A Pilgrimage

 “I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

It was a summer of beautiful, pleasant days spent by the sea and picnic lunches in the great outdoors. One little boy spent hours dipping and splashing in the freezing Baltic Sea which didn’t quite warm up this year. And afterwards all of us fell asleep snuggled in each other’s sandy arms on the warm toasted sand.

Sea gulls shrieked and swooped boldly overhead. Arctic terns sliced the sea with sharp precision emerging triumphant with slivers of squirming fish. Sailboats drifted gently to the open sea. Sea planes droned steadily in the distance.

We foraged in the woods and found handfuls of wild raspberries  – lovely morsels of soft sweetness mingled with loads of tiny kernels. We yelped and hopped at the sting of nettles. We parked ourselves on the forest floor and ate our fill of blueberries till our lips and fingers were stained a rich indigo.

It was a time of undisturbed contentment and I hugged myself in silent happiness.

And yet, as I gazed with quiet pleasure and satisfaction over the landscape of my life, I couldn’t help but notice a dark cloud that stretched over an otherwise good life. A pang of regret gripped my heart as I saw this unsightly stain spoil a clean slate.

It broke my reverie stirring up sediments of grief and anguish.

It felt as though some of the best years of my life were wasted grappling with a needlessly punishing lesson. I have often wondered why I had to endure this bitter cup of suffering.

Yet I learnt that at some point in life, one has to make a journey to that place within oneself where giants are met face to face. We all must return to the place of pain and suffering and learn to study it without denial, without fear, without anger, without judgements but just to shine the light of understanding on it.

Acceptance. The first step towards reconciling with all that has taken place and embrace even the painful parts of one’s life. And as my dear friend Mona wrote me, “One of my biggest awakenings came when I learnt that the first step in any healing was Acceptance. When we stop denying “what is” and instead of rejecting, we integrate the experiences that come in our lives. We develop the power to decide. We reject certain experiences in the same way small children reject food that look unpleasant for their taste, they like cookies, they don’t like artichoke.”

Yes, I have been like that small child but this summer I made a pilgrimage – an  inner pilgrimage to a  place of Suffering which has cast a long shadow over my life for the last 13 years.

These are some thoughts from the journey.

  • Without suffering we cannot grow

I have always shunned suffering. Yet, suffering is part of human existence. Suffering and perfection go hand in hand. Given a choice the child in me would have much preferred a soft, sheltered, easy and unchallenged life but looking back now I realise that without it, I would have remained at best beautifully hollow.

“Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower grow. There cannot be a lotus flower without the mud. As an organic gardener, you are not afraid of the garbage. It can always be transformed to make a beautiful flower.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

  • Suffering is grace unalloyed

There are two kinds of sufferings. The first kind is self-inflicted either from our own poor choices or from a lack of knowledge. And the suffering is a direct consequence from our own actions. Some storms are of our own making.

But there are times through no fault of ours we still have to endure suffering and this is grace in disguise. (I know I battled with this one for a long time!). Even those who cause tremendous suffering to others are part of a greater plan to bring maturity to mankind.

“Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting…. Indeed far from being a poison, this is pure honey and sugar, far from being bitter in taste, this is the essence of sweetness.” ~ Abdu’l-Bahá

  • Suffering reveals our hearts.

It shows us what we are truly made of. It is one thing to speak of character and another to have a character that has been tested. And stood the test.

“Were it not for tests, the courageous could not be separated from the cowardly. Were it not for tests, the people of faithfulness could not be known from the disloyal. Were it not for tests, sparkling gems could not be known from worthless pebbles. Were it not for tests, nothing would progress in this contingent world.” ~ Abdul-Baha

  • Suffering is a choice.

From one acquainted with the pain of suffering, I say this with all my deepest respect to all who may be suffering at the moment. Honour that suffering deeply. There is no rush and suffering and pain in ourselves must be treated with the same tenderness as we would a weeping child.

However, from my own experience, I have also come to realise that at some point we have to decide what to do with ourselves. Because suffering can sometimes become an internal dependency especially if we have become accustomed to its presence for over a long time. It becomes the way we operate. We give up the responsibility to govern our ownself and relinquish our own inner responsibility to take charge of our lives to someone else. We essentially become victims when we hand over our responsibility to someone else to stop making us suffer.

Running away from suffering… “often reveals more fundamental dependencies that cannot be run away from because they are internal rather than external – dependencies such as letting the weaknesses of other people ruin our emotional lives or feeling victimized by people and events out of our control.” ~ Stephen R. Covey

  • Suffering is a great teacher

I have often felt indignant at the unfairness of suffering. But in these last few years I have slowly come to realise that suffering should be viewed as something which holds within it much more than what my mind can grasp at this point in time.

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief. Much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.” ~ Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet.

My feeble soul stumbled and whimpered through the valley of sorrow. I have grieved long enough. It is time to move on. Oh, what a climb it has been and yet at the same time I am filled with a profound gratitude for the world it has opened up to me. For in it lies the seed for growth, authenticity and strength.

Stay astonished because flowers bloom from the mud.