“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
―Carl Gustav Jung
In my work, I often encounter suffering in my clients, whether they be men or women. It always catches me by surprise, because it is unusual for people to be able to articulate accurately what their suffering is like. People can describe their histories, their traumas, and their difficulties, however suffering in each person occurs as uniquely as an orgasm does. You can never anticipate how someone’s suffering is going to appear until it flows through them in its purest expression.
People work with me for a variety of reasons. Most are seeking some kind of an expansive experience of themselves beyond their ego, which is constructed of their history, biography and reaction to pain and pleasure. Nobody comes to me in search of suffering. Yet, it always appears, and is in my opinion, even more profound than the experience of transcendence, which also regularly visits my work. Over time my understanding of the work I do has changed. Transcendence has always interested me, but the further I go in my life and in my work, the more I believe that the willingness to endure one’s suffering is the staircase that leads to transcendence. That is not what I believed when I began this work, but now I am now sure of it.
In my own experience, suffering has been a great teacher. When i was sixteen, my father died of cancer. He was the person that I had been closest to growing up, and his death was an unimaginably cruel irony. This experience changed my life in its’ entirety. I was no longer a carefree child. Death was suddenly a real presence. Seven years later I found myself in an analyst’s office because being in analysis was required for my graduate school counseling internship where I was seeing psychotherapy clients for the first time. My self narrative for my being in therapy was that it was required for my training. The reality turned out to be something else entirely. Through the skills of my analyst, it quickly evolved into profound grief work. Grief that I had carried since my father’s death poured out of me for an entire year. I would go to therapy, sob, and then ride the BART back to San Francisco, still crying. I would go home, make dinner while still crying, then go to sleep. Analysis or no Analysis, I cried everyday for a year, and accepted this new reality as one that may always exist. Then, one day, it just stopped. The pressure I had been under was gone. The well of tears was empty. I am quite sure that this experience saved my life.
Perhaps my own suffering was how I was being prepared for this work. But still it was not my primary focus. I am a big believer in the power of awe and joy. These two missing emotions in our culture is the vacuum from where suffering takes hold. Awe and Joy are birthrights. They should be available to everyone. But they are not often provided by experience, environment or upbringing. There is a paucity of awe and joy in our experience and our instinct for these experiences is frustrated. We have a natural instinct to experience awe and joy, and in not being provided an environment to experience these states, we are denied our most profound capacities.
This is not an intellectual, verbal or conceptual experience. It is a re-experiencing of the denial of the divine and the suffering that results from this frustrated instinct. This frustration results from the limitations of understanding of the people we grew up around. Often our family, friends, and stewards, had themselves been compromised in their capacity to express joy and awe. People being unkind, or abusive, or neglectful, or just not being able to empathize with who we are, is usually the result of their own misunderstanding resulting from their own suffering. Usually this experience exists outside their conscious mind.
When suffering comes, it is an awesome experience. The air in the room changes. It is like a long absent spirit has entered. Sometimes it begins with a trickle, sometimes the floodgates open all at once. Once the walls of the ego lower, the experience that lies beyond them floods awareness quickly, defenses collapse, a flood of emotion, memories, sensations and frustrations rush into consciousness. Often these emotions, sensations and memories have been hidden from awareness for decades, or perhaps an entire lifetime. But when these feelings come, they run through the body and consciousness with the only resistance being the tolerance capacity of the individual. Crying, sobbing, and wailing are all commonplace, and always welcome. They all are the death throes of the holding of a lifetime’s burden.
However suffering comes, it is always a relief. People ask, “Am I doing this right?” “Is this OK?” “Is something wrong?” “Will this end?” The answer is always the same, “No, nothing is wrong, this is fine, this is alright. This is good.” Usually after realizing that they are doing nothing wrong, a catharsis occurs. Relief follows, then awe and joy. Suffering is the pathway to awe and joy. Once it is done, laughter often follows. It sounds counterintuitive, but it is predictable. Suffering is the gateway to the transcendent. It is the artifact of where we have last known it, and where our circumstances caused us to lose touch with it. Like a trail of crumbs left in the forest, it shows us our where we have deviated from our transcendent origins and become distracted from that primary reality. It’s not to be avoided, it’s to be embraced. It will never let you down.