I’ve suffered from asthma for years and recently the situation has worsened. I get a lot of breathlessness, respiratory infections and sinus infections. Mine is a serious condition that requires steroid injections, analyzation, antibiotic pills and more.
I’d welcome a spiritual understanding as to why this happens and what I should do to heal myself. Thanks, and blessings of light and love!
Astar, 66, Israel
Thank you for taking the time to send in your question. I’d just about completed a well thought-out, philosophical response when life shattered my comfort zone and reminded me once again that while life may be a mystery, suffering is much more apparent.
I ask for your patience as I relate my experiences while also trying to address your question.
On November 11, 2015, I received a call from my son at around 12:30 p.m. Ryan, my middle child and second son, was in school at this time so this call was out of the ordinary. I answered the phone and as soon as he spoke, I knew something was wrong.
In a voice that I knew was holding back tears, Ryan told me that his best friend and training partner on the high school wrestling team had committed suicide that morning in the locker room.
Levi Black was just 17 years old when he walked into the locker room of Shenandoah High School and hung himself. My son’s life, as well as the lives of Levi’s family, were radically changed in just a few passing moments. In fact, Levi’s older brother, Gary Black, was the wrestling coach and Levi’s father, Gary Black Sr., was the assistant coach. Gary Jr. was one of the first people to discover Levi.
I dropped what I was doing and immediately drove to be with my son. Instead of allowing Ryan to leave with his friends to try and cope with the situation, I insisted that he and I spend some time together first. Ryan and I spent the next three hours talking by a nearby river. As we sat next to the stream, listening to the water gently pass by and feeling the cold wind blow its chill at times, Ryan began the long, arduous task of trying to wrap his young mind around the reality of death, loss, unfairness and life’s perplexing nature.
Ryan was asked to be a pallbearer at Levi’s funeral—a request he felt honoured to fulfill. Ryan also spoke at the funeral, reading a revision of a letter that Ram Dass had written to the parents of a young girl who’d been murdered. The letter read, in part:
Levi finished his work on earth, and left the stage in a manner that leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. … I cannot ease your pain with any words, nor should I. For your pain is Levi’s legacy to you. Not that he or I would inflict such pain by choice, but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. For something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees and to love as God loves. Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts—if we keep them open to God—will find their own intuitive way.
Levi had been struggling with some mental health issues for a while. He’d been seeing a counsellor and taking medications. His parents were doing all they knew how to do for Levi.
He’s still greatly missed.
This past week
Just this past week, as I went about my day, I was approached and informed that a student my older son, Brett, went to school with was found dead, having suffered from multiple gunshot wounds.
Since I don’t know this student’s family as well as I know the Blacks, I’ll leave out identifying information. However, this young man was found dead in the street at around 4 a.m. To make matters even worse, I discovered that even though I live in a different town, Brett’s friend was killed less than a minute away from where I live. Once again, I found myself trying to help young people struggle with the reality of death, loss, unfairness and life’s perplexing nature.
Meet suffering with an open heart
In your question, you stated that you’re seeking a spiritual understanding of why you suffer. To answer your question as honestly and sincerely as I’m able, I have to admit that I simply don’t know.
I’m able to provide you with reasons why I think people may suffer, but at the deepest level within me, I must acknowledge that my opinions are just speculations. They’re speculations based on a life of studying psychology and religion and practicing meditation—but they’re still speculations. Even more important, however, is the fact that when a loss hits you so hard that your breath is knocked out of you, and your entire life is suddenly transformed into a hell you barely recognize, the words used to try and convey these answers seem empty of meaning and provide little to no comfort.
What I’ve found that does provide some sense of comfort and peace during difficult times is a practice Thich Nhat Hanh calls deep listening. Thich Nhat Hanh describes deep listening with the following:
Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.
To be able to practice deep listening, we must also be willing to mindfully embrace our own pain and suffering in a compassionate way. Mindfulness isn’t about sitting on a pillow and going away to a blissful place in the mind. To the contrary, mindfulness is about meeting suffering head-on, directly and with an open heart that’s willing to feel the intense pangs that often accompany pain and loss.
As I stated, I don’t truly have an answer for you. However, I do believe that Thich Nhat Hanh has provided us with some excellent guidance based on his own mindful acceptance of pain and suffering. I’ll leave you with his words, for they’re much wiser than my own:
Love cannot exist without suffering. In fact, suffering is the ground on which love is born. If you have not suffered, if you don’t see the suffering of people or other living beings, you would not have love in you nor would you understand what it is to love. Without suffering, compassion, loving-kindness, tolerance, and understanding would not arise. Do you want to live in a place where there is no suffering? If you live in such a place, you will not be able to know what is love. Love is born from suffering.
You know what suffering is. You don’t want to suffer, you don’t want to make other people suffer, and therefore you love is born. You want to be happy and you want to bring happiness to others. That is love. When suffering is there, it helps give birth to compassion. We need to touch suffering in order for our compassion to be born and to be nourished. That is why suffering plays such an important role even down here in paradise. We are already here in some sort of paradise surrounded by love, but there is still jealousy, hatred, anger, and suffering around us and inside of us.
It is because we are struggling to free ourselves from the grip of suffering and affliction that we learn how to love and how to take care of ourselves and of others, not to inflict on others more suffering and misunderstanding. Love is a practice and unless you know what suffering is, you are not motivated to practice compassion, love, and understanding.
I would not be willing to go to a place where there is no suffering because I know that living in such a place I would not experience love. Because I suffer, I need love. Because you suffer, you need love. Because we suffer, we know that we have to offer each other love and love becomes a practice.