Look within yourself for refuge

I am curious about your article I read regarding suffering being part of the human experience. In the Qur’an and Bible they also speak of this. And it helps to know that there are ways to help us deal with suffering and that I am not alone.

Religion and spiritual practice, when exercised on a regular basis, has the potential to help us deal with the inevitable challenges presented to all of us in different ways.

There are also certain fundamental aspects of a spiritual practice that helps in coping with experiences that are not in our hands “to control”.

We humans have a propensity to want to control things and others as well as seek permanence. We do not want things to change, or to worry about the future, which is unknowable, and lament over the past, that has gone and which we also do not have control over.

This conditioned behaviour has become so ingrained in us that we easily get hooked emotionally, by wanting to get rid of our emotional pain or cling onto that which brings us pleasure and contentment.

Although there is nothing wrong with wanting happiness, which we all seek, the problem is in never wanting it to end, which it always does.

We don’t like the “up and down” of life and want things to stay permanently good, comfortable and predictable. This is exactly what exacerbates our suffering: the avoidance of suffering, the avoidance of what does not bring pleasure and trying, like the moth, to stay in warmth and coziness all the time, but then burning ourselves.

This can be related to external experiences but more specifically to our emotions. When we accept that life is always about things going up and then things going down, always about experiencing opposites including joy and sorrow, gain and loss, praise and blame, good luck and bad luck, life and death, we can open our hearts and minds more fully to our common humanity and to our suffering as well as to our common search for peace and equanimity.

Having a spiritual practice helps with working towards a deeper sense of calm, no matter what life throws at you. It does not mean that you will not experience pain but that you will not exacerbate your pain by struggling against it or trying to escape it for example, through addictions of all kind, including drugs, alcohol, shopping, perfectionism, eating, working and exercising. Almost anything can become an addiction or way of escaping from the difficulties, whether inside us or outside us.

An attitude of non-judgemental curiosity and acceptance of what is happening is often one of the ways to ease the anxiety which the inevitable struggles of life often evoke in us. A regular spiritual practice helps to facilitate this.

Your article on suffering highlighted for me how common suffering is and that in many ways we feel alone like we are the only ones experiencing pain or hardship. I had many difficult experiences in my life and would turn to my religion to help me. I am a Christian and praying and reading the Bible helped me to cope when things were scary or felt I could not carry on anymore.

Yes indeed. Thank you for sharing your experience. There are many people who today turn away from religion for various reasons, including that they experience monotheistic religions as not meeting their needs or is too stifling or boring.

However, in my view, a form of spiritual practice is necessary even if it as simple as connecting with nature regularly.

It is about creating a space which takes you away from the mundane and often demanding life into a sense of unity and connectedness to the profound stillness and depth that connects us to a source greater than ourselves.

The benefits of practicing some form of stillness or mindfulness has been supported by neuro-scientific research using MRI scans on people who meditate.

There is evidence that certain forms of deep breathing or meditation exercises done regularly can change the neuronal pathways leading to a more calm state of mind and less emotional reactivity.

Human beings have a natural propensity towards spirituality, that it is an intrinsic aspect of being human.

The work of Karen Armstrong who researches religions suggest that people cope much better with life when they have a religious practice and belong to a religious community where they feel accepted and supported.

I would think that any kind of practice that connects us to ourselves, others and a deeper spiritual source can only do us and the world good.

I am really going through a lot these days. I am unemployed, my marriage is on the rocks and my older sons are out of control with two of them addicted to drugs. I don’t know what to do about any of these. I feel stuck and overwhelmed.

I will start by emphasising the words of a well-known Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron, “start where you are”

Start with yourself. Where you are, with what is going on inside you, with your sense of stuck-ness.

You cannot fix your husband or your sons, but you can shift in your view of yourself in this situation.

Your sense of being overwhelmed is understandable but look at what was mentioned above in this column, in terms of how we want to run away from difficulties and that this in itself exacerbates our anxiety and makes matters feel totally out of control and frightening.

So, I would suggest that you “start where you are”just for today, just one step, just one thought, just one breath, just one prayer return to yourself, your true refuge is within yourself.

This is where you will find your answers. If you are really struggling and cannot find a way out and need help further, get in touch with a mental health professional in your area.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.