the options offered by suffering

Last week, John Briere was in town giving a lecture on Mindfulness & Trauma.  He was quite entertaining, insightful, and very well-versed in the pain of trauma.  I appreciated his transparency in talking about his own trauma – just enough for us to know he’d walked the talk for many miles but not so much that he became a caricature of “heal thyself.”

At one point he challenged the now-trite phrase “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  I won’t go into all of his argument on whether suffering is truly optional.  Suffice to say he made irrefutable points backed with solid data.  It did however remind me that I prefer to say, “Pain is inevitable; suffering offers options.”  I shared this with Briere at one of the breaks and we discussed the paradox of pain – that without pain we may not know our true suffering; without suffering we cannot know our true nature.  And that perhaps, our practice of sitting with that suffering burns way the multiple layers of assumptions and false logic we are heir to.

There were also parts of his talk that affected me deeply and so I sat with it over the days that followed.  I noticed that the suffering I felt gave me options large and small.  I had the option to tuck back into my autopilot ways of facing pain.  I had the option to turn towards it tentatively, ever ready to duck back under the covers of my favourite delusion, numbness.  I had the option to face it head on, engage it fully, and burn away the protective shell of stories in one firestorm.  I had the option to dance with it.

What was not an option however was the knowledge of being in pain.  We often hear that pain is the body/mind’s way of saying it needs something, that it is trying to adapt to a shift in demands and resources.  I wonder now if suffering is the body/mind’s way of saying we need to look closer to what is going on, to locate what is awry, and meet it with compassion.


It’s good to be home.  We landed back in Ottawa last Tuesday night after driving along winding blue-line roads that blinding rain rendered sleek and sinuous.  It was a fitting close to 7 days of intense work with the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI) that took us from Fort Drum to Saranac Lake, NY.  After completing the first part of the trauma resiliency training last year, Frank and I were asked to join them for training in the coaching phase of TRI.   This brought us into a tight circle of highly competent people facing the challenge of how to deal with the psychological wounds of war as the US veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The sad truth is that where we have never had enough well-trained, informed professionals who could deal with the aftermath of carnage, we now have even fewer with a much higher demand for them.  This is as true of the US as it is of Canada where the extent of our wounded not as overwhelming but the available services is proportionally just as meager.

In Fort Drum, we helped train military and local Chaplains in the skills of dealing with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  It was a fascinating experience at many levels, not the least of which was the tricky process of honouring religious beliefs about the origins of mental distress while teaching an approach that placed the physical/physiological nature of distress front and center.  Although all the Chaplains were Christian, this is a delicate balance I’ve run into with Buddhist teachers as well.

There is a deep part in us that wants to believe that if we simply believe, it will be enough to take away the suffering.  I would truly like to think that is true in all circumstances of suffering.  It would be lovely if 108 prostrations will take my mother out of her wheelchair and restore her ability for self-care.  If only 10, 000 Butsu chants fingered along a strand of mala beads would bring back lost loves, heal rifts, and back-fill ideological schisms.  What if 84, 000 doors all lead to one Truth: just believe and it will be well?

Although my faith in psychological interventions needs well-adjudicated data, my faith in my spiritual path really doesn’t.  And I wonder if I’m being judgemental to wish more people of the spiritual ilk knew that difference.  I’d like to say it’s because Buddhism is different but I’ve heard too many teachers say things about people returning from death’s door that make me cringe.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just jealous.

This stumbling towards nirvana is tough work.  And some days I miss those multiple prayers to St. Jude (the patron saint of the impossible) or St. Christopher (the patron saint of lost things – before he was de-sainted).  I think I will start a novena to Manjushri; I’m in need of someone to wisely wield a few swords. And for good measure, I’ll go practice a few moves myself!