What??? Bear with me, and I’ll explain! And in fact, the word “bear” has much to do with my story.
A few days ago I had a long conversation with a young friend grappling with sadness and disappointment. I shared with her some wisdom I recently acquired.
I’m pretty hardheaded. I don’t tend to change my ways on hearing new wisdom just once. Happily, Life makes sure to get my attention by repeating its message. In my last post I mentioned a book by Pico Iyer called The Art of Stillness. Besides the valuable lesson of taking a breather from technology from time to time, another idea in the book got my attention: Bearing with negative feelings. Just calmly being with them. Allowing yourself to feel them. Witnessing them. Honouring them. And then watching them dissipate, transform, and leave.
This has never been my process. As an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person – yes, that really is a thing) I’ve always been engulfed by negative emotions. I feel everything intensely. Everything.
My education continued. At the beginning of this week I attended the opening event of an online personal development course. And blow me down, the same message! The lady hosting the session talked about honouring the courage it takes to just be with your unhappy feelings. And that they’re part of a process, a growth process.
I had always thought of myself as a weak person because of all the suffering I went through. Now I could acknowledge myself as brave? Radical reframe.
After the Zoom convo with my young friend in which I shared my newly acquired wisdom, I did some chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. And I had a revelation.
With startling clarity, I saw how much in the distant past I had slowed down my evolution. I didn’t bear with my emotional pain at all. Just the opposite. I used drugs, alcohol, binge eating, whatever, to deaden the pain. To not feel it. My expressed aim was oblivion, which I came perilously close to achieving.
And when I began practising Buddhism in 1983 my addictions slowed down the process of what Nichiren Buddhism terms turning poison into medicine – transforming something negative into its positive aspect. Although I practised every day, I often did so under the influence of alcohol and/or hashish. You can call it self-medicating, but medications just camouflage symptoms; they are not a cure. You can’t heal anything that you suppress, or resist, or deny.
So in addition to practising Buddhism, I also practised avoidance. And here’s the thing: You can’t transform anything that you avoid.
Which leads me to the F Word: Forbearance. “Patient self-control,” the dictionary calls it. My Buddhist dictionary says: In practising the … perfection of forbearance, bodhisattvas are required to bear … difficulties and remain unperturbed. … A forbearing mind is compared to a robe or armour …
My spiritual mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, has this to say about forbearance:
“… difficulties are inevitable. Therefore, it is necessary that we have a spirit of forbearance and patience. We need a spirit to endure. Enduring is neither retreating nor conceding defeat. We have to persevere and win. No matter what happens, we must not become disheartened. [This] is a struggle of the spirit. Those who allow themselves to be inwardly defeated cannot be said to possess forbearance… A spirit of patience generates the greatest strength. If one has true courage one can endure any hardship.”
In the same moment that I recognised my old pattern, I understood, with some excitement, the tremendous power in practising forbearance to break through a seeming impasse. It’s the challenging but fast road to freedom! Instead of thinking I’m powerless before the enormity of my suffering, I can bear with it while I persevere in spiritual practice, knowing that no inner human condition lasts forever, even if it does seem interminable in the moment. It will change.
And instead of shrinking before it, closing myself down, I will have grown.