Suffering can be the Seeds of your Strength

After 25 years of police and criminal justice work, Cheri Maples co-founded the Center for Mindfulness & Justice to coordinate her work in criminal justice training, organizational consulting, and mindfulness workshops. Cheri has worked as a police officer and detective in Madison, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General, and head of Probation and Parole for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. In 2008, she was ordained a dharma teacher by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, her long-time spiritual teacher, prolific author, poet, and peace activist.
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In the course of my chaotic journey to becoming a “mindful street cop,” about which you can read elsewhere on this web site, I slowly learned several lessons that seem essential to truly mindful living. I think of them as the seven lessons from my own spiritual transformation. In this article, I discuss one of these lessons: suffering can be your strength.

This lesson I sometimes call the “CliffsNotes version” for the Four Noble Truths, which is one of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism. Here is the essence of the CliffsNotes version: “The crap in your life is the compost of your enlightenment.”A very famous Tibetan teacher said that hell is not punishment, it is training. This simply means that we can work effectively with the things that drive us crazy. They will free us. There is nothing redemptive or healing about the suffering itself. Freedom comes from non-reliance on the things that make us suffer.

Transformation is not found in the pain but in our relationship to it and the openness that we are able to cultivate in response. Haven’t we all experienced pain in our lives that in some way has been a catalyst for softening our hearts? When we look back, we can we see what an incredible gift it has been. That is our practice; being able to identify our suffering and be with it, take good care of it, look deeply at it, and learn other ways to interpret it.

When we learn how to understand and frame our own suffering, we develop compassion for others and ourselves. This allows us to accept our own fractured being and understand the holiness of our human perfections. Then we are able to help others frame the meaning of their own suffering. Over and over, life just keeps coming at us. It is what it is. We lose people that we love to illness, divorce, death, or just the ending of relationships. We have chronic illnesses and our loved ones are addicts or they live with a debilitating physical or mental illness.

All these things produce suffering, but if we begin to automatically assume we did something wrong to cause the negative events, what we do is to add a second and unnecessary layer of suffering over the existing suffering. We add suffering to suffering and that second level is where a mindfulness practice is very important, because it allows us to pause, to note it, and then go on. Eventually we learn to stop doing it.

When we add the second layer of suffering to existing suffering, we also sacrifice the present moment to the past. For example, maybe you have a child who is very challenging as a teenager or is an addict or is in prison or has a mental illness and you spend your time reliving the past and about whether it’s your fault, whether you were a good parent or a bad parent. But the opportunity to transform the relationship is not in the past, it’s in the present moment. You can’t go back and change the past, but how you relate to your child in this moment accumulates and it plants the seeds of transformation for the future.

I find that when I focus my energy on what did or did not happen in the past, my fears and my projections collapse the possibilities that I have to transform the relationship. I find myself closing down to protect my heart. Mindfulness practice enables us to let go of this kind of ruminating and perseverating by teaching us not to over identify with our thinking. The beginning of freedom is the realization that we are not our thoughts. My favorite bumper sticker is the one that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

No matter how much we want it to be otherwise, the truth is, we are not in control of the unfolding of our experiences. Most of us would prefer something other than what’s been handed to us. What I’ve noticed is that if we have pig shit, we want cow shit, and if we get cow shit, we want chicken shit. What’s important is how we relate to whatever simply is.

The great Indian sage, Krishnamurti, who was known for his unwillingness to provide specific guidance, surprised his students one day by asking them, “Do you want to know my secret?” Everybody’s eyes lit up. Everybody was at attention. Finally, this guy is going to tell us something. He’s going to tell us his secret to enlightenment. And he looked out at this audience and he said, “I don’t mind what happens.” In other words, every moment is simply an opportunity to be with, and learn from, whatever comes up, in whatever form it shows up, without judgment, without reactivity.

