Tough Grace: Understanding
by Wayne Teasdale
A Contemplative Understanding of Suffering
Every person in the world knows the unpleasant reality of suffering;
it is part of being human. Put more accurately, suffering exists
for all sentient beings. Life, regardless of our many advantages,
is always a struggle. We are often misunderstood, we face constant
trials and setbacks, we deal with illness and poverty, we are
frustrated in our work and our relationships. We endure bitter
divorces, the death of loved ones, or illness and disease. Suffering
in all its forms presents us with a strange enigma.
Our Western attitude toward life ill equips us to understand
the nature and role of suffering. In the United States we exhibit
compassion for the sick, yet few of us comprehend the role of
illness in human development. Our civilization is so young, fixated
on immature values and activities that distract us from the deeper
meanings of human existence and of all sentient beings in the
wheel of life. We often immerse ourselves in trivia as a way to
avoid the more serious aspects of living. For Westerners, suffering,
illness, and death are realities to be avoided and ignored, except
when they strike our family or friends.
When I was growing up, my Uncle John often talked about illness
and suffering, usually in the context of a difficult person we
knew, someone who was self-centered, manipulative, insensitive,
or uncaring. Uncle John’s insight, born of deep faith, was
that it might take a major sickness in this person’s life
to bring him to his senses and to open his heart. Calling it a
kind of “tough grace,” he saw suffering as a means
for the Divine to reach us when we are unable to grow any other
way. I like my uncle’s explanation of suffering. As we shall
see, a comprehensive understanding of suffering, one that considers
both the highly developed viewpoints of Christianity and Buddhism,
includes many other possible explanations as well.
Illness as a Journey to Wholeness
All my life I’ve been quite healthy. I’ve enjoyed
a relatively robust vitality and have tried to strengthen it through
a healthy diet, regular exercise, and meditation. Of course, my
health is sometimes tempered by my busy schedule, lack of sleep,
and many commitments. Nonetheless, it came as a total shock to
me when I was diagnosed with palate cancer in November 2000. Nine
days later I underwent a four-hour operation at Loyola Medical
Center, where a surgeon removed half my palate, the upper left
gum, teeth, and bone. It was such a loss, one I am still mourning.
My surgeon was wonderful, as were the nurses and residents. After
about five weeks of recuperation, I started a six-week process
of radiation therapy. It was painful and difficult at times to
eat, and my appetite dwindled. With this loss of appetite came
a loss of weight as well.
From the moment of diagnosis, my friends surrounded me with
love, care, and prayer. A number of women friends became my team,
and they guided me every step of the way through the process of
fighting the cancer and getting well again. Their nurturing made
my recovery possible, and for that I will always be grateful.
I also received a steady stream of loving visitors, mountains
of mail, too many plants, and endless telephone calls. I was fortunate
to have friends pick up the slack in my teaching, and I was able
to get my grades in on time. I never realized I knew so many people.
It was edifying, inspiring, and exhausting.
“There’s a gift in this illness,” many cancer
survivor friends told me. “You don’t see it yet, but
you will.” They were right. Many may wonder how suffering,
especially an illness like cancer, can be a gift. This idea is
certainly alien to a culture that rejects anything old, ugly,
inconvenient, or uncomfortable. But within the context of a purposely
spiritual life, suffering, and particularly illness, deepens our
inner experience. Like spiritual practice and friendship, it very
simply focuses our attention on what is really important —
not on what passes away, but on those essential activities that
carry us forward: prayer, meditation, surrender, humility, and
Perspective rises out of duality. If not for rain, we might never
learn to love a sunny day. Suffering forces us to see beyond where
we might be stuck. It helps us to transcend our attachments, our
hidden agendas, our elaborate attempts to have it our own way.
An illness like cancer, or any serious sickness, draws us to a
subtler center of awareness, a center that reorders our values.
It cuts away all the excess. It throws us into utter simplicity;
we understand precisely what we really need. It invites us to
see, to be aware, to change, to grow, to become what we are not
yet but what we can be with commitment, effort, and discipline.
It reveals to us our naked poverty and yet shows that in this
poverty lies our hope of becoming who we really are: compassionate,
My illness stripped me of everything; all things lost their immediate
value or importance for me. I began to view things in a different
light: the light of awareness. Making money, which has never been
a real goal of mine, seemed even more unworthy of my attention.
Ambition was even less significant. Honors and professional opportunities
also seemed empty, devoid of any intrinsic value. All the activities
people hold as dear I saw as useless and distracting. I saw too
much talking as useless, ceaseless chatter and shied away from
it. My old joys became meaningless in the light of my confrontation
with my mortality.
