Having spent 3 days with the great Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (known affectionately as “Thay”) this week, I realized there is a big blind spot in my practice: I haven’t really learned to suffer.

My spiritual practice over the past 22 years has been the practice of peace, joy and kindness.  Over the years, I have learned to calm my mind and access joy on demand, in most situations.  I have become so skilled at doing this that it has become my main coping mechanism in the face of suffering.  Whenever I suffer, I calm my mind, I activate joy, and I overcome suffering like a kungfu master easily overcoming his enemies.

Sadly, it turns out that I’m still human, not (yet) buddha.  Not being a buddha means I’m not invincible to suffering.  There are situations in life where the suffering is so overwhelming that my skillfulness with accessing joy is not strong enough to overcome it.  In those situations, I just grind my teeth and endure, knowing that all mental phenomena are impermanent and that eventually, I will (likely) come out at the other end (mostly) intact.  In other words, when my access to joy fails, my fallback coping mechanism is sheer endurance of pain.

The most valuable thing I have learned from Thay in the 3 days I’ve spent with him is that there is such a thing as an “Art of Suffering”.  There is a way to suffer that is far more skillful than sheer endurance.  More importantly, this “knowing how to suffer” is an important part of one’s spiritual growth.  From my (probably incomplete) understanding of Thay’s teaching, there are 3 steps in suffering skillfully.

Step 1:  Calm the mind.  Always, first and foremost, calm the mind.  Do so by coming home to body and mind, in the present moment.  Specifically, bring full attention to at least one in-breath.  Stop thinking.  Don’t think, just feel.  By not thinking for even the 3 seconds it takes to attend to the in-breath, one calms the body and mind.

Step 2:  Cradle with tenderness.  Cradle the pain like a mother cradles her crying baby.  The mother doesn’t know why the baby is crying, but she cradles the baby anyway, and just by doing that, the baby feels better.  Similarly, treat the pain like a baby and cradle it tenderly with love.

Step 3:  Cultivate compassion from this suffering.  Compassion arises from understanding of suffering.  Suffering is like mud, compassion is like lotus, and you need the mud to grow the lotus.  So, understand the suffering, and allow that understanding to turn into compassion.  When compassion dominates the mind, suffering naturally fades away.

If there is one word that summarizes all 3 steps, I think that word is “Love”.  Love oneself enough to allow the space for oneself to suffer, without shame or judgement.  In suffering, there is nothing to be ashamed of, there is no reason to hide, it’s just the natural experience of suffering, that’s all.  Love oneself enough to allow the space and time to heal.  Love oneself enough to cradle one’s own pain tenderly with kindness.  And love all sentient being enough to want to cultivate compassion.

The Art of Suffering is love.

I am reminded of a story I heard from Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev a few weeks ago.

Once upon a time, there was a “hard yogi” (a yogi who practices “hard yoga” like standing on one leg for years on end and so on) who had been practicing for 30 years.  This yogi met the great Ramakrishna and asked him, “Even after all my years of hard practice, there is something not in me that I sense is in you.  What do I need to do so that what is in you is also in me?”

Ramakrishna asked, “As a yogi, have you ever loved anybody or anything?”  The yogi was initially offended and answered, “No, of course not.”  But after much prodding by Ramakrishna, he admitted to once loving a cow many years ago.  The yogi lived in the forest far away from people so he could concentrate on his practice, but kept a cow in his hut for the milk.  (I am told that cows in India live in people’s houses and people develop strong emotional bonds with them.)  After a while, our yogi started to really love the cow and became very attached to it.

One day, a wandering yogi passed by the hut and asked to stay for a few days.  The hard yogi welcomed him with open arms and invited him to stay for as long as he wished.  But after just one day, the wandering yogi left the hut in the middle of the night without telling his host, which in Indian culture, only happens when the guest is deeply offended by the host.  When the hard yogi realized his guest was missing, he chased down the wandering yogi and asked why he left in such a manner.  The wandering yogi said in disgust, “It is obvious that you love the cow.  You are not a true yogi.”  The hard yogi realized the visitor was right, so he gave the cow away.

When Ramakrishna heard the story, he told the hard yogi, “Here is what I want you to do.  I want you to get a cow and take care of it for one year.”  The hard yogi did that.  He learned to love the cow.  And a year later, he met Ramakrishna again and said to the master, “What is in you, I now also have it in me.”