The Universality of Suffering

The Universality of Suffering

One of my beloved cats died on New Year’s Eve. I had lived with this sweet, playful purr-ball for ten years. Then two weeks of acute kidney failure, hospitalizations, complex life support at home, heart failure; in two short weeks she was gone. The pain was swift and deep. I felt apologetic at first; two other friends had lost family members in those same two weeks. Finally, my friend Paul reminded me, “Linda, love is love, and loss is loss.” I surrendered to the grief.



I have written so many reflections in this e-newsletter on resilience, equanimity, shifting perspectives, mindfulness, compassionate connection. Offering skillful ways to cope with life’s inevitable challenges and catastrophes.

Just a few days before Kitka was stricken, I had sent out the December 2008 e-newsletter on Taking Stock, suggesting that experiences of death and loss can wake us up to our true nature of love and compassion, as Ebenezer Scrooge did so dramatically in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.

I might have written a January 2009 e-newsletter on the neuroplasticity of the brain as we incline the mind toward wholesome intentions for the new year. What new neural connections might grow in our brains as we re-vision our goals for ourselves, our community, our nation, our planet in the new year, in a new era of hope? What happens in our brains as we draw on practices from core strengths coaching, positive psychology, spiritual paths that promise the complete liberation from suffering? I might have offered e-quotes on the path of service to support today’s national service day.

When I realized my cat was dying, all that went by the wayside. I fell out of sync with holiday festivities and, more than I would have wished, with the sea change in our country’s political climate. When I felt so incompetent at injecting Kitka with the sub-cutaneous fluids to help keep her alive, I fell into a crevasse of old ghosts of inadequacy, limitations, failure, disappointment, loss.

True, I dropped into a precious, timeless, sacred dimension of unconditional love with Kitka, the “darshon of dying”. True, I was mindful of moments of delight celebrating Hanukkah with my god-son, Elijah, seeing A Christmas Carol with my god-daughter Emma, spending a traditional Danish Christmas Eve with dear friends. But it’s also true I dropped into a vulnerable and humbling fragility that was disquieting and dis-orienting. I was in the middle of “the difficult things that provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface.” [see Pema Chodron in Poetry and Quotes to Inspire below.] I was struggling to stay with “the rawness and discomfort of the situation” hoping it would indeed transform me sometime very soon, if not “on the spot”.

Because Kitka’s dying process straddled the entire two-week break from Solstice through the New Year, I came to feel I was approaching 2009 from the bottom up. My heart was cracking open to the universality of suffering and to the poignant wisdom of Naomi Shahib Nye’s poem Kindness

Before you know kindness is the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense any more.
[see Poetry and Quotes to Inspire below for the full poem]

Kitka was my teacher, as beings with whom we share unconditional love so often are, of the universality of suffering and loss, of the vulnerability and fragility in the face of suffering and loss, of the kindness and compassion as the “deepest thing”, inside us, among us, in the face of suffering and loss. I was taking a quiet refuge in compassion, poignancy, and acceptance.


As the moments with Kitka became more and more precious, the yearning of my heart became more insistent: “How can I be more loving? How can I be more kind?” That yearning spilled over far beyond the kitty hospice I had set up in my living room. I sent prayers of compassion and well-being to friends and family who were also struggling with illness, uncertainy, loss and failure. The “opening of the heart in the face of suffering” began extending in wider and wider circles, until it seemed cultivating a “heart as wide as the world” was the only sane thing to do (be).


“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”
– Emily Dickinson

I shed tears of fear and confusion and grief during Kitka’s illness, for sure. What surprised me were the tears of poignancy – over watching Kitka’s sister cat Shalom groom Kitka as they snuggled together on the couch. Tears of poignancy as my 9-year old godson contributed his stuffed animal Coco the Dragon so Shalom would have something soft to sleep with after Kitka died. Tears of poignancy over the first camellia buds (early! global warming!) Tears over hugs from strangers who knew death of a beloved pet, too. The poignancy was a useful lens to see how fragile life is, and how generous the loving kindness can be in response to that fragility.


While Kitka was in the animal hospital the first time around, I attended a daylong at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on Solstice led by Ajahn Amaro. The day of Buddhist reflections on death, illness, aging, loss, disappointment, failure, was a practice in using those reflections to come to terms with impermanence and to open into an experience of the deathless – the spacious Beingness that underlies all forms of existence, including all coming into and passing away out of existence.

My personal take-away from the day was the importance of moving from contention – resisting whatever is occurring – to consent-ment – a poignant acceptance of whatever is occurring as what is occurring – to contentment – coming to accept the karmic wisdom of whatever is occurring in the grand scheme of things and to be at peace. An important practice for the days that remained in Kitka’s life; for the years remaining in mine.

Poetry and Quotes to Inspire

The Buddhist teachings are fabulous at simply working with what’s happening as your path of awakening, rather than treating your life experiences as some kind of deviation from what is supposed to be happening. The more difficulties you have, in fact, the grater opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.
– Pema Chodron

May I meet this moment fully; may I meet it as a friend.
– Sylvia Boorstein

To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
– Mary Oliver

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through it s black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
– David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet

* * * * *


Before you know what kindness really is
You must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes any sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of that world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
– Naomi Shahib Nye

Stories to Learn From

A well-known Buddhist teaching story gave me comfort and perspective during this time as the waves of grief led me again and again to a poignant compassionate acceptance of what is.

A woman was so bereft at the death of her young son she went running from house to house in her village asking for someone to bring him back to life. Someone suggested she talk with the monk who lived at the edge of town. He reassured her that he could help her if she would bring him a mustard seed from any house that hadn’t known death. She optimistically ran from house to house again, only to hear, sorry, we buried my parents last year, or sorry, we buried my uncle last week. As the woman slowly realized there was no house that hadn’t known death, she could finally surrender to the death of her son.