At the time of my diagnosis, our country was in the throes of
an inconclusive presidential election. I was passionately committed
to the Democratic ticket. Yet, after the diagnosis, I lost all
interest in the outcome. It wasn’t so much that I no longer
cared; rather, I saw the election in the larger light of life,
death, and eternity. Lately, I’ve returned to my old interest
in politics, though I see it differently, regarding it with a
certain amount of tentativeness.
I realized I could die from this cancer. This sober realization
cleared away all my other preoccupations. It was isolating. I
felt I was in a glass cage, that no one could hear me. I felt
alone with my fears, and they ate away at my peace. I had to struggle
against my worries. Casting them down with prayer and determination,
I began to learn to control them. And then the love of my friends
helped to clear away the isolation. Part of my program for healing
and recovery has been to deal squarely with my fear of mortality,
to banish it from my mind and heart. This fear has a way of keeping
you prisoner; it lessens your freedom. Perhaps more than in any
other part of life, in confronting fear, our spirituality demonstrates
its precious value.
The Gift of Humility
Illness also deepens our humility. At first, cancer seems like
a terrible humiliation, and to a certain degree it is. It is the
most dramatic demonstration of our ultimate fragility and weakness.
This gift of greater humility allows us to see ourselves as we
are, freed from all our illusions. Humility cuts through our pretensions,
our aspirations, our goals, and our attitudes toward others. Humility
born of suffering, illness, and emotional turmoil serves our growth,
inspiring us to make a change, to embrace a subtler form of psychological
and spiritual well-being. This humility accelerates inner growth
by traversing the darkness of spiritual trial and the shadow of
death. It opens us up to receive the benefits of this darkness.
Humility makes us available to God, and the humility of heart
promoted by suffering and illness concentrates its power on our
inner struggle to surrender to the Divine.
These many levels of humility of heart were well known in the
monastic traditions of the West. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote
a keenly aware treatise about them for his monks. St. Benedict,
the father of Western monasticism and the author of The Rule of
St. Benedict, also wrote a great deal about this subject. Benedict
drew on the desert tradition and the New Testament for his inspiration,
demonstrating that humility is one of the pillars of monastic
life. Through humility we see the truth of our strengths and limitations,
the unconscious roots of our weaknesses. Benedict, in his great
wisdom, clearly saw the role of humility in the spiritual life.
In the evolution of humility during my illness, I noticed it calling
me to greater acts of self-surrender and charity. Benedict tells
us that obedience is the first degree of humility, and I have
realized that the Divine was, and is, demanding that I be obedient
to the Spirit. Humility offers these insights with a clarity that
defies reason. It is a clarity born of wisdom, another gift of
My illness also revealed to me how reliant on God and others
we become in times of extreme vulnerability. Becoming dependent
on others, and certainly on God, showed me how illusory my conviction
of innate autonomy was. Autonomy is never absolute; it operates
within the narrow perimeters of wellness and youth. It is very
fragile, and yet we cling to it as if it’s the most treasured
object in our life’s history. Although a measure of autonomy
is psychologically healthy, it also becomes a way to separate
ourselves from people, to think that we are somehow better than
others because we are autonomous and don’t need them. Bede
Griffiths often remarked in conversations, homilies, and prayer
that “sin is separation.” Sin is living as if we were
separate and better, isolating ourselves from our brothers and
sisters and from all other sentient beings. Suffering, particularly
illness, knocks a hole in this insidious attitude and drives home
our interdependence. Illness frees us from the isolation that
this illusory autonomy and separation impose and opens us to spiritual
and psychological growth.
The Gift of Divine Union
Before I started radiation therapy, Thomas Keating came to Chicago
to give a weekend retreat to the Spiritual Life Task Circle, a
group belonging to and mandated by the Parliament of the World’s
Religions. Thomas and I had talked about my illness weeks before
the retreat and during it. Since my early twenties, he has guided
me on my spiritual journey. Thomas told me that he was convinced
that my bout with cancer was a dark night of the soul, an inner
purification preceding a permanent union with the Divine. He told
me that my illness was a step forward, a sign of real progress.
