How I Learned to Walk with Suffering - Contemplative Journal

How I Learned to Walk with Suffering

How I Learned to Walk with Suffering

Walking with suffering is something to embrace, for it allows us to heal in the Revolution of Love. Read my story here…


Before the Revolution

No matter your particular version of suffering, your particular brand of torture and agony which you may have been born into, it is absolutely possible to radically alter the quality of your moment to moment existence. The revolution of Love need only be allowed to do what it does– heal.

I am stubbornly ignorant, somewhat awake to that ignorance, but ignorant still– and it’s challenging to admit to being abused. But I was. Being born into a neighborhood that once housed a human with the disease of pedophilia, I was shattered, over and over– into a seeming oblivion of fragmentation and pain.

The internalized shame of brutality is such a dense blanket of misunderstanding that working with and through this has been a major part of my spiritual practice. And it’s still a major part of my practice, as the tentacles of the habit energy linger.

At the age of six I started begging God “Please don’t let me wake up,” pleading not to have to face another day with the madness of my mind and the searing confusion as to why I felt the way I did. I had no words to describe this hurt, no tools to aid in understanding. It is so easy to hate what we don’t understand. At fifteen I took the matter into my own hands and swallowed the sleeping pills I’d stolen from the store. And at twenty-one I was trying to set the world record for how much coke I could cram up my nose, imagining it to be the perfect way to exit this life I’d found so hard to live.

It was His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s finger pointing to the moon– to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, in The Art Of Happiness, that forever altered the trajectory of the path I was on. I rebelled against the notion that accepting the reality, the inevitability of suffering would actually lessen the suffering. That allowing the pain, rather than kicking and screaming against it, would create enough space around the pain to let the pain be, well– allowable.

I didn’t have to wait long to put the teaching to the test. It was a warm Idaho night, and I was caught in the vicious cycle of mental self abuse. Indeed, I had abused myself much longer than any “other” ever had. Frustration was building into an explosion and it seemed the very neurons of my brain were attacking themselves in a cacophony of self-loathing. Then the thought, the remembrance of the teaching– “Allow the suffering.” And with a building rage which wanted to tear at this flesh, I silently screamed “How?”

And again– “Allow this suffering.” There was a glimpse of space and I wondered, could allowing this pain really be a choice? The mood softened slightly– enough to encourage. “Allow, allow, allow.” And I tried, and with that trying came a flood of… s p a c e. Room enough for this pain and all Beings’ pain. I dropped and wept. So this is Love– not my idea of love, but Love. The suffering in that moment was transmuted into peace and joy through the alchemy of allowance.

Faith was born. Not a floating faith of blind belief, but a faith rooted in a grounding of experience. A taste of what is possible when the armor of resistance is lowered. When the “should” and “should not” is dropped and what is, is allowed. That through allowing what is, is more fully revealed. It is a revolution. Vive la révolution!

If what His Holiness said was true, if what The Buddha said was true– there were methods to practice which would aid in living in this Holy Now. I delved into practice, into meditation, into the way of awareness and allowance with the enthusiasm of a thirsty dog into the wet cool of water. I would put these teachings to the test and see what fruit they bore.

Being raised in a Mormon home, in a Mormon state, and in a Mormon neighborhood, I knew nothing of Buddhism, or anything other than Mormonism for that matter. I’d go to the library or a used book store and try to get out of the way enough to allow the heart to decide what to bring home and possibly immerse myself in.

It was Sogyal Rinpoche’s “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” that brought the meditations on death and impermanence that prepared me for my sweet father’s death. He had been the rock of steadiness in a very unsteady life, my psychological safety net. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have lived through the experience of losing him had it not been for these teachings. Nor would I have been able to try and practice for him as I watched him take his last breath.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” arrived while I was becoming painfully aware of ego subtly masquerading as spirituality and beginning to wonder if I had been fooling myself all along. But the proof was in the pudding: healing was happening. The violent mood swings were settling. The states of depression became fuel for the practice, and their frequency, depth, and duration began to lighten.

The “debris” at the bottom of this murky pool, there all along but now progressively “seen” as the waters of mind began to settle and clear, was painful. Terrifying and violent realizations often brought me to my knees. What saved me from falling into the egoic chasm of despair was practice. And my practice was simply an attempt at moment to moment compassionate presence.