The unique beauty and kindness in a mindfulness practice is just a side benefit. Mindfulness doesn’t demand that you experience anything other than what you experience. The spirit is one of integration, of using the daily circumstances of our life to wake us up so we can fully experience the nature of life, taste its holiness, its birthlessness, and its deathless nature. We eventually learn about relaxing with hopelessness, with grief, and with death, and not resisting the fact that things end. Everything is changing all the time. When we can surrender to what simply is, our life will become a very rich tapestry, because we will understand that whatever occurs in our life, no matter how wonderful or how painful, it is part of our path and all things are workable.

Meditation is great for cultivating the ability to not over identify with our thoughts, because it helps us recognize that a thought, an opinion, or a judgment is simply what it is, and to not get caught in it. It enables us to create a gap that allows us to refrain from habitual behavior. That gap is where freedom begins. With practice, we get a glimpse of the sense of vastness that comes with this gap; first, just for a second or two, and then for a minute, and then for longer and longer periods of time as we learn more about the nature of impermanence. We develop the ability to watch our thoughts come and go like clouds in the vast blue sky. We learn how to ride the waves of our lives with the understanding that we are the ocean as well as the waves. As our practice develops, we can begin to notice all of the little ways that we perpetuate violence on ourselves and begin to let go, not only of our stories about why we are not good enough, but our notions about gaining or losing as a result of what did or did not happen to us.

Let’s take the Buddha, for example. The Buddha was the transmitter of an incredible path of insight. His understanding and compassion have been a source of inspiration for millions of people. However, the Buddha also left his wife and child behind to pursue a spiritual path, so you could consider him the most famous deadbeat dad in history. But if you need the Buddha to be perfect, you’re caught in the shadow side of devotion. If we cannot accept the Buddha’s imperfections or the imperfections of any teacher, we cannot accept our own imperfections and then we get caught in our notions about the truth.

Eventually we learn to simply let go, not from a place of resignation, but from a profound understanding of the holiness of imperfection and the nature of our humanity. This kind of letting go is accompanied by a desire and a willingness to tear down the ego that we have spent more than half of our lives trying to build up. We learn a profound appreciation for being ordinary rather than a need to be special or to compete with others.

Mindfulness is not a self-improvement project. If you approach it with that kind of project mentality, it will be an impediment to your practice. Rather than developing the ability to be present with whatever is, you will spend your time wishing it was different and it will turn into one more thing in which you are not good enough. Life is life. It is challenging and joyful, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, but always a little messy. Trying to tie up all of the loose ends and finally getting it together is futile.

In contrast to a self-improvement project, a mindfulness practice gives us the ability to hold it all and not get so caught up in what we see and feel in any given moment. We also begin to learn how to selectively water the seeds of thoughts and behaviors in ourselves that we want to grow. Thus, we grow stronger within ourselves and with others. With the practice of mindfulness, we begin to realize on a very deep level that we will never change the world unless we really begin to believe in our own preciousness. Then we begin to see and believe in the preciousness of others, which plants the seeds of compassion in others and toward ourselves.

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If you are interested in learning more about Cheri Maples views on the seven most important elements of spiritual transformation, you can find them in articles on this web site. We suggest reading them in the order they appear in the table below. Click on the article title in the lefthand column to which you wish to go directly.

Article Title Lessons Location
The Mindful Street Cop Compasion/
Personal Compassion
Purpose and Slowing Down for the Present Moment Purpose and the Present Moment Sustaining Compassion/
Mindfulness & Contemplative Practices
Fierce Compassion Compassion as Fierce or Gentle
& Violences does not Resolve Violence
Compasion/
Personal Compassion
“Suffering Can Be the Seeds of your Strength Suffering Can Be the Seeds of your Strength Sustaining Compassion/
Destructive Thoughts and Feelings
Openness to Whatever Arises Openness to Whatever Arises Sustaining Compassion/
Destructive Thoughts and Feelings
Watering the Seeds of Joy Watering the Seeds of Joy Sustaining Compassion/
Mindfulness & Contemplative Practices
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