Getting to Heaven through Hell


I went out to lunch with a friend this weekend to celebrate her birthday. It was one of those rare lazy autumn days. My friend and I had no plans so we sat together and let our conversation run free for hours. As friends often do, we shared our stories with one another. While sitting beside a pool in a peaceful state of mind, I recalled past joys, but also past illnesses, betrayals, and unfulfilled dreams with a sense of wonder. Here I was with my friend, the loneliness vanished and the day untainted by past heartbreaks -was that darkness really part of my story? My friend’s story also had it’s fair share of abuse-drunken parents, men running out on her after she gave birth, cancer and loss of loved ones- yet she too abided peacefully. I don’t imagine my friend and I are much different than other people. We all have our stories, some more harrowing than others, yet most with a healthy dollop of unexplainable pain.

We wonder at Nelson Mandela’s ability, after 27 years of imprisonment, to become a shining example of stability and kindness. I’ve heard other, similar stories about people who emerged open and loving after horrendous ordeals. One such story is of a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned, beaten and abused for years. When he finally escaped the Chinese prison and made his way to Dharmasala, an aid worker noticed an unmistakable glow of joy on his face and was impressed with his kindness. The aid worker asked him how he came by his state of well-being. The monk replied that his practice during incarceration was, and still is, seeing the humanity and pain in the people who were his abusers. He practiced loving kindness in the midst of cruelty.

In Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankel, a Jewish doctor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp, noticed how some people in the camp were able to maintain their humanity while others became fearful and grasping. There were those who gave their last bite of bread to another hungry prisoner and those who stole what they could. How was Nelson Mandela, the Tibetan monk, and these generous concentration camp prisoners able to, not only maintain their humanity, but deepen their ability to love, forgive and appreciate life within the gates of hell?

For all caring people, this question inevitably arises: why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Out of a strong compassion for the suffering he saw all around him, the Buddha left his comfortable palace in order to understand, and hopefully find a solution to, the problem of human suffering. The result was his insight into, what he called, the 4 noble truths. The 4 noble truths, core to all Buddhist denominations, are; there is suffering, we suffer because we don’t perceive things clearly, there’s a way out of this mess and the way out is by practicing the 8 fold path.

This core Buddhist insight offers a simple explanation of, even a solution to, an impossibly complex set of circumstances. The implications are huge. If the 4 noble truths are true, the problem of suffering in the world is not due to economic or political systems, not even due to a direct quid pro quo karmic situation. Suffering is much more subtle and nuanced, much more personal and intimate, than that. We suffer due to our core human predicament and our response to that predicament. Even if we build the most brilliant political and economic systems in the world and act impeccably, given our human tendency to always want more than we have, to react out of anger and to delude ourselves, we will continue to experience suffering. When asked, how do we become peacemakers? Nelson Mandela responded, “First is to become honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.” This core premise of self- responsibility points to a lifetime of practice.

There’s a human tendency to think that normal life is meant to flow along pain free. Then, some pesky event shatters our equanimity-someone gets sick, money is lost, there’s traffic. All these unfortunate events disturb a world we are trying to keep at a positive homeostasis. When something comes along and shatters that homeostasis, we wonder-why do bad things happen to good people? The 4 noble truths turn that perspective on its head. As long as we do not see things clearly, suffering is to be expected. Life is always in a state of breaking up, dissolving and unsteadiness, even down to the atomic level. We enjoy the nectar of our life within the context of this constant dissolution.

The sincere practitioner takes that realization one step further. Those irksome, painful things that happen to us are not only to be expected, but embraced as opportunities for deeper practice. A woman, who admitted to flitting from thing to thing all her life, while dying of cancer wrote, “I haven’t had the luxury of being bored of having cancer.” Hell has the unique ability to grab our attention and keep us focused. This is what both Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned Tibetan monk, and many others have discovered. By keeping their hearts and eyes open when faced with unimaginable challenges, increasing their focus to meet the situation, the challenges became their practice. Their practice became a raft carrying them to richer, more expansive landscapes.

The 4 noble truths helped me frame my life’s struggles as, not breaks in an otherwise functional life, but the life itself. While raising a daughter as a single mother struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I watched the life force drain out of my body. All I could do was look out the window, even reading or talking or TV was too much stimulation. I made friends with a tree outside my window and watched its leaves turn gold and fall. As leaf after leaf fell to the ground all that was left was a silhouetted tree against an azure sky. It was immeasurably beautiful. I didn’t have much, but the practice of noticing, the practice of gratitude for the details of life and the practice of not knowing, brought me through my own personal gates of hell in one piece. It was the challenges, along with the practice, which made it possible for me to sit by the pool with a friend 30 years later without being haunted by darker times. My practice and hell conspired to make me a deeper, happier person. Life would not have the richness it has now if either were taken out of the equation.

Nelson Mandela said, “It is a great tragedy to spend 27 years in prison. But, although it is ironical, there are great advantages in that. If I had not been to prison I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, that is changing yourself.” Many of us will never experience a concentration camp or a gulag, but we each face our own personal prisons. Some of us may experience progressive illness or abusive relationships or deep loneliness. We can’t always choose our fate, but we can choose to use whatever is in our lives right now to add one more drop of joy in the vast ocean of humanity.

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