One of the spiritual lessons I have found quite useful over the years is to acknowledge the great deal of difference between pain and suffering.
Pain is a sensation in the body or in our psychological bodies. Suffering comes only because of the way we choose to interpret the pain as something NOT GOOD—and therefore NOT GOD!
I’ve worked with many people who, in the process of aging, have discovered that one of the most poignant ways we learn is through our bodies when they experience illness or pain. I’m reminded of the story about one of the founders of Unity, Myrtle Fillmore. She cured herself by blessing and thanking each organ of her body, praising the intelligence within, and encouraging it to come to new life! Rather than complain about the pain, she looked for ways to feel gratitude.
Before we can actually begin to be grateful for what we are experiencing in our bodies, we first need to accept what is. There’s a difference between healing and curing. Healing is KNOWING there is nothing wrong! Curing is about fixing something so that it can meet our expectation of health or wholeness in any area of our life, remembering that our expectation may not be the highest HEALING!
I have a friend who exemplifies this perfectly. Recently, I got a letter from Jan—who has been mostly confined to bed in utter pain for the past several years. She wrote a long litany of all the reasons she was grateful I was in her life these past few years. It was very moving for me and healing for her as well.
I recently read a book that reminded me of this once again. Many of you know Richard Alpert, who is more popularly known as Ram Dass. He’s been a leader in the human potential movement since the psychedelic 60’s, when he worked with Timothy Leary. He then spent years following a guru from India, Maharajii, and now he offers teachings on higher levels of awareness all over the world. He wrote several books, one of the most famous being Be Here Now. Several years ago, he had a stroke that left him paralyzed, and the experience prompted one of his more recent books on coping with aging, change, and dying. It’s called Still Here. Profound reading!
Ram Dass and Jan got me thinking a lot about the aging process and the opportunities it provides for living either in gratitude or complaint. Ram Dass talks of several areas of suffering experienced by those who are aging. (I could argue that most of these apply to all of us.) He calls these the usual suspects.
Memory Lapse: Many people experience bouts of what they call senility. (Isn’t that one of our greatest fears—losing our minds?) But in the stories he tells, every person feels a sense of gratitude, for finally he or she is able to live in the moment! Could that be what memory loss is attempting to teach us? It’s worth pondering.
Loneliness. Learn to be quiet and bear witness to it with no denial of feelings. Feel what is. Be aware of your desire to cling to old experiences—or of the desire to relieve the loneliness by whatever means possible. How to be grateful when you feel lonely? Know that loneliness is not aloneness, so be quiet, meditate, and get to know yourself.
We are never alone. Reach out to someone nearby through your soul who may be feeling the same way. Offer compassion and a genuine wish for the suffering of others to cease. When it can’t worry about itself, the ego becomes powerless to feed its own fears. Loneliness can become one of our greatest connections to God and to one another.
Embarrassment. At 63, Ram Dass tried to jump on a stage and wound up with his leg mangled and bleeding. He almost passed out from the pain. He said this experience gave him the opportunity to let go of self-consciousness. He advises that when we allow ourselves to BECOME the embarrassment and give it complete domination then we can actually feel gratitude rather than complaint.
Powerlessness. When we feel powerless, we are actually viewing the world as a foe rather than a friend. So, one secret of spiritual practice is to know that our limits can become our strengths if we learn to work with them skillfully. As our bodies slow down, we can use this change to increase our mindfulness. I invite you to look at what you think is your major limitation and for ONE WEEK to see if you can reframe it as your greatest strength. Our cross is really our crown.
Loss of role/meaning. Before the ego attaches meaning to itself, we simply ARE. The way to recognize meaning in life is to KNOW that LIFE is bigger than whatever we are going through at the moment. Get a lifelong perspective or, better yet, many lifelong perspectives. Consider the evolution of a soul. It MUST go through many phases with a breakdown before each new breakthrough. It is just like the earth, which goes through eruptions and earthquakes, or a caterpillar which goes through a metamorphosis before becoming a butterfly.
How to be grateful? See everything, even sadness and depression, as part of your soul’s evolution. If we look back on our lives, we’ll always see that depression was a precursor to amazing spiritual growth. Mindfulness keeps life in perspective.
How we face situations in life really determines what those situations can offer us.
If you find that it’s difficult to be grateful in the moment, at least take time each night to go over the day. Forgive and release that which you wish had been different. Letting go every day insures that you’ll not carry unwanted baggage for years to come.
There’s a greeting that I put on all my phone messages that I want to leave you thinking about. It’s something we can choose each moment: Have a Great and GRATEFUL day!!
Dr. Toni LaMotta is a keynote speaker, best-selling author of What You REALLY Want, Wants You and spiritual teacher supporting people in growing spiritually through the process of aging consciously. She also helps coaches and speakers create, publish and market their books. Dr. Toni is also an expert in supporting people and organizations in reinventing themselves in midlife and beyond. Her experience? From Catholic nun, to computer programmer and dinner theater actress, to professional speaker, entrepreneur, and Co-Minister of Unity Church in the Woods, Bradenton, FL (unitychurchinthewoods.org). You can read her blog at www.midlifemessages.com and find out more about her conscious aging programs at www.tonilamotta.com.