Inviting in a Crowd of Sorrows

Sometimes I feel as though I spend my life slipping into ruts and then struggling to climb out of them.

Each time I snap out of the trance of anxiety or fear or sadness, I look back on it and think to myself, “Oh, that again. How am I still falling into that trap?” However, when I’m lost in the fog of my distress, the threat feels so immediate, so inescapable that even when I pick up on subtle hints of familiarity, I have a hard time labeling this anxiety, this fear, this sadness as the same visitors who have come (and gone away again) countless times before.

And when I emerge from the fog, when I get to the other side, the path is almost always a familiar one as well: after a certain period of time feeling harassed by unwelcome feelings, I exhaust myself with obsessing over them, with wishing them away, to the point where I settle into a sort of numb acceptance of my discomfort, and it’s only then, after I’ve stopped struggling and relaxed into these feelings, that they pass.

But when they pass, it’s as though I’ve been given a new pair of glasses which I was unaware I needed until I had them resting on the bridge of my nose. The world looks sharper, colors more vivid, my experience more alive. To borrow from secular Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor, my focus shifts away from trying to solve the mysteries of the universe towards trying to penetrate them. In other words, rather than being driven to make sense of my experience, I feel moved to marvel at, to luxuriate in the senseless beauty of it all. In the glow of this fresh start, I am able to look back on the time I’ve “wasted,” dwelling in neurosis, with compassion and without regret–it seems clear that I needed to walk through that dark wood in order to appreciate sunlight waiting in the clearing where I then find myself.

This most recent cycle of discomfort into acceptance brought to mind Rumi’s often quoted poem, “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Of course, after navigating the ever more familiar path back to a place of contentment and joy with life’s mysteries, I can’t help thinking that “next time” I won’t have to suffer so much. “Next time” I’ll just be more patient with myself and cut right to the acceptance. Sometimes, when the afterglow is especially all-enveloping, I’ll imaging that I might even manage to feel gratitude as soon as I recognize that my demons have come calling as it signals that greater clarity is on its way…

That’s probably not how it will play out, however. Maybe I’ll be able to retain a bit more sanity in the face of my distress; maybe I’ll spend a bit less time spinning my wheels before I settle into acceptance; maybe I’ll navigate the cycle with a bit more confidence in my own ability to come out the other side. But these shifts will likely feel slight, almost imperceptible, while in the thick of my discomfort. Just now, it strikes me that perhaps my best chance at penetrating the mysteriousness of life is to work towards raising my tolerance for discomfort, rather than seeking to diminish it.

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