The sky rumbles like an empty stomach, churning and hungry. Electricity invisibly presents itself, traveling in long arcing currents until it reaches my skin. These are warning signs that the heavens are about to burst open like an angry wound.
I stand on my front porch to absorb the portend. When the sky grows too threatening, it’s easy enough for me to move indoors to seek safety and solace. This simple step, which carries me over the threshold of my front door into the shelter of my home, is nothing to take for granted.
Thunder peels like a chorus of dry cracking bells overhead. Lightning threads the storm’s dark underbelly; an eerie afterglow hangs in the air. Rain scours the air, seeming to move in from every direction as a havoc of wind swirls between sky and earth. The world becomes surreal.
There are places and people for whom a sky like this is a death sentence. Today, I have shelter from the storm. I can step across a threshold into a place of safety and solace. I do not take this for granted.
One’s ability to “weather the storm” is a living metaphor. Storms are utterly natural. Their power and unpredictability can be deadly. In our era marked by tumultuous climates and cultures, we can see that storms arise from a variety of interacting variables.
In the literal sense, increasingly intense hurricanes and tornadoes continue to decimate communities across the globe, fed by warmer ocean temperatures and a changing climate. Sometimes I’m out in the forest or on the water when the furies break loose here in the Southeastern United States, and in such moments I can only count on grace to save me. I feel helpless before the storm. As the deluge approaches, I remember the unhoused people with whom I share this city, whose flesh is just as vulnerable as my own but whose circumstances magnify the mortal vulnerability we share in common.
As human beings, we also weather the storms that brew inside of us, internal upheavals that might be called despair or desperation. We are emerging from a pandemic that has aimed a spotlight glare upon fissures in our social and economic structures, and highlighted the sense of isolation and insecurity that is common among many individuals in our North American society.
We are faced with navigating the storms that rage inside of our bodies as well as those that tear through our shared skies. To some degree, it’s a mystery why we suffer such pain and uncertainty. There are moments when life seems to entail little more than the fight of survival. And yet what is that spark in us, that is so determined to survive and grow?
In my view, the living spark inside each of us is an aspect of divinity. I don’t mean this in any grandiose way, though it is something wondrous. I believe there is a spark in every person that holds a unique wisdom and quality of being. This spark is like a seed that contains the entire future of a living plant within it. Our internal spark or seed holds the potential for us to become fully who we are, living out the full measure of our gifts. This might give one cause to wonder: What sort of seed lives in me? What is the natural direction of my growth and formation?
Have faith, because the spark and seed of life in you carries your innate wisdom and potential. A literal seed is dense with energy and DNA. Just so, the spark and seed of life in you carries information about the way of moving through the world that is unique to you.
Can you think of a time when you “just knew” something to be true? This form of knowing is a hint of the wisdom that lives inside of you at all times. This sort of knowing is the kind that surprises you, giving you an opportunity to step outside of your habitual way of perceiving and doing. Maybe this wisdom is the result of the ancient DNA that influences so much of our life experience, from our eye color to our preferences. Maybe this wisdom is the result of ancient souls circulating through our living bodies.
Whatever the source of this spark, many spiritual traditions hold a similar hopeful suspicion, that there is divinity to be found in the midst of our embodied experiences of suffering and joy. Buddhists recognize the naturalness of suffering as one of the Four Noble Truths. For thousands of years, Yoga practitioners have identified ignorance, or forgetting that we are spirit, as a root of suffering. Christians remember the suffering of Jesus for the purpose of salvation, which can be defined as our ability to be transformed by the activity of Love in our lives.
In other words, a common thread of compassion for self and others arises from the ancient wisdom that we suffer as a natural course of being alive, vulnerable, mortal, and interdependent with others. Our individual circumstances and our reaction to these circumstances present us with the phenomenon of conditioning, a process which many spiritual traditions address. Oftentimes, our habitual reactions are rooted in our experience of conditioning, or the perceptions and assumptions we’ve internalized based on our past experience.
Our conditioning is a social, psychological, as well as spiritual phenomenon. Conditioning involves the stories we tell ourselves, regardless of whether they are true. For instance, you may have been conditioned to believe certain things about yourself because of your gender or racial identity. Perhaps you’ve even come to expect cruelty rather than kindness from the world, and judgment rather than love. From one viewpoint, these are perfectly rational perceptions and expectations, given that our brains function to anticipate and guard against threats based on our prior experiences.
Thankfully, reality is never one-dimensional. Humans are complex beings, and we operate in multiple ways simultaneously. In a single instant, we experience the world physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. You have the power to grow your awareness of how these various aspects of self are operating during any given moment.
Imagine, if you will, that someone has just cut you off in heavy traffic as you’re finally heading home from a long work day. Maybe a certain finger is already poised, or a certain word is already springing to your lips, to express your justifiable anger toward this other driver who has rudely and dangerously veered into your lane. What if you paused in your reaction, let’s say, just before your finger or tongue springs into action? What would this require of you?
