Suffering, Witnessing, and the Ability to Feel
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
(Originally published June, 2018)
I recently came upon a video showing the effects and the aftermath of the chemical attacks on Syria. In this video, men, women, and children—so many children—lie shaking in the streets, half-paralyzed and half gasping for air, while relief workers ran about in a frenzy trying to soothe and save these countless innocent souls.
It’s a gut-wrenching scene, and I almost didn’t watch this video at all. My heart has been heavy, aching, ripped open by this conflict and so many others happening in the world. It is a LOT for the sensitive soul to take in, and so my usual mode is one of self-preservation: I just keep on scrolling, metaphorically walking on by without stopping to look and see and take any of it in.
But this time, I decided to stop. This time, I felt I needed to watch—that for some reason, it was vitally important that I do.
You see, around that same time I had been contemplating the role of suffering in our lives. The Buddhists believe suffering is a necessary part of life—that all of life is suffering. It’s the first of Four Noble Truths which form the basis of Buddhism. There’s also a pervasive and parallel belief held in the world at large that suffering makes us stronger and so to suffer is to be ennobled. On the opposite end of the belief spectrum you’ve got the alluring doctrine of the manifestors, many of whom say that suffering is entirely optional and life can be a non-stop joy ride.
While there are certainly merits to these beliefs, it’s tempting to want to believe in one more than the other, especially if you are actively suffering and desperately seeking a way out. But in my experience as a healer, I have discovered that none of these is completely true — that a crucial piece of the puzzle has gone missing.
The whole truth is that suffering isn’t meant to be endured, cheerfully or stoically otherwise, holding your breath and hanging on until the intensity passes at long last; it’s meant to be actively experienced, but without embellishment or without searching for the nearest escape. Just experienced. No more, no less.
Sadistic as this may seem, there is a reason, a vital one: When we open ourselves up to the simple experience of suffering, we allow ourselves the rare opportunity to come into balance—to view and know and experience the darkness while simultaneously holding onto the light and making space for more light, more hope, more love, more joy. It is this precise moment of balance, of holding the dark and the light in equal measure without judgement or fear, that does more than simply push the darkness aside; it allows darkness to be neutralized, transmuted and eradicated forever.
This is how light wins—not by fighting or outshining, but by holding itself in equal measure of the dark, unafraid.
It seems magical, doesn’t it? Almost too good to be true … but it isn’t. It’s a truth I’ve experienced again and again, and there’s enough power in it that I keep coming back for more.
But experiencing suffering in this way is an art. It does not come easily, and it takes practice—an undertaking that’s daunting at best and incapacitating at worst. In fact, it can feel downright dangerous to some … to those whose own deeply-buried suffering lies hidden, unexpressed, yet powerful and potentially all-consuming.
And that’s what makes videos like these so hard to watch. It isn’t just what they contain; it’s that they remind us of what we already feel.
Instinctively we know that somewhere inside, these same feelings of anguish and suffering and helplessness already exist—that there’s an internal vibrational match. Only these feelings don’t all belong to others, to someone on a screen we can shut off and walk away from; this agony inside is ours, evidence of our own great suffering that has yet to be acknowledged and reconciled and fully brought into the light.
This is why we turn away. We fear the suffering of others because it reminds us that we, too, suffer … and we don’t know how deep that well of suffering is, or what’s really at the bottom. We fear that if we open the door to one emotion we open the door to them all — and we just don’t know how many there are.
This is what we truly fear — it isn't what’s out there; we fear what’s already inside.
But this is exactly why developing the capacity to witness and simply experience suffering is so powerful: It’s a chance for us to free our own souls of our own suffering, providing that crucial compassionate witness not only to the plight of others known or unknown, but to ourselves. To witness is to shine a light, cleansing and illuminating the space where your own darkness once lurked.
And it’s so much more than two-for-one healing; it sets the stage for massive transformation, in yourself and in the world at large.
By witnessing, experiencing, and cleansing this particular vibration of suffering, it ceases to exist, in yourself or anyone else. Such is the power of transmutation. And although suffering of various shades will continue to exist (at least for the time being), you will have developed a greater capacity to experience this cycle of healing again and again, ridding the world of more darkness, more pain, more suffering, flooding the world with so much light that eventually shadows have nowhere to hide.