In recent weeks and months, I’ve heard from many people about their deep fears and heartbreak for our world. There’s such an enormity of suffering around the globe: natural disasters, societal oppression and genocide, political instability and unrest.
As I read these emails, I am reminded of a talk I heard where activist Valarie Kaur asks the question "What if these times are not the darkness of the tomb, but they are the darkness of the womb?"
The Cocoon of Suffering
There is power and potential in a time of darkness. We can see through evolution that great stress requires adaptation. It can evolve us. Whenever there is strong suffering we can sense, in a deep, intuitive way, that there is another side to it. In our own lives, we can remember how the most difficult pain, whether it was a divorce or a biopsy that turned out malignant or the loss of somebody dear, has often opened us to a greater understanding of what we really cherish. Through suffering, we’ve found a new level of resilience or really sensed the mysteries of this living dying world.
Of course, we have also seen how suffering doesn’t always bring a new day. We know how we can get caught in the misery of addiction or depression and stay in that prison. One of my favorite metaphors for suffering and transformation is that of a cocoon. If the caterpillar in a cocoon doesn't keep developing, the pressure from the very size of the cocoon creates suffering. Like the caterpillar, we are meant to keep evolving.
Four Practices for Transformation and Freedom
In times of great difficulty, there are four key ways of paying attention, whether it is in our personal lives or our broader society, that can allow for suffering to be transformative.
1. Don’t believe the thoughts that create separation.
When we are suffering, we are believing something that is not true. In an argument with reality, we will always lose. When judgment and blame arise, we can challenge the thoughts that come up with them. One teacher uses the phrase “real but not true.” The thoughts are real, as are the feelings that they stir up, but are they really true? You might ask yourself: What am I believing right now? Is this true? Could this be real, but not true?
2. Feel your feelings and learn to stay.
Our emotions are intelligent. We need them. Each one, if we listen, has a message for us. Anger tells us there an obstacle to what really matters in our lives. Fear alerts us of impending danger. Grief reminds us to pay attention to the hurting and emptiness we feel after a loss. Emotions inform us of our unmet needs. When we lean in and bring a gentle, caring presence to our feelings rather than running away, we discover the awareness and space that is large enough hold them. And there is a profound gift in that. From that presence, we can respond with greater intelligence and creativity to what is happening in our lives.
3. Turn towards love.
Our primitive conditioning is to perceive ourselves as separate. As a separate organism, we try to control, grab onto love, or fearfully push others away. We fixate on what is wrong rather than the possibility of loving connection. It can feel vulnerable and risky to take the chance to turn towards love in an open, undefended way and let the light and warmth really wash through us. We turn towards love by remembering what we love; dear ones, this living earth, goodness, kindness. And we turn towards love by directly bringing our presence, realness, and tenderness into a relationship with another being. This experience of connectedness undoes our conditioning and frees our hearts.
4. Act from love.
The Dalai Lama teaches: “This is not an age where mere self-growth and development or faith or meditation is sufficient. Those must inevitably be balanced by active social engagement, compassionate actions. No one can do it alone. We need each other to become enlightened. We need each other for spiritual realization.” 1
As we remember connectedness, it is natural to act from our hearts. Engaging from a place of deep caring deconditions the more regressive tendencies toward being obsessed with making ourselves more comfortable, or proving ourselves, or seeking approval. There can be profound healing and freedom when we move from self-centeredness to service.
A Prayer for Our World
Any of these practices—challenging the thoughts that create separation, learning to stay with our feelings, intentionally turning toward the love in our lives, engaging from a place of caring—must be explored inwardly and with others for the effects to truly ripple out into the world around us. Ultimately, I have faith that anything that happens to us can be part of what wakes us up. We can trust that, if we know how to be in a relationship with our life, any place of suffering can be transformative and can be the darkness of the womb. In Buddhism, this is captured in the prayer of the Bodhisattva, an awakening being: May whatever arises serve the awakening of this heart.
As we navigate the difficulties in our world—sensing the beauty, the mystery and the messiness, the hurt and the pain—we can feel, in our hearts, this prayer for all beings:
May whatever darkness there is—the regressive tendencies, the mean-spiritedness, the hurt, the suffering—serve as an awakening. May this be the darkness of the womb. May there be a rebirthing into a world that is filled with compassion.
Adapted from: Darkness of the Womb – Four Key Steps in Transforming Suffering. A talk presented by Tara Brach on January 25, 2017. Listen Here
 Das, S. (2015). Make Me One with Everything: Buddhist Meditations to Awaken from the Illusion of Separation. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.