Thich Nhat Han’s teachings could not have come at a more perfect time. They were the thread of sanity in a noise of violent thoughts. I would say to myself “Breathing in I am aware of this pain, breathing out I am smiling to this pain.” Or sometimes, “Breathing in I am aware that I am having homicidal thoughts about the one who abused me. Breathing out I am smiling to this.” And repeat, and go as deep into the looking, the sitting with, the making friends with the shadows within. “Open, open, open. Love, Love, Love. Be.”

Learning Forgiveness

The practice is allowing, accepting all of it, letting the heart open to the hurt within. The hate, the shame, the tears, and the screaming little boy inside my heart who begged to be put out of his misery so often. I cried and cried for that lost and lonely little boy I unconsciously hid away for so many years– suffering all the while in` a hell realm of ignorance’s making. I trembled and spit and screamed and wailed and held and smiled and soothed.

Trying to find forgiveness for those who had abused me so long ago was done out of the guidance of Christ and Buddha and every other awakened or awakening Being I’ve ever been blessed to read, study, ponder and practice with. And out of my own self-interest in happiness. In no longer being a slave at the end of the rope of fear.

I was abused by a fellow human. I pondered this human’s life and applied the understanding that causes bring results. That violent actions aren’t born without the seeds of violence being planted and well nourished. I pondered this man as a boy, considered very deeply the plausible reality that, just like me, he was once that scared, confused, and tortured child. That through ignorance and his own brand of conditioning, he grew up to do what was once done to him. To continue what was passed to him and probably what was passed to the one who passed it to him, and back, and back.

Which human in the causal link did I hate? Which one could I blame? In applying attention to the child who became this man, I found my heart doing what it so wants to do– opening. Tears of purifying pain for the boys we each once were fell like rain. With one small step at a time, which was sometimes a leap, healing has happened.

For many, the events of life aren’t necessarily those of horror or hardship, but the standard run of the mill dissatisfaction and inevitable pain of life. We were all raised by Beings who were sleepwalking to some degree or another. We all inherited the misunderstanding of a “me” apart from a “you.” And this illusion inevitably brings suffering. We need only look at our so-called “well adjusted society” and our impact on others, the Earth, and ourselves to see that we are operating from a severely limited view, consuming the coals of our own unhappiness and vomiting this misery into our collective existence.

For many, life has been more brutal. Serving with The Companions Of The Way and trying to learn how to “Love Without Exception” the poor and hurting Beings at Dorothy’s Place was an exercise in ripping open my heart. Precious ones whose mothers shot them up with heroin when they were thirteen. Whose stepfathers pimped them out to their friends. Humans who weep when someone mentions Vietnamese food– “I love their food, but I can’t eat it, I killed their people– ya know?” And on and on, round and round. Each and every one of those “homeless” human beings emerging from circumstances most of us aren’t willing to imagine.

Companions is an Interfaith Dharma Center that serve the poor and suffering of Salinas CA. They run Dorothy’s Place, a haven of kindness and dignity amidst the turmoil and chaos of China-town. They are beautiful friends who taught me well. And they serve, and are served by some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting—the guests of Dorothy’s Place.

After someone was stabbed outside of Dorothy’s and I watched the blood spill, and the pool around him grow, conditioned reactions were activated. With the wise guidance of Shinko Rick Slone, the Director of Dorothy’s Place, and the mindfulness counselor they sent me to see, Marianne Rowe, I was guided once again back into the land of allowance and feeling and healing. Back into looking deeply with the present moment. Train, practice, train.

So when my dear friend Jose had a gun put to his head and the trigger pulled, I was able to face the pain without so easily sinking back into conditioned response. I was able to practice for Jose and all sentient beings, I was able to train and examine and weep and wail and smile with this pain.

The particular details of the past are much less important than what we do with our life now. That’s not to say we can bypass anything. We can’t go around that icky part we wish weren’t there and find everlasting peace. We must go through whatever is present to see its insubstantiality, as well as its substantiality. Like clouds passing through a sky of vastness.

