Contemplative Practices to Engage and Transform Suffering
Contemplative practices can be used to carefully attend to and investigate any experience that human beings may have—including those of pain and suffering, and satisfaction and happiness—and to cultivate capacities for doing so.
Employing our capacities for attention and investigation in this way are central to healing, which involves seeking to know, tolerate, understand, and make positive use of our pain and suffering.
Readiness and Preparation
Before directly facing pain and suffering, we need skills for managing our painful and unwanted feelings and body sensations, which may include traumatic memories and addictive cravings. For example, therapists competent at working with traumatized people, including those with addictions, understand that the first stage of recovery is focused on learning and strengthening self-care and self-regulation skills.
For those struggling with extreme psychological suffering (perhaps partly due to trauma), there is another prerequisite for safely facing the pain and suffering: a relationship with someone, often a therapist, who is not only competent at guiding them through the stages of recovery, but truly understands and cares for them.
A common definition of mindfulness, from Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
Mindfulness can be an excellent tool for exploring extremes of suffering, including trauma-related memories, feelings, bodily experiences, thought processes, and ways of relating to others. Experiences that had previously felt too unbearable to focus on can be explored and investigated, and seen as passing sensations and thoughts that arise under particular conditions, without resorting to seeking escape. When habitual reactions arise, or suffering cycles begin to unfold, one can mindfully observe and even experientially understand them, and not get carried away.
Bodily Awareness Is Key
Mindful awareness of bodily sensations—that is, one’s moment-to-moment experiences of embodiment—is the foundation for attending to and exploring one’s emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and relationship patterns.
Only with that grounding in embodied awareness—of the impermanent bodily sensations—can we effectively bring mindful awareness to emotions and thoughts; otherwise we are repeatedly swept away in habitual cycles of seeking brief escapes and quick fixes that perpetuate suffering and disconnection from present experience.
Mindfulness can enable direct and safe engagement with the bodily sensations of pain and suffering, which enables us to experience and understand those sensations as just that: passing sensory information that does not constitute a major threat that must be escaped or defended against. Rather than seeking to control or escape those sensations, which brings no healing but does perpetuate suffering, mindfulness allows tolerance and compassionate understanding of those sensations, and other constructive and healing responses to them.
In short, mindfulness of bodily sensations plays a central role in the transformation of suffering experiences into opportunities for healing, even spiritual awakening.
Here I want to note that, especially for very traumatized people, attending to body sensations associated with trauma, even unintentionally in the midst of a mindfulness exercise, can be quite triggering (e.g., of traumatic memories and trauma-based emotional reactions) and overwhelming. So it can be safest—and most helpful—to first experience mindfulness in the context of a relationship with a mindful therapist.
Certainly, mindfulness and other contemplative methods for engaging with and transforming suffering are not quick fixes or panaceas. Even after cultivating the self-care and self-regulation skills needed to engage directly with trauma or other forms of extreme suffering, engaging with and transforming suffering can be a long process. However, sometimes healing can be sudden and lasting, although it is unrealistic to expect or count on such experiences.
Also, we are all creatures of habit, and old habits can be hard to break, especially if they have seemed to ensure our physical or psychological survival. But with a foundation of self-regulation skills, regular practice, and relationships that support both, mindfully engaging with one’s suffering can facilitate the healing cycle of seeking to engage and transform suffering.
By: Jim Hooper Kripalu