In Macbeth, act IV, scene 3, lines 210-11, Shakespeare’s Malcolm extends the ultimate invitation to us:
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.
This morning, perhaps under the spell of Malcolm’s words (pinned to the wall in front of the desk in my study) I was drawn to listen for the umpteenth time to a talk by contemporary sage, joker and storyteller, Jack Kornfield, a kind of Jack-of-all-trades in spirituality, no pun intended. One of his most poignant talks is about how the “human heart is made to be broken,” referring to the Buddhist precept of suffering as a part of life. His message points to suffering as a direct offspring of attachment. At the core of his humorous Dharma, is the invitation to embrace pain and suffering as offshoots of being alive. Kornfield is clear that Samsara or the wheel of suffering (the endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), can be stopped. There is a simple yet complex direct correlation between our attachment and our suffering.
While both the Buddhist teachings and Kornfield’s reflections on them resonate strongly with me, I want to focus on another part of the conundrum, which is the importance of not rushing our way out of sorrow and running the risk of missing its gifts. Because of the work we do as counselors, sorrow, suffering, and physical and emotional pain are the raw materials we work with. Understanding their etiology is both part and parcel of creating successful strategies to counterbalance the devastating effect they can have on our clients, or ourselves, since we are, of course, not exempt from the gift of vulnerability.
We know that the transition from sitting with pain to giving sorrow words to the liberation from sorrow most often is achieved after slow-walking a long, meaningful path. There is no shortcut, no magic recipe for stopping Samsara. We know that there is no quick fix for matters of the soul, that they need to be taken in without the tragic, sentimental view of “why me” or “poor me” and that it is our ethical obligation to walk that path with those who come our way, or to walk it alone when it serves us. We walk that path with our clients, not in an attempt to carry their burdens, but to teach them, and ourselves, how to give sorrow words and to understand the meaning within enduring the pain of a heart that was made to be broken. In some cases, it seems that the more we help someone, or ourselves, to dive deeply into expressed sorrow, the stronger our steps are when crossing the threshold into the transformative experience that alleviates suffering. This is not to say that we or our clients need to cook in misery in order to grow emotionally, or in order to liberate from sorrow, but neither should we take matters of the heart lightly. No fast food provides sustenance for the soul.
More often than not, people come to my door with a self-diagnosed “broken heart.” Almost always, the brokenness of the heart comes, not from weakened heart tissues, but through the rip that ending meaningful relationships can leave in the heart. Having had my share of heartaches, I can strongly empathize with what at times feels like unbearable pain. At the risk of being misinterpreted, I remind clients, and myself quite often, that to be alive means to suffer – not always, not incessantly – but to suffer nonetheless. Because of the imperfection of human nature, throughout a lifetime we will meet face-to-face with physical and emotional suffering, which often brings psychological suffering. It is in enduring these sufferings and in the coming to terms with their causes that we can outgrow and transcend psychological pain.
I often encourage personal responsibility, taking the bull by the horns, as the best way to conquer pain, to alleviate suffering, because taking ownership of our pain is a form of detachment – from the belief that pain is an interruption or that happiness is the way things are supposed to be – that can bring liberation from suffering. To sit down with a pulsating but broken heart, to reflect on how it is to be in so much pain, and most importantly to feel that in getting to know the pain we have placed ourselves on the path of learning how to walk out of it, generates freedom. So instead of a quick patch-up of the brokenness, let’s invite others and ourselves to get to know the brokenness, and to language what it is to have a rip in the heart that can bring forth liberation from suffering.
Marianela Medrano-Marra is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Naugatuck, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.