As I reflected on this insight, I began to see the truth of his
words. This dark night of the soul has concentrated my attention
on what is really necessary. I began letting go of everything,
since everything seemed so meaningless in relationship to the
goal: union with God. The inner darkness of my spirit was inviting
me to subtler levels of surrender. I found myself wanting to radiate
the intense love of the Divine Presence, and that became my purpose
during my recuperation. As I was lying on the gurney, waiting
for each treatment, I would visualize the radiation coming in
and being transmuted by my love into beams of loving compassion
toward all. This image carried my intention and effectively galvanized
The dark night of the soul brought about by this illness also
provided me with deeper self-knowledge, or I should say, reminded
me of what I already knew about myself. I saw that I was struggling
with God’s will for me. I had been resisting total surrender,
holding back part of my commitment. The cancer forced me to reexamine
my hidden motives, my unspoken assumptions about happiness, for
example, that I could have happiness on my own terms, that I could
be happy regardless of others rather than in relation to others.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have gone through this process of self-examination
if it hadn’t been for the sickness, or perhaps this process
would have been greatly delayed.
I feel that I’ve gained from my illness the great gift of
spiritual grace, a permanent acquisition that I must now build
on. The direction is clear to me, as is the effort required. In
a sense, my bout with cancer has been like a long retreat for
me. Retreats should help us take stock of our lives, rectify our
course, and set a new direction. I now feel I am ready for some
great breakthroughs on my spiritual journey.
Opening the Wisdom Eye
As illness opens the heart to growth in relation to the Divine,
it also awakens the “wisdom eye” from its slumbers.
The wisdom eye is essentially a subtle capacity to see, to know,
to understand, and to respond. Classically the wisdom eye is activated
through mystical experience or intense spiritual practice. Sometimes
the process happens spontaneously while we are engaged in some
simple activity, like washing dishes, raking leaves, doing laundry,
painting, or listening to music. In fact, anything can stimulate
the opening of the wisdom eye, and the Zen tradition, with its
experience of satori, or seeing into one’s own nature, also
called kensho, has devoted much attention to this topic.
Suffering, and particularly an illness like cancer, can activate
this contemplative capacity in us. Although I like to think my
wisdom eye was opened long before my illness appeared, through
many years of contemplation, the suffering I experienced through
the illness deepened this capacity. The shock of my diagnosis
propelled my attention — or focused it more intensely —
on realities beyond my normal perception and uncovered for me
what was important here and now, like being present to others,
being fully engaged in my activities, and appreciating my friends
and loved ones.
Even before my diagnosis, in fact the very night before, I had
three powerful experiences: a dream, a unitive experience, and
the perception of nonhuman presences. As I mentioned earlier,
during the years since his death, my Uncle John has regularly
shown up in my dreams. This dream was very disturbing. Uncle John’s
body was floating in the ocean, although he wasn’t dead.
A strong feeling of danger pervaded the dream, as if warning me
of impending crisis. Then, as I lay awake in bed the next morning,
I experienced a full and comprehensive encounter with God, in
which the Spirit took hold of my entire being and poured love
into me, saturating my being. This experience was all-encompassing.
The Divine communicated its love to me intimately, enveloping
me totally. Then just as quickly as the Spirit came it went, but
what preceded its departure was a strange meeting and conversing
of presences in my bedroom. They were talking about something
that I couldn’t make out, and though the presences were
vague in form, they were clearly there in the room.
Each event is an example of the wisdom eye, or the eye of contemplative
understanding, at work. I believe that together these instances
were a harbinger meant to prepare me for my diagnosis and also,
perhaps, to put my mind at ease about the eventual outcome. Each
in its own way was part of a special grace and taken together
they were a gift to support me in this period of trial. I know
that these phenomena are supernatural in origin and intention.
My wisdom eye, my contemplative capacity, was on to the truth
before I had even learned of the diagnosis.
The wisdom eye has many levels: cosmological, metaphysical, psychological,
mystical, moral, and spiritual. Though these dimensions are always
present and accessible, they may be heightened through suffering.
Direct knowledge of ultimate principles, not just speculation
about them, represents the cosmological and metaphysical dimensions.
These ultimate principles are insights into the nature, origin,
and purpose of the universe and the ground out of which it has
emerged into being. The metaphysical level of the wisdom eye’s
scope of perception allows us to understand reality as it actually
is, unadorned by our distortions and misperceptions. The psychological
and mystical levels include a deep perception of the interconnectedness
of all sentient beings. The moral reality shows itself in an innate
sense of solidarity with all those who suffer. The moral and spiritual
aspects of the contemplative capacity often express themselves
in a desire to remove suffering from others, or if this is not
possible, to at least not add to what others have to carry. We
have so eloquently witnessed the great corporal works of mercy,
as the Catholic tradition calls them, in the life and activities
of the great saints, the social gospel of Christianity, socially
engaged Buddhism and Hinduism, and selfless service to the homeless
poor. These all reflect the moral and spiritual dimensions of
the wisdom eye.