The teachings I’ve attempted to put into practice, whether coming from Jiddu Krishnamurti, Padmasambhava, Pema Chödrön, or Ma-Tsu, advise us to be present while pushing away nothing. Allow the beyond-conceptual mind to BE, by allowing the conceptual mind to be. Relax, allow, pay attention, question, examine, look into and know your own mind. We need not go rummaging through the past looking for an answer to the begging question of “why”? Why do I suffer so? Why am I unhappy? Why am I angry all the time? The present is where that answer lies. We need only become calm enough to allow the sediment to settle and we’ll find enough lying on the bottom of that once murky mind to practice with presently.

Fully admitting and accepting the circumstances of my childhood was an immense challenge for me, crushingly difficult in the moment. But it has proved to be so much healthier than carrying around a shadow of hurt, rejected and pushed away like we do to those living in the streets and the slums. Isn’t the slum just an external manifestation of our collective internal state? Our societal shadow self? A living witness to the reality that external and internal are just concepts which may not be serving us well.
It is so very easy to fall into the trap of believing “If this happens, then I’ll be happy.” Or “If that hadn’t happened then I’d be happy.” It’s helpful to realize that we are all in the same boat of dissatisfaction whether we were nurtured well or not. Rich or poor, abused or not. We are all in this together and no one born gets a pass. How wonderful! We are ALL Loved so well! Because this means that we all have the opportunity to awaken fully, whenever we are ready. We are responsible for where we are now. We do not have to live in misery any longer. There are paths aplenty which will aid us in guiding ourselves out of the thickets.

Entering Purgatory

I’m eight or so years into the “practice” and I know less than ever before– How wonderful! I no longer have the urge to kill myself. I’m not so panicked that I can’t leave the house or look in the mirror without loathing and weeping. I graduated from hell to purgatory– and purgatory can feel a lot like heaven when you’ve grown accustomed to hell! At least for awhile. More and more I experience an embodying of peacefulness, joy, happiness. I am slowly learning how to ride this rollercoaster of life without getting so thrown off balance.

Suffering has become something else entirely– still present on a regular basis, but the density of the experience is so vastly altered. You see when the “problem” (which no such thing ever really is) is bigger than the psychological space, we suffer immensely. We are so small, and this pain is so big. But when we are able to allow, we can open into the space. And even if it’s just a hair bigger than the pain, great relief is experienced. When we are able to really allow the space, then the pain becomes energy transmuting itself.

I live in a lush Redwood forest at a Buddhist retreat center in a one room cabin with my dear beloved Karene. The “commute” to work is a fifteen-minute walk along a mountain trail through towering giants, through a small meadow, and across a babbling brook. The trail, bedded with needles and the occasional banana slug, rises from the creek and levels out along the canyon floor. I have to duck to pass under trees which have succumbed to the natural order of cause and effect. I’m greeted by a vegetarian buffet breakfast, repeated at lunch. Then I go to the bookstore and reception office. I work and serve with friends interested in practicing compassion and wisdom who are aware of their state and are engaged in a path which is leading them out of the darkness. How utterly fortunate I am.

This “scene,” this place and “me” within it, is amazing. Wonderful! Yet despite living in what could be considered paradise, dissatisfied mind is still in operation. The heater doesn’t work well sometimes, the bed hurts my back, this again for breakfast! And in healthy moments I quietly chuckle with this mind addicted to “more,” addicted to dissatisfaction. What else can we do but start where we are and work with what is present?

For a while I was having a difficult time finding the inner value in what I was doing here, beating myself up a bit for no longer being with The Companions and their noble mission to Love those who have been deemed unlovable by so many. Comparing here with there. Thinking about my friends still sleeping on the street. Feeling like I abandoned them. And then it occurred to me that the people at the bookstore here aren’t really that different from the people at the day shelter at Dorothy’s– suffering, beautiful beings looking for solace, healing, understanding, Love.

I am one of those suffering beings, as are you. We can all hold each other’s hand while we stumble through the brambles of our own illusion, helping ourselves up and others with us every time we try to live the way of peace and let our naturally good hearts open, open, open.


Lance Johnson
Lance Johnson

Lance Johnson presently lives, serves, works, and studies at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center near Santa Cruz. He previously served with The Companions of the Way Interfaith Dharma Center in Salinas, California.