“To Me, the definition of hell is simple: it’s a place where there is no understanding and no compassion. Your practice consists in generating compassion and understanding and transforming the suffering around us.” Thich Nhat Hanh
We all have the potential to create our own hell by reacting to and feeding our suffering rather than taking the time to understand it and generate compassion. During times of distress a lack of understanding can cause us to turn to unhealthy avoidance strategies that take us further into suffering. We may fall into fear responses that lead to blaming “the other”, anger, aggression, and hatred. These reactions only multiply the cascading effects of suffering passing it on to everyone around us. In order to step out of our own hell, we need to find a calm place from which we can sit with our suffering so that we can understand its true nature and find a healthy way out of it.
Without understanding we turn to habitual reactions that increase the suffering within and around us. In her book The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagel describes suffering as “being the passive recipient, not the initiator of one’s experience and without self-knowledge the person is driven by impulses he does not understand.” These impulses make us want to find a culprit for our suffering and solve it by forcing them to change or punishing them. Constantly seeking to end our suffering by controlling and manipulating our surroundings only leads to more suffering. Healing comes when we understand that the root of suffering comes from within us and that the way out of it is by changing the way we relate to our situation.
Many spiritual and healing practices teach us that in order to end suffering we must first understand it. The Act found in Ibid 95.16-96.42 quotes Jesus saying “learn how to suffer and you shall be able not to suffer.” The four noble truths of Buddhism say that suffering exists and through understanding we will find a way out. Unfortunately, understanding suffering is not something that happens in the 1/10,000th of a second it takes for us to create a thought from an experience. (2) Without conscious awareness our brain will process perceived threatening input in the thalamus which sends the information straight to the amygdala creating a stress response instead of first sending the input to the medial prefrontal cortex where it could be processed with learned perceptions that generate a healthy response. (3) Our ability to spend time with our suffering depends on our ability to become consciously aware of it and then process it cognitively. This kind of processing is a learned skill.
Contemplative practices can teach us how to become the initiators of our own experience. Jon Kabat Zinn describes mediation as the ability to “see things clearly and deliberately positioning yourself differently in relationship to them.” We can see things clearly and choose how to relate to them when we are processing with our prefrontal cortex instead of our amygdala. David Hawkins describes the changes that happen in our brain in heightened levels of consciousness saying that “we process input through our cerebral cortex which leads to less stress response, more positive emotion, and peace states that release endorphins and help support the immune system leading to healing.” (2) Contemplative practices can give us the ability to slow down our responses and process input in a peaceful manner.
When we are able to spend more time with our suffering before responding, we begin to soften to it responding in compassion rather than out of fear or avoidance. Only fear and aversion push us to find culprits and to pursue harming or changing them in the false hopes of ending our own suffering. With understanding we can see that there is no need to fight suffering by causing more suffering to others. We can generate self-love and forgiveness that then reach out and heal others.
- Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. United States, Random House Publishing Group, 2004.
- Hawkins, David R.. The Eye of the I. United States, Veritas Pub., 2001.
- Ledoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. United States, Simon & Schuster, 2015.