War Within: Getting into the Heart and Owning its Pain

So, it’s raining outside. But, I’m dry and cozy tucked away in the back of my local coffee shop. Seated at the counter squeezed in between the bar and bathroom, I’m working elbow to elbow with two freelancers. One of them, a woman in her early-forties like me, gets up and goes to the bar. When she gets back, she gets my attention and, then, whispers to me, “it’s pain-free.’ All one word, she tells me. (Meaning: drop the hyphen.)

I hear the words, but their meaning just doesn’t register. Pain-free? Why, I wonder, is she telling me this? Seeing my confused expression, she gives me some much-needed context. The password to the wi-fi, she reminds me. You were asking about it? Yes, remembering now, I nod. I was.

And, then, unable to help myself from sharing, I tell her that her words sounded more like a prophecy, than a password. She smiles and gave a nervous laugh, like I was reading a little too much into it. And, honestly, maybe I was. We break eye contact and return to our work. I find the place where I’d left off in Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart. And plunge back into the second chapter, Stopping the War.

‘Stopping the war’ is Kornfield’s shorthand for overcoming the pain of being human. According to Kornfield, the human condition is like a constant state of war because the human mind fights ‘the way things are.’ We suffer because we deny our suffering. We perpetuate the pain, he suggests, by making war on what we don’t understand. Namely, our own mortality.

According to Buddhist philosophy, all life on Earth is ephemeral. Human existence, too, exemplifies this state of impermanence. In this tradition, it is believed that we humans are locked into a relentless cycle of reincarnation — of deaths and re-births — that ends only once enlightenment has been reached. Accept life’s impermanence and you earn enough karma to exit the cycle. Once you enter Buddha-dom, the war is over. The suffering ends; you’re golden.

Sitting there sipping my latte, I can’t help but wonder what’s left for the rest of us who don’t see ourselves making team Buddha any time soon. How do we manage our pain given it’s our plight to suffer it? I mean, if we can’t stop the wars we make within ourselves and without, isn’t there at least some way to call a temporary cease-fire? Kornfield, wouldn’t you know, has already anticipated my questions and has his answers at the ready.

All I need to do is turn the page to get advice of ceasing the hostilities. I want to quote him extensively here because what he is describing is a path forward; not necessarily out of the war, but into the center of it where the mind fights its daily battle against what is. He writes:

To stop the war and come into the present is to discover a greatness of our own heart that can include the happiness of all beings as inseparable from our own. When we let ourselves feel the fear, the discontent, the difficulties we have always avoided, our heart softens. Just as it is a courageous act to face all the difficulties form which we have always run, it is also an act of compassion (p. 27).

Does this get me closer to the promise of pain-free? Maybe, maybe not. My biggest take away from Kornfield, however, is that pain can be a powerful teacher. We need pain because confronting it helps us to understand the ‘whole process of making war (…) both how it begins and how it ends.’ So, yes, I can feel the pain of my own disappointments and inadequacies, i.e. I can’t save the world and I can’t take responsibility for everyone’s happiness.

But, in coming face to face with these armies — or affects — that I make war on, I can begin to have compassion for them. I can let them into my heart, instead of driving them from it. And, in doing so, I can find more room for making love, instead of war against the world within me, as well as the world around me. While love doesn’t relieve pain, it makes it bearable to hold it peacefully in the heart. If Kornfield were here now, I’d buy the guy a coffee.