The response of compassion to great pain and suffering all around
us is born from a deep ground of love, that ground on which we
all must stand as we cultivate our spiritual lives. This is the
vivifying source of our solidarity with all beings, the energy
out of which we respond to all those in need, especially those
needing to be consoled and understood. Suffering and illness clear
away the self-centeredness to which our culture habituates us
and establishes us profoundly in that ground of love that is the
Divine, the source of all good. We are given the perspective to
grasp our true situation in life and to understand the nature
of the reality in which, according to the Acts of the Apostles,
“we live, and move, and have our being.”
Like the notion of tough love, in which families and friends must
help their loved ones escape destructive patterns by challenging
them, tough grace is a gift from God to the soul in need of growth.
Tough grace is the Divine’s way of reaching certain souls
who may need a measure of suffering to rise above their preoccupations,
or to take others deeper into His love. Tough grace is first and
foremost a form of divine communication. It operates through illness,
injustice, psychological problems, and misunderstandings to bring
us to a single-minded attention on what is important for our ultimate
Tough grace is never about punishment. God doesn’t punish
us with suffering. Nor is it a means of divine coercion. The Spirit
just doesn’t work that way. The Divine is not wrathful,
as the biblical tradition sometimes represents it. This wrathfulness
is not in God, but in the human misinterpretation of God’s
words and actions. Suffering provides us with lessons that dispose
us more readily to divine union and helps us to consider those
things we often take for granted. Tough grace puts these things
in front of our face. We are pushed to make decisions about our
relationship with God. Tough grace brings about a radical simplification
of our lives by first purifying our hidden motives with love and
compassion. It highlights just what we need for the spiritual
journey and counsels us to leave the rest behind. In this way,
tough grace is itself a gift, though it may be the kind of gift
we aren’t too anxious to receive, until we witness its profound
transformative effects on us. Then we understand.
An incident from the life of St. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century
Spanish Carmelite mystic, speaks to the divine intention behind
tough grace. Teresa was journeying by horse-drawn carriage in
the pouring rain, far from any town, when one of the carriage
wheels got caught in the mud. After the passengers had climbed
out of the carriage, she stood in the rain while the driver was
trying to fix the wheel. Disheartened, she spoke to God: “Why
do you treat me this way, Lord?” God responded: “Teresa,
my beloved child, this is how I treat all my friends!” Not
wanting God to have the last word, she remarked: “No wonder
you have so few friends!”
Teresa bore many trials in her day, most related to the reform
of the Carmelite Order. She and John of the Cross were attacked
by members who resisted reform, and John was imprisoned by his
own friars. In fact, it was from his cell that he wrote some of
his great mystical works. Of course, saints and mystics necessarily
share in the sufferings of humanity, but also in the Spirit’s
sufferings. We all share in these sufferings, according to our
capacity, acceptance, and generosity. From the Christian perspective,
this should not surprise us. God the Father required that his
own son, Jesus, suffer horrifically and saw to it that his agony
would be potentially redemptive for all humankind. Christ’s
Passion represents the most severe form of tough grace. Central
to the Christian mystery is that the Beloved Son, the one the
Divine Father loved from eternity, was asked to make this greatest
sacrifice, his own life, as an act of redemptive love for us.
Tough grace required that the Son of God suffer far more than
most human beings could endure.
If the Father asks his own son to embrace the worst kind of suffering,
even if briefly, can we who claim to be his friends expect anything
less? What should be clear is that suffering is not all negative
in its implications. Suffering stretches us and stimulates our
growth. Through tough grace, the Divine draws out of us some of
the greatest miracles of inner change.
The Buddha’s View
The Buddha realized, and stated in his first Noble Truth, that
suffering is fundamentally part of life: the suffering of birth,
illness, old age, and death itself. I think everyone would agree
with the Buddha’s contention that suffering is natural to
this existence. The Buddha identifies another kind of suffering
that is essentially self-inflicted. Self-inflicted suffering is
caused by our own selfish desires, our stubborn attachments, our
craving to have things our way. Most moral evil in the world is
caused by this kind of desire. Sobering examples are the brutal
regimes of Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao; their possession
and use of power led to great human suffering.
