The Suffering We Share

At her weekly meditation class, Sylvia Boorstein finds that sharing stories of those we love and worry about leaves her feeling kinder and more connected.

I’ve been leading a two-hour Wednesday morning class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center for more than fifteen years. Of the seventy or so people there on any given week, there are the folks who have been coming regularly since the beginning, new people coming to see what it’s like, and visitors to San Francisco who come because they are in town. I’ve begun to think of it as our local church. We always begin by greeting newcomers. Then I give some meditation instructions and we sit quietly for thirty or forty minutes. In the last minutes of the sitting I remind people that they’re welcome to mention the names of people who they are particularly thinking of, people facing a special challenge, so that we could, as a group, think of them with shared concern and support. I often start by naming someone I know—“I am thinking of my friend Allison, who is recuperating from surgery for ovarian cancer”—and wait for others to speak. People say a name, a relationship, and a challenge.

“I am thinking of my cousin Joan, who has macular degeneration.”

“I am thinking of my daughter-in-law Louise, who just had a miscarriage.”

“I am thinking of my brother Tom, whose son just lost his job and his house.”

“I am thinking of my friend Michael, who has lung cancer.”

“. . . my Uncle John, who has emphysema.”

“. . . my son Tim, just diagnosed bipolar.”

“. . . my friend Bernie, who lost most of the retirement savings for him and his wife.”

“. . . my neighbor Virginia, whose daughter died in a car accident last Sunday on her way back to college.”

I don’t call on people to speak. In random order, from different parts of the room, voices speak out names, and relationships, and special circumstances. Sometimes I recognize a voice, or a name. More often not. Sometimes the naming goes on for what seems a long time. There is always a space between the voices, as if people are reflecting on what they’ve just heard. I think we share the sense that there is no hurry to get finished, no activity more important to arrive at.

Not all the circumstances people mention are dire, although it seems that sad situations are usually the ones that come up first. Then, in between difficulties, someone will say, “I’m thinking of my daughter Jessica, who has just been accepted into three colleges and needs to choose.” Or, “I’m thinking of my son and daughter-in-law, who are on their way to Peru to meet their newly adopted baby daughter.” Or, “I’m thinking about my college roommate from Michigan, who has remained my friend for fifty years and who is arriving tonight for a visit.”

I don’t think I am imagining the communal sigh of relief or appreciation that follows happy news. Those moments seem like opportunities in which my mind, perhaps everyone’s mind, can “catch its breath” and remember the pleasures that punctuate life and make it seem desirable to go on in the face of difficulty.

Sometimes the listing of names and circumstances goes on for a number of minutes:

“. . . my grandson Jason on his second tour of duty in Iraq.”

“. . . my sister Ruth with breast cancer.”

“. . . my friend Claire, whose life savings were invested with Bernie Madoff.”

“. . . my niece Renee, who is nine months pregnant and whose husband just lost his job and their insurance.”

“. . . my husband’s mother, Ruby, who has Alzheimer’s disease.”

At some point the room becomes quiet again, and we sit a while longer. I say a blessing for all the people we’ve mentioned, and for all people suffering everywhere, and I ring the bell. Usually, we all just sit there and look at each other for a while. Often, I find myself feeling speechless, stunned both by the array of pains that body and mind are heir to, and humbled by our communal courage to carry on in spite of challenges in our lives and our willingness to share them with each other.

What more compelling evidence could there be of the inevitable difficulties of life? Every week, as we listen to each other and hear about sicknesses of young people and old people, about disappointments and losses at all ages, we directly confirm that it is impossible to be a human being connected by affection to others and not be vulnerable to pains beyond our own. My sense is that hearing the implicit message that most of us carry on in spite of our difficulties builds strength and courage. I’m sure that’s true for me, and I think it is for others as well. At the end of each Wednesday I feel remarkably freed of any grievances or ill will I might have had before class. I feel kinder and more connected, through sharing sorrow and joy with the people in the room and, past them, with people everywhere.

Life is difficult, the Buddha said, for everyone. Suffering, he taught, is the demand that experience be different from what it is. Of course we do what we can to address pain. Sometimes illnesses are cured. Sometimes relationships are mended. Sometimes losses are recouped. Sometimes, though, nothing can be done. The Buddha’s teaching of liberation was that peace of mind is possible, no matter what the circumstances.

I recall the first time I heard the story of the young mother rushing with her dead son in her arms to plead with the Buddha, who was known to have miraculous powers to restore life. I knew at once, as you will too if you are new to this story, that when the Buddha responded, “I will do it if you bring me a mustard seed from a household in which no one has ever died,” the boy would not live. The mother, disconsolate, returned from her quest knowing that everyone dies and that the heart can survive grief. To me, the instruction “bring me a mustard seed” means: “Look around you. You are supported by everyone else in the world.” I understand the end of the legend, the mother bowing to the Buddha and becoming his disciple, as her miraculous healing.

I feel myself supported by the awareness that everyone struggles. At Spirit Rock on Wednesday mornings, when I hear someone whose voice I don’t recognize say, “My aunt Claire, who has Parkinson’s disease . . .” I remember my friend Claire, who doesn’t have Parkinson’s disease but has something else, and Phyllis, who does have Parkinson’s disease, and my aunt Miriam who, until her recent death, was the only person left in my family older than I am. A woman’s voice saying, “I’m thinking of my son Jacob on his second tour of duty in Iraq,” reminds me of my cousin, whose son Jonathan is back in Iraq for his third tour, and I think about everyone with sons and daughters in wars all over the world. When I say, in the final dedication of merit at the end of the class, “May all beings be peaceful and happy and come to the end of suffering,” I mean it with all my heart.

On one particular Wednesday morning, when the list of special circumstances had been especially diverse and the kinship connections unusually wide-ranging, someone said, “Everything happens to everybody.” I thought, at the time, that the remark was a response to the vast numbers of complex situations, sorrows, and joys that happen to people. What feels more true to me now is that when I am paying enough attention I realize that everything is happening to everyone collectively, and I feel appreciation and compassion for us all.