This was a unique Christmas season in my household, to say the least. As the culmination of multiple medical procedures, I had nasal reconstruction scheduled for a couple days before Christmas. A situation at my wife’s work caused her to take over for three Christmas Eve services and juggle duties looking after our four-year-old son.
Somewhere in there, he caught a nasty cold, with bronchitis, fever and vomiting several times a night throughout the week. With packing in both nostrils and sleep apnea, the first nights following surgery it was virtually impossible to find a sleeping position, with no more than twenty minutes sleep at a stretch.
When my son started getting sick, I was in his room giving care and changing sheets several times a night, then found it difficult to get to sleep once back in my room.
My wife was exhausted from the holiday season, the many services, several hospital visitations, and a full slate of upcoming memorial services.
Most years, any one of these difficulties would be enough for a rough stretch of family life. Strangely, this time was different. Yes, it was stressful (and still is). Yes, it was painful, sometimes extremely so.
But contemplative teachers distinguish between pain, some immediate physical or mental-emotional experience, and suffering, or turning that pain into a story and playing it out as an identity.
For example, the surgery was painful, and the inability to sleep was painful, but so often when things like that happen that don’t fit our template of how things ought to be going, we muster a second energy of rejection and resistance, through anger, frustration, and complaining. Why is this happening to me? I’m so mad about this! This is impossible! I can’t take one more thing! I’m so tired, I need to sleep and if I don’t, I’m gonna be pissed! This Christmas is ruined!
At our best, in a state of presence, we’re just involved in the task at the moment. Present with the pain, present wiping up the mess, present giving the medication, whatever. But resistance and rejection make it worse. And then, when we experience some limitation, even an extreme form, it can call to mind a profound gratitude for simple pleasures – a full breath of air, a night’s sleep, a trip to the gym, a smiling child, a meal with family.
Inner negativity protracts the process beyond the immediacy of the pain itself. The response to the pain dictates the nature of the suffering. It allows more fluid decision making. We’re more able to have presence of mind, to notice patterns, and to take preventative steps. Even on the worst night of my son’s sickness, I was aware of how short a time it took to give medication or to throw the sheets into the wash. Even if it took a while to get back to sleep, or another coughing fit woke me up two, three, four more times, I tried to simply be aware of that particular situation, not the previous ones, nor worrying about ones to come.
Without a regular contemplative practice, this would be impossible for me. In fact, as the sickness dragged on with no opportunity to practice during the day, knocked out of rhythm, it got harder and harder. The ongoing practice provides a rhythm, a meter, a backdrop against with the steps of life, the perceptions and emotional experiences play out.
Now, while I’m committed to the contemplative path, I’m certainly not a master just yet. Admittedly, a protracted state of sleeplessness and stress and physical discomfort can still slide me back into fits of unconsciousness – especially if circumstances don’t allow me to maintain my practice – and I get short-tempered.
But even this is recognized during or soon after it’s happening. I’m in reactive mode, and I’m not behaving skillfully, I’m impatient, I’m starting to shout.
Even if we haven’t gotten to perfect bliss on our spiritual journey yet, that awareness itself – to recognize when we are behaving unconsciously – is already a huge step. The more that awareness grows, the more the pattern dissolves, and we open ourselves to an inner freedom. Instead of getting caught up in the web of suffering, in a tangle of resistant thought and emotion, we fall back into the rhythm, we learn the steps of acceptance, and dance through the suffering.