In many ways it’s been an intense couple years, with huge highs and heartbreaking lows. Its been particularly challenging this year to maintain a persistent sense of steadiness, spaciousness, equanimity.
I've been suffering.
Suffering is such a sledgehammer of a word but it’s accurate. Big sufferings like losing a loved one and little sufferings that are more like mental and physical discomfort. It's my own personal suffering marbled with the suffering of the world which often feels so personal.
Pain, whether physical or emotional, is natural, normal, even necessary. It's purely information. But suffering is that additional layer of story we add to our pain. This shouldn't be happening. I can't handle this. Will this pain get worse.
Lama Rod Owens offered this powerful invitation during a recent dharma talk in Durham...”don’t waste your pain.” Pain is actually serving us, showing us where it hurts, showing us where to let go, even reminding us of our interdependence. Pain triggers suffering when we resist just being with it...listening.
Pain is inevitable and suffering optional, but it's also true that suffering is unavoidable. Real talk. It's the First Noble Truth.
I tend to manage my suffering by overanalyzing it, distracting myself from it, trying to rush through it, or spiritualizing it...in essence using my personality or ego to navigate my suffering, to avoid genuinely working with it.
These strategies don’t seem to work as well anymore; they feel played out. Or maybe I’m just more aware that they don’t work. At best they provide some temporary relief, and at this point I'm more interested in getting free than playing with emotional pacifiers.
How I meet and hold my suffering is a practice on the path to liberation. Suffering is the ultimate practice space. And trying to bypass this practice by circumnavigating my suffering keeps me stuck at the level of ego instead of trusting, relaxing into the Awareness that can hold it all, tenderly, with curiosity.
I used to think the goal in life was to live and think in ways that avoid suffering or that move me through it as fast as possible. There’s a certain level of superficial success and personal development possible with that approach to life for sure. It's also exhausting.
But to feel truly free I have to cultivate my capacity to hold and care for my inevitable suffering in ways that create space for insight and wisdom to emerge.
How do I care for my suffering?
I no longer want to expend valuable energy trying to avoid suffering or overindulge it by repeating unskillful habitual mental patterns and actions.
I want to suffer well.
Pain can trigger suffering and I won’t waste this pain or this suffering; I’ll use it to get free.
May we all be free.
While on a recent meditation retreat I had this incredibly clear visualization during one of my morning sits, almost like a lucid dream. I've had several experiences like this before over the years, but this one has really sweetened my practice!
I'll try to describe it. Here goes...
After a few minutes of meditating, a crystal clear image of a schoolyard playground popped into my mind. It looked just like the playgrounds that were all around me growing up in Queens. Tall metal fence. Handball courts. Concrete scribbled with colored chalk. Metal benches. Swings with that hard ass black rubber mat underneath just off to the side.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. Light blue skies. A few wispy clouds. Occasional car passing by.
In the playground were all these little sharons running around. Not "little girl" sharons but full grown, smaller versions of me.
It was noisy.
In the playground was "controlling sharon" telling everyone what to do.
There was "joyful sharon" running around hugging and kissing everyone.
There was "self-conscious sharon" worried what people were thinking about her.
There was "confident sharon" feeling totally at ease playing with everyone.
There was "judgmental sharon" evaluating and critiquing how everyone was playing.
There was "spiritual sharon" over in a corner contemplating the meaning of life.
There was "self-righteous sharon" telling the other sharons the right way to believe.
There was "open hearted sharon" feeling the pain of all the other sharons.
You get the picture. Lots of little sharons.
They were all running around, jumping, interacting, playing. Some were louder than others, some seemed to want more attention, some were anxious, some were happy, some indifferent.
Off to the side of the playground, laying in a cheap plastic lounge chair by the handball courts (not kidding) was big Sharon. She was relaxing peacefully, just watching them all play from a distance.
You could tell how much big Sharon loved them. She'd gaze over at each of them with what seemed like compassion, appreciation, acceptance. From time to time, big Sharon would get up from the lounge chair and stroll around the playground, making sure they weren't getting hurt, listening to them, smiling, savoring the entire experience.
Frequently one of the little sharons would become disruptive. Big Sharon would slowly walk over to that particular little sharon (e.g. controlling sharon) and, with a sweet tenderness ask her what she needed. After a few moments it was apparent little sharon felt reassured (maybe validated), and would then skip away to resume play with the other sharons.
Stay with me now...
A few minutes later I became aware of "something" that was watching this entire scene play out...watching the little sharons playing, watching big Sharon sitting in the lounge chair by the handball courts. Watching it all.
Just then a massive wave of peace filled my entire being, along with a deep relaxation and joy that's hard to put into words. I stayed with those sensations for a while, sorta basking in it for the rest of the meditation.
After that sit I shared the experience with my fellow meditators, and over the past few weeks I've been contemplating what it all could mean.
Where I've landed with it feels really profound and I've been revisiting the visualization often, sharing it with friends and coaching clients ever since. Maybe there is something of value here for you too.
The little sharons represent aspects of my personality, expressions of energy that reflect my inner dialogue. Controlling, anxious, joyful, self-conscious, judgmental, funny, loving, spiritual, and so on.
Big Sharon represents the wiser expression of me that taps into intuition and inspiration and reflects who I am underneath all the ego-centric manifestations.
So who was watching?
The witness was pure Awareness...that which I can't fully describe or capture in words but can only be experienced. Call it God, Spirit, Universal Energy, Life. It is pure, it's spacious, it's still. It's peace. It includes everything and needs nothing.
It is Love.