The Buddha understood how this self-inflicted suffering was,
at least partially, under our control. We can eliminate the suffering
caused by the afflictive emotions like hatred, greed, and aversion
by disengaging from our desires. To take the path of eliminating
the roots of desires that cause suffering is the way of enlightenment.
We cannot do anything to eliminate fundamental suffering, but
we can do much to free ourselves from the self-inflicted sort,
an essential part of being a Buddhist.
The Buddhist notion of dukkha, the term employed for suffering,
is subtler than the English word suffering. Dukkha also connotes
dread, anxiety, desperation, depression, rage, the basic unsatisfactory
nature of life. Dukkha colors life with a depressive screen, a
screen we ourselves create, sustain, and often complicate with
our selfish schemes. We have (only!) to forgo our cravings, through
spiritual practice and what the Buddha identified as the Eightfold
Path. This well-known path includes ethical principles, like right
view, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, and meditation
concentration expressed in practice.
Jesus would have agreed with the Buddha’s ideas about the
two types of suffering. But he might have added the divine, salvific
economy of suffering and grace. Jesus, in the Incarnation, performed
a kind of divine composting. He took our sin, negativity, and
inhumanity and transformed them by his sacrificial love, just
as compost is slowly converted to rich earth. Jesus did not flee
this agony but embraced it head-on. And according to the Christian
tradition, through that act a cosmic, mystical transformation
This insight appears in some form in the lives of all the saints.
The vast majority of saints never wished to be separated from
their sufferings; they knew that their suffering was directly
related to the Divine’s sufferings, particularly as expressed
in Christ’s Incarnation and the Redemption. The saints desired
to remain part of the divine, salvific economy of suffering; they
wanted to participate directly and permanently in it, because
they knew they were also sharing in the transformation of humankind’s
pain, agony, illness, inhumanity, injustice, cruelty, and indifference.
The saints knew they had to participate in the inner agony to
attain the final glory. This is similar to the Buddhist notion
that we should never turn away from the sufferings of others.
Suffering as Redemption
In my life and spiritual development, and through my struggle
with cancer, I have come to a new understanding of the nature
of suffering. The insight that suffering has a redemptive quality
strikes me deeply. I am convinced that suffering, when rightly
understood and embraced generously, is ultimately a path to spiritual
and moral, even psychological, transformation. This transformation
is essentially what our spiritual journey is all about. Suffering
is a bit of unpleasant assistance on the way. It helps us in the
long run as we awaken to the ultimate goal of intimacy with the
Divine, with boundless consciousness.
Each of us must face the reality of suffering in our own lives
and in the lives of our loved ones. None of us can escape illness,
old age, and death. We must strive to understand this aspect of
life and to find a way to integrate it into our experience. We
are challenged to look more deeply into the meaning and reality
of illness and suffering in human life and in all sentient beings.
Like Tibetan lamas, who in their training are familiarized with
dead bodies, driving home death’s ultimate reality, we must
face death straight on. Most of all, we have a responsibility
to confront suffering, for it has much to teach us.
What are suffering and illness trying to teach us? We require
a mature approach to this part of our lives, an approach that
will allow us to understand the gift in the challenge, the jewel
in the pain, the light in the darkness beyond the suffering. The
progress of each one of us, as that of the human race itself,
depends on a more adequate understanding of this mysterious reality
in our lives.
For too long Western cultures have interpreted suffering and
illness simply, and profanely, as tragedies with little or no
meaning. Suffering, illness, and the various other challenges,
are cut off from their ontological and spiritual roots. The Christian
vision restores these roots.
Christ is said to have taken on himself the sufferings of humanity
and the consequences flowing from them. More than that, suffering
manifests an ultimately beneficial, salvific power that transforms
all of human negativity into something beautiful, powerful, life-giving,
and productive of positive results for everyone, at least potentially.
We are at a crossroads in how we understand pain, illness, and
suffering. The human family is restless over the old approaches,
because we know there is something more. It is our task now to
understand this dimension of human experience in a new light,
to free it from its useless context of secular meaninglessness.
We possess the tools to gain insight, but we must look in the
right direction. Sooner or later, each one of us must confront
our own suffering. Then the question becomes what we will do with
it. How will we regard it so that it enhances our well-being?
Our task as humans is the same: wise understanding, so that we
can make those decisions that will contribute to our eventual
spiritual transformation through the mystery of our suffering.
Excerpted from A Monk in the World by Wayne Teasdale.
Copyright © 2002 by Wayne Teasdale. Excerpted by arrangement
with New World Library. All rights reserved. $14.95. Available
in local bookstores or call 800.972.6657 Ext. 52 or click