Knowing suffering


“Suffering is to be known,” the Buddha said. One must penetrate dukkha directly. Penetration occurs when you consciously choose to be mindful of the actual experience of pain, stress, and emotional distress as it manifests in your body, mind, and heart. In order for you to know its true nature, you must be with your suffering as a lived physical experience and willingly feel the “ouch” of it.
Phillip Moffitt

The other day, towards the end of the workday, normally a rather cheery time in the office, my staff and I were informed that Wilma, a beloved former colleague was within hours of death, and if we wanted to say good-bye we better get our asses over to the hospital ASAP.

In twos and threes we took turns making the sad pilgrimage up the hill to the hospital.  Those who went before me reported that Wilma was simply not there – her eyes were open but nothing was registering. But, the family appreciated the gesture, and my colleagues were grateful for the chance to see her one last time.

When my turn came, I headed up with a colleague who had remained close to Wilma even after she had retired, and one of my staff.  Wilma’s room was crowded with somber family members lost in their own grief. We were greeted by her 20-something year old daughter, a beautiful girl who bore a great resemblance to her mother, and thanked us for being there.

We each took turns maneuvering our way through the hovering family to get up near Wilma’s face so we could have our good-byes.  Wilma’s eyes were open and her mouth was frozen open in a grimace. Her lips were glistening with a glaringly glossy lip gloss someone had applied in order to keep them from cracking with dryness.   I had expected that she would be silent.  She wasn’t.  As I stood by her side, stroking the side of her face – I didn’t have any words – she moaned. In fact she moaned the entire time we were there.  At first I thought it was just some kind of neurological response, something that was not volitional.  I didn’t want to believe those moans were signs of her suffering.

My denial didn’t last long.  Soon it became very clear that behind the frozen face Wilma was still there and wanting to communicate her discomfort.  The daughter called for the nurse to administer more morphine.  Wilma’s agitation was growing more agonizing as the nurse took her own sweet time getting the morphine ready.  The family, seeing Wilma’s torment, all started crying.  The daughter was desperately to get her mother some relief.  The family had started a chain of comfort, with an auntie rubbing a cousin’s back who was  rubbing the daughter’s back as she was trying to comfort and calm her mother until the morphine kicked in.

My staff member and I wanted to leave the room, partially out of respect for the family in this difficult moment, and also to spare ourselves the pain of having this agonizing scene being the our last image of Wilma.  But, we were trapped in the room by the medication cart the nurse had parked in the doorway.  I closed my eyes and started to silent recite the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.

Unfortunately, the morphine did not quell Wilma’s discomfort and the energy in the room got quite chaotic as people were trying to figure out what it was that she wanted.  Finally, their best guess was that she wanted to be turned.  I offered to go get the nurse again, which also gave me a graceful way to exit.


Arriving home that evening, sad and tired, I listened to my voice mail. There was a message from my landlord telling me that they were coming to clear these three large trees from my front yard tomorrow and asked me to move my car so they have room.

While this wasn’t a surprise, the timing was.  They had mentioned they wanted to get rid of those trees, but I thought I would have had some time to dissuade them, or maybe they would just forget.   Again, my denial was proven futile.

While Acacia trees are not my favorite, these particular trees provided the great service of not only keeping the front of my house cool and shaded, with their shadows creating beautiful dappled light in the morning, but they also offered me privacy an shielded me from my neighbors, the hoarders.

While I can be quite entertained by the television show Hoarders, it is less than amusing have some live next door to one.  These people hoard cars, lumber and and have the largest collection of trash cans that I have ever seen (which is somewhat ironic because they clearly do not use them). I have never met the hoarders next door.  From what I’ve seen, it’s not a family.  It looks like it is mostly men who work construction and bring home all the lumber scraps and pile them in their driveway.

I’ll be the first to admit my dislike for those people is not rational. Like I said, I’ve never even met them. Yet, in my mind I made them monsters.  The best tactic for me was to simply ignore them lest I get all worked up about the eyesore they have created. Those overgrown Acacia trees provided me a shield from having to look at their mess, and kept me safe from those so-called monsters.

So, upon hearing that those trees were going to be cut down, I was flush with anger, pain, and fear, all the while still reeling from  the sad good-bye to Wilma.  Since there was nothing I could really do about it, I went about my usual evening routines. The first of which is to check my email and Facebook.   Ironically, the first posting I read was the quote above from Phillip Moffitt. Timely. Very timely.

So taking the clue, I closed my eyes and sat for a moment.  Yup, I indeed was knee deep in the dukkha. My face and jaw were tight, my stomach was knotted and my heart hurt.  Ah yes, this is suffering . . . yup, still suffering . . . OK, still feeling like shit.  Ouch.  This hurts.  OK, Buddha, I get it.  Now what?

And with great mindfulness, I decided to have a  pint of Trader Joe’s Chocolate Caramel Swirl ice cream for dinner.  Sorry, Buddha, but I’ve enough dukkha for the day, thank you very much.


7 responses »

  1. Hugs. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend and your trees.

    Your description of your friend/colleague’s pain and moaning was so similar to what it was like watching my mother as she died that it brought it all back for me. It was a terrible thing to take in, seeing her in so much pain and hearing moans of pain like I’ve never heard before. When I got to your description of how you felt physically when you got in touch with the pain, I realized I was sitting here doing the same thing just now (face and jaw tight, etc.), from a memory.

    For me, that memory of Mom’s pain is the worst of it. It was easier to accept her death than it was to accept her pain, as awful as that might sound. It helps, though, to acknowledge it this way, something I really haven’t done until now (probably because there is guilt attached to it, although we — the family — certainly did all that we could to try to make sure Mom was well medicated). I know there was nothing else we could have done, so it’s time to let that go too.

    A pint of ice cream might help with that… 😉

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