First, you might notice your body’s telltale signs of anger when the other driver barrels into your lane. You may experience an increased heart rate, maybe your thoughts speed up, and your body might seem to demand some sort of action. When you’ve paused your habitual reaction long enough to begin noticing these details about your internal experience, you’ve already begun the hard work of becoming aware of how you respond to life’s adversities.
Learning to pause a habitual reaction so that you can take stock of your internal experience gives you a real chance to connect with your sense of agency, or your conscious capacity to make decisions about your life and wellbeing. It is possible to challenge your conditioning by becoming aware of your habitual patterns, and by exercising compassion toward yourself in the process. Over time, the process of growing your awareness can nurture your sense of self-trust and self-confidence.
How is this possible? Awareness practices can serve a similar function as a lightning rod. For instance, grounding in your experience of breath can help direct the intense emotional energy of pain and suffering in a conscious way. Breath can become a container for your embodied experience, including your physical sensations, your thoughts, and your emotions.
You may choose to take a moment with your breath right now. Perhaps you decide to notice your breath while seated, or standing. With an inhale, you might feel where your body makes contact with any physical structures of support, which could include a chair or the floor. With an exhale, you could allow your bones to sink a little more firmly into your chair or the floor; perhaps this allows your muscles to release some tension from your body. If this practice feels useful to you, maybe you try a few more rounds. Whenever you feel like concluding this practice, you may pause to notice any shifts in your body, mind, or emotions that have occurred as a result of paying attention to your breath.
Next, you may consider this possibility: Fear and aversion do not have to be your only response to suffering. After all, what often causes the seed of our potential to germinate and mature within us? Discomfort, adversity, suffering: these can become our greatest teachers, providing unexpected nourishment as we learn how to weather the storm.
Perhaps imagine that you’re back in your car where the other driver cut you off. Instead of reacting out of your anger, could you imagine greeting the situation with a conscious breath practice instead? Perhaps you even come to thank the other driver for being an excellent teacher, affording you this opportunity to practice how you handle distress! If this type of practice seems out of reach or undesirable to you, that’s not a problem. If practicing awareness in response to distress is something you want to try out, it may come to benefit you greatly. You always have permission to start slow, mess up, and keep learning.
There are many forms of suffering that threaten to overwhelm or even annihilate us, such as grief or trauma. Though we don’t ask for such experiences, they come to our doorstep and demand a reckoning.
Storms in the most literal sense bring strong winds, hail, battering rain. Storms can dramatically change a landscape. The metaphorical storms that sweep through our lives—such as job loss, divorce, illness—can unexpectedly unearth riches buried within us, even as such experiences upend the known order of our lives. Suffering and pain can present a departure from your habitual way of being, and you can treat this as an opportunity to learn a new way, perhaps one that serves you better than old patterns.
The sense of displacement suffering inflicts can therefore become an opportunity for you to create new meaning and renew your sense of self. Awareness activities offer a way to reorient yourself and make new choices about what’s most beneficial for you. Learning how to weather the storm entails staying with suffering long enough to let the pain of your circumstances teach you something more about who you are, and the life you want to choose for yourself going forward.
Until we explore our beliefs about our pain and suffering, it may be difficult to gain a livable definition of healing and growth. The purpose of this post is not to speak idly of what we all know is true: life is painful sometimes, or even often. The intent of this post is rather to highlight another fact of human existence: that the spark of life and seed of potential lives within each of us until the day we die. We might carry this spark and seed through unimaginable circumstances, and still it persists.
Finding ways to turn toward the spark of life within you, and to nurture the seed of potential that you carry through this world, become especially important activities in life’s dark and tumultuous moments. Awareness activities such as breath work and meditation can help you ride out the storm and rebuild yourself in the aftermath. Such practices can serve as a vehicle to carry you into new places of wisdom and insight into who you are and why you’re here. While questions of identity and purpose can seem large and overwhelming, these facets of our experience are mostly the result of our daily decision-making.
Cultivating an awareness practice can help you make decisions more consciously, so that when the storms blow in, you’re better prepared to weather them. Many spiritual traditions view compassion as a necessary foundation of any awareness practice. When you choose to cultivate trust and compassion, first toward yourself, you gift yourself a chance to integrate painful experiences into your self-understanding and reclaim your unique way of being in the world. It’s important to remember that the ability to remain vulnerable in relationship with your own pain and suffering is a skill that can be learned slowly and patiently. Growing in your self-awareness and making conscious choices about how you meet life’s adversities can be a healing and empowering process.
Absurd though it may seem, the disruptive experiences of pain and suffering may help surface your own seed of potential, your unique spark of life. My hope is that you are able to discover resources within yourself that will help you cultivate compassion for your experience, and that your growing self-compassion can ultimately be shared with the people in your life. In this way, we help each other heal. As you discover for your capacity for choice and conscious response to suffering, may you become equally available to your full measure of joy.