I've spent much of my adult life suffering from, working with what I'll call an existential heartache that's been with me for as long as I can remember, a deep sense that there is more to life than what I'm seeing in myself, in others, in the world I find myself in.
So often I'm craving an experience of what is real, direct, clear, pure, connective, authentic, fully felt...pure Love, Interbeing. Up until the past several years I just didn't have words for this free floating anxiety or for the waves of alternating sadness and bliss I feel in response to what seems like the most ordinary things.
What I've come to understand is that I can access and rest in this Witnessing Awareness and fully experience this Love...at any time. It waits patiently in the present moment.
I became a successful businesswoman but I couldn't find this experience in worldly success. I became a raging alcoholic but couldn't find it at the bottom of a bottle. I even became an ordained minister chasing this experience, but I didn't find it in the dogma of religion.
I found it in the wisdom of spiritual teachings and teachers who didn't prescribe truth to me but instead pointed me towards it, not as an intellectual exercise or as an inherited belief structure, but instead as a lived experience.
That's what my playground visualization was...a reminder of the truth of who I am. Of who we are.
I am that Witnessing Awareness AND I am big Sharon AND I am all those little sharons. I am all of it.
And so are you.
As my mindfulness practice deepens, I'm becoming more skillful at noticing the little sharons and asking them what they need instead of letting them run the show.
I'm also becoming more familiar with that sweet spaciousness that watches this all play out, that can hold it all.
And most importantly, I'm cultivating a self-compassion that can meet me wherever I am in the moment with kindness and patience and equanimity.
For me this is what the purest experience of Love feels like.
So I rest here as often as I can...and then play. And rest. And play.
I call myself a Love Activist.
I have it tattooed on my arm as a reminder of my commitment and a declaration to the world.
I love these 7 steps as quick and dirty guidelines...
1) Recommit Every Day
When you're on a mission of peace, your commitment to nonviolence is tested daily. So every day, you’re called to recommit to who you are, to keep your heart open and to stand your ground as a peacemaker....
Read the rest of the 7 steps here.
Are you a Love Activist too?
At today's Meetup I invited folks to consider that we're all connected, simply different manifestations of One source. And the belief in separation (from each other, from our inherent divinity) creates SO much personal and collective suffering.
I used this example...from the surface all islands appear to be separate from each other, but deeper underneath the surface there is no separation.
It's a beautiful practice to try and transcend the limitations of our conditioning and meet each other (and ourselves) as often as possible below the surface, beneath the level of ego, in this awareness of Oneness. In Love.
"Your heart is the light of this world. Don't let your mind hide it." ~ Mooji
Today I came across a homeless man on the side of the road while heading out to lunch. I grabbed one of my metta bags and pulled over onto the shoulder.
I walked over to him, offered what I had, and told him my wish for him - peace of mind, comfort, safety, love.
Then I hugged him, not a pat on the back type of hug, but an "I see you" tight kinda hug. We smiled, recognizing we just had a moment, I got back into my car, teary eyed, and he waved bye.
I share to remind us all that we need each other.
Almost 18yrs ago I lost literally everything (my marriage, job, home, money, health) and without the love of family, insurance, and credit cards I could max out for alcoholic treatment facilities, who knows who or where I'd be.
This world is often tough, precarious and unfair, ripe with suffering. What can we do right where we are to reduce the suffering of others (and our own) in small, seemingly insignificant ways?
Do what you can if for no other reason than for the pure joy of opening your heart.
Physical pain is a part of life. Small pains. Big pains. Chronic pain. In many cases it's unavoidable. I've learned it's better to spend my valuable energy on cultivating wellness than trying to avoid pain.
But wellness doesn't mean feeling pain-free.
Wellness looks different for everyone. For me it's a feeling of acceptance, presence, compassion, openness and gratitude for my life. Whether or not I feel WELL has less to do with how much physical pain my neck arthritis or anything else is causing me, but how skillfully or fearfully I work with the pain. After revisiting Pema Chodron's teachings on suffering, meditation and freedom, I was given an opportunity to work with them this past weekend...
Pain is here. Stop. Breathe. Allow. Breathe. Gentle. Allow...by meeting the pain with gentleness, mindfulness and noticing any story I might be making up about the pain that is causing me to suffer (e.g. will it get worse, can I handle it, what will happen, etc.), I was able to be with the pain with less suffering, more compassion, less fear.
Pain is inevitable, yes, but the suffering is driven by our thoughts ABOUT the pain. Pain is here, but wellness is also.
Practicing mindfulness to tap into my fundamental feeling of wellness in the midst of my physical pain definitely continues to be a challenging exercise, but it has been proven true for me (again) that genuine joy or a feeling that all is well is independent of what is happening to or around me.
I believe that not because I read about it or heard about it at a seminar or lecture, but because I experience it. And from that experience my belief becomes knowing.
At those times when my response to life does not reflect the spiritual principles I study, the disconnect is not in my understanding of the concepts but in feeling the truth of them for me.
I invite you to look at any area of your life that is causing you pain - physical or emotional. Can you access a feeling of wellness or a knowing that all is well even when you would prefer life be different in the moment?
How can you use your pain to deepen your experience of life, your awareness, your compassion for yourself and for others in pain?
Share your thoughts...
"People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges."
- Joseph F. Newton.
I do this too, sometimes unintentionally. Feeling lonely has become a trigger for me to to get to bridge-buildin'!
I make a phone call. Invite someone to coffee. Tell someone I love them. Walls are formed in the heart...so are bridges.
By Sharon Shelton
The L2YL coaching process embodies an inside-out approach to personal and professional transformation, developed specifically to help busy people design increasingly joyful, abundant, fulfilling, mindful lives. Contact me when you are ready!