What if suffering were a collectively held resource, like the world’s forests and oceans, and our work as humans were to take compassionate responsibility for the portions of suffering that come within our sphere of influence? What would it mean to take good care of suffering? Inspired by Nature Conservancy stories of conscientious landowners doing their part to preserve and to rehabilitate their bits of the landscape – I have been feeling into my role as a stakeholder in what I have come to call the Suffering Conservancy.
To be clear, the Suffering Conservancy is not about perpetuating pain – old human patterns of ignorance and reactivity do that very efficiently already. It’s also not about pretending I can eliminate pain like some kind of virus or invasive plant. Instead, there’s a hunch that each arising instance of pain – received with openness and compassion – is a gateway to understanding the fullness of human experience. This hunch feels aligned with the life-science realization that a small section of woods can be a gateway to understanding a whole forest. It also resonates with the Mahayana Buddhist idea of Indra’s Net:
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering "like" stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.
Let me be a little more concrete. Today, our friend John died, as a result of a lightning-bolt recurrence of cancer. We went to see him three weeks ago, when he had just received his new diagnosis, and he said, “I could be dead in three weeks, or I could live another three years.” As it turns out, the first was true.
John did not want to die. He was very clear about this. He loved life, and was good at living it. He was clear about the fact that he would not allow his illness to define him. Between the first round of catastrophic cancer and the second, he lived well and fully, reveling in the mountains and forests he loved, and in the wide circle of his friendships.
That first week, back in the hospital, we talked about his coming to stay with us for a little while after discharge, as a break from the small art studio he had been living and working in for years. We talked casually, with the climbing bum’s familiar back-knowledge of an endless chain of give and take. He was glad to know we had a shower downstairs that he could use. We were glad to think we might have a tree-sprite housemate for a little while.
Then it became clear: casual housemates weren’t what John was going to be needing at all. He was going to be needing a place to receive hospice care, to prepare to die, to be watched over by friends and family. We were up for this in theory. I stood in the living room and visualized the dissolution of its familiar order: no more couch, carpet, table, chairs. Instead: hospital bed, drip, urinal. Dying friend. Fine. What else would we be doing?
It didn’t happen that way. Before we could risk making our helpfulness into a nuisance, John showed us he needed to be where he was, in the public space of the hospital, and not in the private space of a house. He would die well under the care of doctors and nurses – some of whom I knew personally from a recent stint as a hospital chaplain intern. His family and many friends could come and go according to a schedule that would not be cramped by a parallel household’s needs for privacy and rest.
John took good care of his suffering. Previously a voluble, expressive man, he became quiet, in order to tend more closely to his experience. When we came to visit, he would ask us to be still, sit by his side, and hold his hand. At some level this might have seemed like taking care of John, but I think we also came away with the realization that he was taking care of us by offering the example of being with his suffering. Listen. What’s the benefit of these thoughts? These actions? Are they fitting for the bedside of a man who’s aged three decades in three weeks? Am I opening a clear space for suffering, giving it space to pass through, or am I cluttering its surface?
This morning we dropped off our beloved Chow-Chow mutt for surgery. Because we spent extra time in a big human-dog-pile on the Airbnb bed (special dispensation), and then got screwed in Massachusetts morning traffic, I didn’t get to my morning sit until after we’d handed Chloe over to a sweet veterinary student at the hospital. I limped to the lawn outside, and sat down on one of many big wooden benches dedicated by grieving families to their deceased pets.
Closing my eyes, I felt into What Is. Sitting on that dog memorial bench, one day after losing a friend to cancer, one week before my own surgery, as my own sweet beast was being prepped for a scary knee implant, outside a building full of sick or injured pets & worried people, I found that What Is, was sadness. I felt it well up in my chest and eyes, and then I saw all the suffering of this particular place all around me, opening up into all the suffering of sick people and animals, whatever their outcomes might prove to be. I saw untended pain, pain well tended, chronic pain, accidental pain, mortal pain, and pain of recovery. It was all right there, breaking my heart open. I kept parts of my attention grounded in body-sensations, in- and out-breaths, and the sounds of the birds in the trees above. The pain built to immense proportions, and all the while, there was room for it in the space of an open heart. It would ease, then John’s face or Chloe’s face would come back to me, the tears would flow again, and I’d see all the others. Gradually, just like that, the whole tide passed through, and I found I was looking at a little robin hopping around in the grass about twenty feet away from me. I felt alive, connected, and clear as I chanted vows:
Beings are numberless, I vow to free them all.
Then, noticing the robin was gone, or maybe now part of a pair, I rose tear-streaked & refreshed to meet my husband in the waiting room full of hobbly, coughing beasts and their devoted people. In my experience, each time I agree to feel pain fully, to feel pain that’s not strictly “my own” I emerge with this very sense of aliveness and clarity. And I think that is precisely because suffering IS a resource we hold in common, and it holds us. Negotiating to feel only this little bit of pain, or that one, for as little time as possible, while keeping all the rest at bay, is as unsatisfying as trying to swim in the ocean while keeping most of yourself dry. You might emerge with your hairdo intact, but you’ll never know the pure joy of rolling through the waves. You’ll never feel the ocean embracing you & everyone as its own beloved children, and you’ll never step back onto land reborn, unborn, salty, sandy, and grinning from ear to ear.