Life is suffering, said the Buddha. Suma Varughese confronted her resistance to suffering and is learning to cope with it
My dear sister Sheela passed into the light on April 13 this year after a prolonged and agonising battle with cancer. It was excruciating for us family members to witness her suffering, and it brought to light my discomfort with physical suffering, both mine and others’.
Even though I am firmly convinced that everything that happens to us is an opportunity for growth and that growth is the purpose of human existence, I viewed physical suffering, particularly that which overcomes the vulnerable human body during old age and death, with great trepidation. At 64, I was far from reconciled to what awaited me during my twilight period.
Sheela’s suffering forced me to confront this because I was having a very hard time accepting her agony. I prayed to God for either relief or release for her, but neither was forthcoming. Around that time, a parrot began to perch on the grill of my bedroom window, which is just a mere two feet from where I sit all day in front of my computer. Its frontal feathers around the chest region had all fallen off, leaving its skin bare, which must have been hard on it because the weather was cold in early February. Half of one of its claws was also missing. To see this beautiful bird so maimed upset me hugely, and once again, I prayed for either relief or release for it. The coincidence of this happening at the very time I was facing Sheela’s terminal cancer was not lost on me. I knew both these situations were there to teach me a vital lesson. One day, soon after the parrot had paid its visit, I could feel frozen grief somewhere near my throat region. I got in touch with it, and for the next 15 minutes, I wept my heart out. What I was weeping about was not entirely clear, but I knew it revolved around loss—loss of heath, loss of life, and loss of a sister.
The tears swept away something, and I found myself better able to accept the inevitable. I stopped praying that Sheela be released from her suffering and learnt to move towards acceptance. After all, suffering too was part of life, and I could not wish it away. I now saw the parrot not as diseased or dying but as a warrior. She wasn’t resisting what was happening; she was still chirping and chirruping, and leading her life as normally as she could. I was full of admiration for the little creature. When it came to Sheela, I was able to push aside my resistance to what she was going through and focus on her needs. And I found myself better able to accept the possibility of my own suffering. I no longer view old age with dread. In the fullness of life, all experiences have their place. Freed of the fear, I am more able to be in the present moment, which is surely the only sanctuary we have.
As if to drive home the lesson, the Universe recently tested me with a couple of experiences of pain. First, while on holiday in Kerala in the second week of May, a large abscess formed on my left little finger, which soon spread to the whole finger and the palm as well. Back home, a surgeon excised and drained it, and I was asked to keep my hand elevated until it healed, leaving me with only one active hand. There was pain and discomfort, but I was not in resistance to it. To make matters worse, in the midst of this issue came an arthritic attack on the wrist of the same left hand. This time, I was a bit thrown, for the pain was intense and I could do nothing with my left hand. Even so, I could see that the problem was not the immediate situation but the fear painted by a lively imagination of the attack spreading to other joints. Once I reined in my imagination, I was able to accept the immediate pain and put my complete attention on healing. I am learning to recognise, as the masters say, that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
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