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Growing Larger than Suffering

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

In her beautifully soulful book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen tells a story of a surly teenage boy who was struggling with a diagnosis of childhood diabetes. He was acting out—not eating properly, not taking his insulin. Then, one day, he came to her office smiling. He’d had a dream. “In my dream,” he said. I saw a statue of a young Buddha. Just looking at it made me feel peaceful. Then, out of nowhere, a dagger came from behind me and went right into the heart of the Buddha. I was shocked, devastated. Then, as I watched, upset and angry, the Buddha began to grow. He grew and grew until he was the size of a giant. The knife was still there, but compared to the Buddha, it now was only the size of a toothpick.”

That story was one of the most profound teachings of my life about how to hold suffering, mine and others, the theme of my blog this month. The boy still had juvenile diabetes, that was his reality. But he could grow his mind/spirit larger than the wounding. Experience the truth of it, but not be swamped by it by recognizing he was more than his pain.

At first, I took this as a metaphor. How could I grow my heart and soul large enough to contain not only my own suffering but the cries of the world? It was something about being the calm in a storm, or more accurately, becoming the calm surrounding the storm.

But then I met Aikido master Wendy Palmer and learned about energy fields. That we are surrounded by a field of energy that we are in the center of which we can expand or contract at will. The Buddha story took on more meaning—when we or someone else is experiencing suffering, we’re meant to enlarge our energy field to contain the wound.   

Just as I started to work with this concept, life gave me lot of chances to practice. I adopted a baby who had serious night terrors due to trauma. Every night for years, two, three, five, ten times a night, Finn would wake up screaming, thrashing and kicking. I would hold them until they calmed down. The calmer I was, the more centered and expanded I was in my energy, the more I could be there as a loving, reassuring force, receiving the terror without catching it so Finn could feel supported, the quicker they would go back to sleep. Eventually at about age 4, the terrors diminished and then stopped.  

Next week, I’ll go into more detail about how to center and expand your field. Meanwhile, here’s another metaphor that will give you the feeling of what I am talking about. It comes from paintings of Mary with baby Jesus. She is often depicted tenderly holding him as she peacefully gazes into the middle distance. She is cradling him and aware of the larger surroundings. This is a 2008 rendition by Patricia Brintle of that theme.

Art by Patricia Brintle

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