Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Clinging to Suffering

"The Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -


Moderate temperatures and cool breezes make this an ideal season to take long hikes into the wilderness area outside our home. Since this area looks very much like the wilderness region of the “Holy Land,” whenever I walk in it I am reminded of the well-known “desert story” of the “exodus” found in the Hebrew Bible - a story about the Jewish People who had been freed from slavery in the land of Egypt and are now on their way to the Promised Land where they will live as a free people.  However, in order to reach their destination, the people would first be required to travel for 40 years through an endless and uncharted desert wilderness. This journey is arduous, the terrain is dry and rocky, the sun is hot, there are no roads and the way ahead is not clearly marked.  

According to the story, Moses tells his people that even though they would never be sure of the way, as long as they walked together, helped each other along the path, and trusted in the abiding presence of “God” they would ultimately make it to their new home. While most of the people listened to Moses and willingly set out on this wilderness adventure,  a bunch of less courageous people decided that the journey through the wilderness would be too difficult, the way ahead was too ambiguous, there were way too many questions and not enough answers and so many decided to pack up their families and go back to the servitude of slavery in Egypt.

Oddly enough many people decided to return to their place of suffering, they went back and allowed the humiliating yoke of slavery to once again be placed upon them - at least they knew where their next meal was coming from and this was familiar territory

Like all stories in the scriptures, the tale of the “Forty Years in the Wilderness” is far more than a historical retelling about freed Hebrew slaves making their way to the land of Israel thousands of years ago. It is a story about our common human condition, a story about how many of us may prefer to cling to our suffering rather than walk a path of freedom.

I am reminded of something Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about our human condition:

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.

I find great wisdom in this observation. For the most part, we understand what causes the suffering we experience in life. At some level most people know that holding grudges against others causes us pain, that anger and hatreds eat away at us, that clinging to our stuff in life and always wanting more makes us feel isolated. We know how an addiction keeps us in bondage.

And yet, instead of adventurously journeying into the uncharted and unfamiliar territory of walking a new and different path, many choose to cling to the pain and stay with the familiar suffering.  They stay with the same old patterns and routines that they know causes them to be unhappy and keeps them in bondage. They cling to worn-out but familiar ideas and judgments, clutch grudges tightly and cling to addictions. They cling to broken and dysfunctional relationships, cling to long-standing regrets and long-held anxieties, and selfishly horde all the things accumulated in life. This may cause suffering but at least it’s familiar suffering.

Priest and author, Anthony DeMello, puts it this way:

As we walk a spiritual path it's not that we fear the unknown.
What we really fear is the loss of the known.
Many people don’t want to wake up, they don’t want to be happy
because they are afraid of happiness.

On my journey into the wilderness yesterday, I came across many signs of spring along the way. Indeed, winter is coming to an end – what a great time to wake up and leave behind the all too familiar ways of slavery and suffering.

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