Click HERE to return to the Home Page


  << Click to return to

Free Prize Drawings
10 second  
sign-up to quailfy
Articles Archive


finance & law  
Free Resources
  free legal advice    
  free maps & directions    
  free games    
    shop for  
gifts & products
  gifts for grandkids    
  product profiles    
Support Our Site
your Home Page
  Click on our sponsors'  

In Association with

Tough Grace: Understanding Suffering


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 loving compassion.

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, loving beings.

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 the Spirit.

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 my love.

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.”

Tough Grace
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 development.

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.

Christ’s View
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 occurred.

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 here.

about us    
© 1995-2008 Reece R. Halpern. All rights reserved.