Finding Joy in the Midst of Suffering        Autumn 1999

by Karen Levine







Why God?  Why so Much pain?  Help me with it; help me get rid of it!












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My story starts when I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer to the bones, lungs and left eye in April 1998. This was after undergoing a mastectomy and eight months of chemotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Periodically my health, even as a small child, would get bad. Yet nothing in my prior experience fully prepared me for the despair and pain I felt when I contracted metastatic cancer.
     The worst of it, as far as I was concerned, was that now I would never get the chance to experience true joy. Everything from now on would be tainted and overshadowed by the cancer.
     Since 1976 I have been practicing a spiritual lifestyle in hopes of gaining joy. While we all know we should practice the presence of God at all times without expecting to attain anything, I had hoped that the practice itself would become a source of joy for me - doing the right thing and all that.
     During those 20+ years of practice I learned there is a certain advantage gained by setting aside a specific time of day to practice prayer and meditation. The time of day can change, but you must do the work daily. Now the physical pain I was experiencing gave me a new perspective.
     Waking up at three in the morning, not by choice, but because I was in so much pain I could not lie in bed or even sit in a chair, put a different twist on my prayers. Week after week went by and all I could do during my time with God was sob. Why God, why so much pain? Help me with it, get rid of it for me. Let me know what it is I am supposed to be learning from it! All I heard was silence. I got weaker and weaker, more and more tired. Where was this joy I was supposed to be feeling from my practicing? Where was this joy I was supposed to be having by being in the presence of God? I knew He was near and was listening to every word I said. In the Judeo-Christian ethic it says, "The joy of the Lord is your strength" and "In thy presence is fullness of joy" . Yet joy was nowhere to be found and as far as I was concerned it was moving further and further away and out of my grasp .
     After a solid month of daily crying to God I received in the mail a Buddhist magazine. The issue was dedicated to cancer and dying and included an article on vipassana meditation. The article spoke to me. It asked me simple questions, "Could I visualize the pain? Did it have an image, feeling, taste, or fragrance?" The article set down a method of holding the pain, being present with it. The article suggested that my relationship to pain could change, the pain might lessen, or at least I would gain an understanding of it. I decided to try it out.
     I resolved that the next time I woke up because of the pain, I would try to be present with it instead of crying to God . Night after night, week after week, I practiced being present with the pain. Each night something different would happen. Sometimes I would get an image of the pain. I learned that the pain I felt had an image, a feeling, a taste and a fragrance and yes, sometimes it would lessen and even disappear completely.
Working with Pain
During workshops for persons with chronic or life-challenging illness, Madeline teaches mindfulness meditation to help become aware of, accept and befriend the pain. We practice being with the pain instead of pushing it away.
    To practice, begin by following your breath. Focus your attention on the sensation of your breath going in and out; feeling your chest or abdomen rising and falling. Then open to the sounds around you. Let them enter your awareness without labeling them. Just notice sounds arising and passing away. If your mind wanders, note "thinking" and return to the sensation of your breath going in and out.
   When you’re ready, bring your attention to the difficult sensation in your body and investigate it. Get to know it intimately,

    Can you visualize the pain?
    Does it have an image, feeling, taste or fragrance?
    Is it hard or soft?
    Is it hot or cold?
    Is it concencentrated or diffuse?
    Is it sharp or dull or pulsating?
    As you watch the pain, do you notice it changing?

You may notice that the sensation gets stronger or weaker; more concentrated or diffuse. It is not solid or static. Like everything, It changes. By befriending our pain we change our relationship to it. We let go of suffering which is caused by resistance to the pain. The contraction in our bodies softens. allowing us to cradle the pain gently, as a mother holds her child.  

Then one night it happened. I was meditating and there it was. A feeling of peace, not associated with whether I was in pain or not.
     There was a happiness there because God had not left me alone to deal with the pain as best I could. The article had arrived just at the moment the pain was at its height and I had given up all hope.
     I had learned to be present with the pain; to hold it, to embrace it. I had not let it destroy me or my spiritual practices. Then I felt it. There it was JOY, unadulterated joy. This quiet softness, a peace, feeling God; not necessarily His presence but knowing He was truly aware of me. I realized that the same questions I had about joy were the same questions the article asked me about my pain.
     Perhaps this is all in my mind, an illusion. It seems to me that joy is a bridge. It is an experience somewhere between happiness and divine bliss. It is not as dependent on earthly experiences nor does it have as much excitement as happiness It is not as ethereal and unrelated to human events as divine bliss, It is a part of the human experience. It is that as incarnated souls we hopefully bring a piece of heaven down to earth with us. Like the Buddha’s middle path, joy connects our earthly reality and the divine bliss associated with God 's presence. Joy helps us relate to our human experiences in a heavenly and divine way. Through the experience of my pain, I learned that my joy resides like a bridge between my human experiences and the person and presence of God.


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