Wading into the Waters of Suffering
Story tells us, the Buddha was once asked how he crossed the great flood of suffering. The exchange went like this:
“How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?”
“By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood.”
“But how is it, dear sir, that by not halting and by not straining you crossed the flood?”
“When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not halting and by not straining I crossed the flood.”
The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and lived reality itself teach us that suffering is inevitable. Each of us, because we are alive, knows suffering. The question, then, is not how to avoid it, but what we will do with it. As the writer Ben Okri put it, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”
Certainly, the natural inclination to prevent or diminish suffering, our own and others’, is an important skill for survival and wellbeing. But avoidance is another thing, and the Buddha’s answer about crossing the flood of suffering offers the wisdom of a different way. Notice, the Buddha did not step back or turn away from the flood. Nor did he look for, or even build, a bridge to cross it from on high. He stepped into it and, neither halting nor straining, he crossed it.
It calls to mind another story from Hebrew scripture, when the Israelites are fleeing slavery and coming to the Red Sea with the Egyptian army on their heels. Trapped between the shore and the approaching soldiers, the Israelites complain to Moses that he has led them on a quest for freedom only to be slaughtered there. Moses, turning to God for guidance, receives God’s reply: “Tell the Israelites to move on!”
As this story tells us, the Red Sea parts, offering the Israelites safe passage to the other side, then closing again and destroying the Egyptian army in pursuit. One Midrash, though, suggests the sea did not part before the Israelites moved on. Only when one bold Israelite, a man named Nachshon from the tribe of Yahudah, stepped into the rising waters and kept going did the sea finally open, making a path on dry land to the other side.
When suffering comes, as we know it will – and as it has with abundance this year, flooding us with loss and illness, with despair and grief, with fear and anger – these stories and others advise us not to hold back, not to turn or look away, but to wade into the waters. To neither halt nor strain, but to move on, passing through the suffering that comes.
Life will always involve suffering, sometimes in such large measure we cannot see the other side of it. How will we approach it? What might it mean to cross it without halting and without straining?
One step at a time we move through it. Staying present to our own pain and that of others, we discover that being present to pain means we are also available to love and joy. Remembering that pain, like all experiences, will not be permanent. That change is as surely a part of life as suffering is. That being present to this moment asks only that we take one more step; and then, one more after that, neither avoiding suffering nor straining against it. We keep moving, one step and one moment at a time. Especially when we don’t know where we’re headed or how long it will take to get there, we let go of how we were before and with each step, we begin again. Opening our hearts to how it is now, we begin to participate in shaping how it might be tomorrow.
By stepping into the present, we give ourselves to a deeper and wider truth that began before us and continues after us. We discover that under the floodwaters of suffering run the currents of love and connection and change, ready to carry us as we cross. Not halting, not straining, we begin again in love.
If you wish to write about this, you might settle yourself for quiet reflection and recall one encounter you have recently had with suffering — your own or someone else’s. Placing your hand or hands on your heart, and holding your own suffering and that of others, speak the words, repeating several times, if you like: May we know peace. May our hearts remain open. May we know the beauty of our higher selves. May we be healed. May we be a source of healing. Taking a deep breath with the intention of opening your heart as you open an empty page beneath your pen, begin with this prompt and follow wherever it leads:
If I step into these waters, not halting and not straining….