuine expression. 

If I want to be a more patient person, I don’t become instantly more patient; I get more opportunities to practice patience. In that way I strengthen the skill of patience. 

It’s the same with love. 

It’s my deepest desire to cultivate the skill of loving. 

I do my best to experience love fully by removing the blocks to love’s ever-presence and supporting others in doing the same. My suffering is providing the ideal practice space to cultivate the skill and art of loving. For real. Right here. Right now. 

As my heart aches in this moment, it’s an invitation to strengthen my compassion and generosity muscles for myself and others. To re-remember there is an awareness that can hold all my suffering and joys. I can rest in this awareness and feel my breath. I can love and be loved regardless of what is going on or how skillful I am in any given moment. 

My ego wants to maintain the illusion of a solid sense of self that needs defending and tries to keep me safe at all costs, even at the risk of a life that is not whole and inspired. 

This practice of loving fully requires me to be with my pain and suffering and tend to it. I need to ride the waves of discomfort and uncertainty without panicking. I need to be open to getting to know the texture and the stories of my suffering. When I discover I am triggering more suffering, I can meet it with compassion until space around it opens up. I can let the experience tenderize me and burn off my attachments to ways of being in the world that are no longer useful, and allow insight and wisdom to emerge. 

Sometimes I’m skillful; sometimes I’m not. But my commitment to strengthening my ability to love more deeply and courageously is unwavering. My commitment is not a belief I have about myself or an identity as one committed to the path. Instead, it’s a truth validated by experience as I imperfectly live the way I have chosen, moment by moment, one day at a time. 

The fruits of practice are that I continue to feel this undercurrent of joy and wellbeing, even on my worst days. I walk this path not just for me but also for my elders, teachers, and ancestors. In some way my commitment to love, not to be limited by my pain and fears or the fears of others—or by my joy—is a way I can honor their lives, struggles, and sacrifices. At the very least, it’s my deepest expression of gratitude. 

So I practice—some days with knees shaking, breath shallow, and chest heaving from anxiety. I slow down, I reach out to my wife and friends, I work out, I read, I sit, I serve, I cry, I talk to friends and family, my therapist, and my beloved Dharma teacher Cheri Maples, who remains with me and guides me in spirit as I walk this path. 

I allow life to move through me, knowing that it’s all in constant motion and that I’m being held in a net I cannot fall out of. I am grateful for a peace and joy that surpasses all understanding. 

With deep gratitude for the Dharma, my beloved wife, my teachers, and my friends and family. 

Sharon Shelton, Loving Reflection of the Source, is a mindset coach and certified mindfulness teacher currently enrolled in the Community Dharma Leader Program (CDL6) at Spirit Rock, California, US. She facilitates a 10-year-old Meetup group at listentoyourlife.com/meetup.html

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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