When the mother in this Buddhist teaching story so deeply realized that her pain at the loss of her son was the pain of everyone in her village, when she woke up to the shared-ness of suffering, she was able to open her heart and let go of her son.

When I reached out to friends during my grief and realized every single person in my circle had lost a pet to death, I felt in my very being the shared-ness of suffering, and could open my heart and let go.

I stayed open to the shared-ness of suffering during this period of grief as I watched a DVD of the 2007 film Rendition. (Oddly enough, almost everyone I asked had avoided the film because of its subject matter – our country’s brutal policy of “disappearing” suspected terrorists to interrogation centers overseas with no respect for legal or human rights and no word to their families for months or years. But as I said, I was a bit out of sync and looking at the world from the bottom up during those poignant days.)

The director Gavin Hood did a remarkable job conveying in a balanced and compassionate way the interweaving of disparate lives: the Egyptian engineer whose cell phone had a phone call to it from a member of a known terrorist group; his wife who had evidence that he had indeed flown home to the U.S. from a conference in South Africa, even though the flight roster had “disappeared” him; the Senator’s aide she appealed to in desperation, “Don’t turn away from this [silence and cover-up]. Don’t you dare not look at this!” The Senator who put his aide’s career on the line, stonewalling him at the time of an important Congressional vote on something or other; the CIA director who, post 9/11, deeply believed that these policies of abduction and torture were necessary to protect our national security and save the lives of innocent civilians. The CIA operative who couldn’t stomach the assault to his own humanity or that of the suspect, who threw his own career down the drain to release the prisoner; the local interrogator in a fictional Muslim country who deeply believed he needed the CIA’s protection to prevent the terrorist attacks that (we learn later) had killed his daughter; the real terrorist who had joined a fanatical youth group trained in suicide bombing after his brother had been killed by the CIA.

I passionately encourage people to see the film and not look away. It has an all-star cast (Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Omar Metwally, Jake Gyllenhaal, Alan Arkin) and is accurately yet sensitively crafted. We need to be able to see the size of the cloth of sorrow and live into a “heart as wide as the world” if we are to bring an effective, reality-based compassion to the suffering of the world in the new year.

Exercises to Practice Compassion, Poignancy, Acceptance

Tell Them Now

Stephen Levine suggests, among his many reflections on death and dying to wake us up to the life and love we have now,

* to think of the people most important to us,
* to reflect on what we would want to say to them if we knew our death or their death were imminent,
* and to say it now.

As I shared the news of my cat’s death with friends I included a paragraph or two to each of them of what they meant to me, not just at a time of loss or at the time of a new year but in the times of everything – the full catastrophe of life and death and love and loss. The nourishing of my own heart was palpable and sweet, but the soulful responses acknowledging the nourishing of theirs was more poignant and meaningful than I could have imagined.

My friend Lynn says, “It is in the connection with others that we find out who we truly are.” Our true nature truly is one of deep compassion, and when we suffer ourselves, we deeply know that.

As you begin this new year, make a list of 5-10 people important to you; take a few moments to feel in your heart what each of them means to you. In the next few days, by phone, e-mail or in person, tell each of them, directly, out loud, for real. Notice the expansion of your own heart as you do.

Shifting from Contention to Consent-ment to Contentment

There are many exercises to practice the shift from arguing with life’s disappointments and losses to accepting them. Shifting from contention to consent-ment to contentment is a useful phrase for me, for I can viscerally experience the different between the three states in my body. When I am contentious, my body tenses and I snarl as I irritably resist or struggle with what is. My body softens and settles into a calm peacefulness when I accept whatever is happening as life’s wisdom greater than mine; when I consent to be with it rather than resist or deny it, and then find contentment in my own skill and resources to be with it, and when there is loss, not lose the lessons.

“We change our relationship to our suffering by surrendering our need to reject it. This is a great kindness to one’s self.”
– Paul Fulton

Exercise: When you notice you are irritated, out of sorts, disappointed, in contention with what is, say “Oh! I’m in contention!” or “I’m in resistance!” or “I’m arguing with what is!” Then evoke a sense of compassion for yourself that you have reacted to something out of an old fear, an old judgment. Then see if you can begin to soften your heart, open to what’s happening in the moment. Draw on resources – memories of times you’ve been compassionate before or someone else has been compassionate with you. Recognize that there is something to be learned, something to be understood, something to be accepted in whatever is happening right now. Feel the ease in your body as you give up a struggle and consent to settle into an acceptance of whatever is happening right now. You don’t have to like it; just accept that it is, so you can find the peace of mind that will allow you to choose what a wise and skillful response could be to whatever is true in this moment.

Books and Websites

During this period of vulnerability and fragility, I found I couldn’t muster the bandwidth to venture into anything new; I needed to return to refuges that were tried and true:

Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein. Ballantine Books, 2007.

“I [think] about how easily my mind forgets what it knows, how easily it falls into confusion and out of caring connection. So I decided to write this book – not about avoiding confusion, because we can’t – but about becoming unconfused and restoring connection because it really is the best way to live.” S.B.

Delightfully warm stories and guidance on how to cultivate equanimity, wisdom and kindness to keep the mind clear and the heart responsive to the sufferings and challenges of a human life.

A Heart As Wide As The World: Stories on the Path of Loving Kindness, by Sharon Salzberg. Shambala Publications, 1999.

Deep wisdom about metta practice from one of the most experienced teachers of loving kindness in the West.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron, Shambala Publications, 2005

Wise and heartful help in embracing the vulnerable feelings we are always heir to as human beings and responding, especially in difficult times, with kindness, generosity and compassion.

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