Stephen Levine, who died last week, was a beautiful spiritual teacher, whose work with death and dying influenced me greatly. In 1992 I first heard his talk, “In the Heart Lies the Deathless” which, along with Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” taught me about the difference between pain and suffering. This teaching has influenced me in the way I meditate, how I teach meditation, and how I work with dreams.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism address the inevitability of suffering and the way out of suffering. In many ways, this teaching has been misunderstood by those who wish to rise above the world, transcend their human experience. The Buddha wasn’t speaking about physical pain here, perhaps not even painful essential feelings (loss, sorrow, grief, sadness.) He was speaking about suffering, which is different.
Here is the way I have come to understand the difference, through the teachings of meditation and the teachings that come to us in our dreams. Both teachings meet us where we are in our human experience and both can help us clear our minds and open our hearts.
Physical pain is real. It is hot, it is sharp, it aches, it throbs…and worse. Our bodies know when they are in pain and they let us know. Painful essential feelings are real…our heart physically aches with grief, loss, etc. I ask my dream clients, “where do you feel this in your body?” and they can sometimes tell me…in my heart…in my stomach..in my solar plexus. Physical pain and painful feelings move, fast or slow, and can move through us.
Suffering is a choice…and as a wise dream colleague clarified…it is only a choice once we know it is a choice as many of us don’t know that suffering is different from pain.
Suffering is of the mind, or in dream language, the story we tell ourselves ‘about the pain’ whether physical or emotional. The more long enduring the story the more long enduring the suffering…even to our death bed. And because suffering is of the mind, it doesn’t move through…it spins…it loops back around…a broken record…we truly lose ourselves in the suffering.
It was a turning point for me in my own work as a meditator and a dreamer, when I reached the moment, where I could say, for example, “I feel sad,” “I feel grief” and not have to attach a ‘because’ to it. In meditation we don’t even attach an ‘I’ to it…‘sadness rising’…‘grief rising.’ In those moments the story…the suffering…is dropped and the feeling is able to be embodied and felt all the way through.
For me, looking at it this way, the Buddha is correct, there is a way out of suffering…a way out of mind…out of story. Two ways that I’ve found are through the practice of meditation and working with our dreams. Both practices, whether sitting in meditation or stepping into a dream help us discern pain from suffering.
Mary Jo Heyen
Archetypal Dreamwork Practitioner
Author of the dream primer, “Who are Those Guys?”
Dream sessions in person, via Skype or on the phone