From Chapter 1
STAGE ONE: SUFFERING
It may appear strange to begin a book about healing with a chapter on suffering. After all, suffering is perhaps the one aspect of life that, more than anything else, we try to avoid. Yet suffering has fascinated us since the dawn of civilization and has been a central theme in our religious and literary traditions for thousands of years.
The early Jews, Christians, and Muslims taught that suffering was an integral part of the human condition: if we are human, we are going to suffer. They taught that suffering is brought about by ignorance or a misconception about our true nature and is linked to wrong attitudes or actions. But they also acknowledged that suffering can lead us to seek the meaning of life and guide us to a deeper understanding of our place in the world.
According to Annemarie Schimmel in Mystical Dimensions of Islam, “Just as wheat is ground and kneaded and apparently mistreated until it becomes bread, thus the human soul can mature only through suffering.” Among the mystics known as the Sufis, tribulations and afflictions have long been considered a sign that “God is near.”
Suffering is also part of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The Buddha taught that suffering was one of the Four Noble Truths that, if properly understood, can lead to spiritual enlightenment. The Sanskrit word for suffering is duhkha, and is derived from du, “unpleasant,” and kha, the “axle-hole in a wheel,” suggesting something that is out of alignment and does not function at its full potential. Like early Western teachings, the Buddha taught that suffering was due to a lack of knowledge. It is not shameful to experience suffering. Like other aspects of the human condition, suffering exists so that we may learn to be free of ignorance and recognize our true nature as spiritual beings.
Suffering is also a major theme of myths and legends. Many biblical stories are based on suffering. The escape of the Jews from Egypt, the suffering of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion (culminating with the crucifixion itself), and the often violent stories about Christian martyrs and saints all deal with intense and prolonged ordeals of suffering. Halos around the heads of individuals who became saints reflect the glory bestowed upon them for their spiritual achievements attained through suffering.
The central themes of nearly all our best-loved fairy tales have to do with suffering, as well. Whether it is the tale of Cinderella (who lost her mother and endured years of abuse by her stepmother and sisters), Sleeping Beauty (who was put into a deep sleep after getting stuck with a spindle), Rapunzel (who was imprisoned for years in a tower by her jealous mother) or Beauty and the Beast (where the Beast is rejected because of his hideous appearance), all deal with the world of suffering.
Many stories of suffering involve a main character being immersed in what is called “the dark night of the soul”: a time of darkness, loneliness, despair, and abandonment in an endless void from which he or she cannot escape. Often, the individual feels completely lost (a popular image in fairy tales involves a character wandering aimlessly through a dark and dangerous forest), moving deeper and deeper into the darkness.
In many fairy tales and myths, the heroes and heroines are portrayed as helpless; they are totally at the mercy of forces they cannot control and are not able to free themselves from their oppression. When they enter the dark night of the soul, they become completely cut off from whatever previously existed for them. Their lives take on new dimensions with no possibility of recapturing the lives they previously led.
In the minds of those suffering, the stories portray not only someone who is in pain, but someone whose soul is crying out, “Stop it! Stop it! Set me free! I can’t take it anymore!” And many who move through suffering — such as the story of Christ on the cross — feel that God has betrayed or abandoned them.
These stories, as well as countless operas, plays, dances, and poems, have endured because they portray individuals — both fictional and real — who encountered suffering, became involved with their suffering, and somehow emerged from suffering victoriously. In many of these stories, ordinary people do extraordinary things in the face of physical challenge and emotional hardship. By courageously moving into their suffering and emerging through the other side, they are transformed into heroes and heroines and give hope to us all.