Shifting the Perception of Suffering

The way in which you are part of the web of life, of incarnation, is around the dimensions, you could call it, of compassion, suffering or dealing with suffering. That when you have a society that is built on the denial of other people’s suffering, for the myths of the society to be lived out, you have a very frightened society, and you have all the pathology that comes from fear. And what is the fear is that people are afraid to look at. You got cancer, there’s inner city violence, there’s somebody starving. The first part is just acknowledging what is – just acknowledging what is. And what you will see when you sit down quietly is how frightening it is to acknowledge what is. That has to do with your suffering and it has to do with everyone else’s as well – including the earth.

There is a story of the Buddha and the Buddha’s father. The Buddha’s father created a castle which was a protected environment to keep the Buddha, the young Gautama, from seeing suffering. Because the father knew that if the son saw the suffering, the son wouldn’t become the next king. The son would be busy finding out how to end suffering – which is what happened. And that’s just such a simple story, and it just works. Because it says, here’s a person that came along, that had everything. And then he saw through the cracks, and he saw that everything was in relation to everything else. He saw that a lot of people were just scrambling for food, or for survival, or for warmth, and dealing with loneliness and alienation. And what kind of contract you make with people’s suffering determines how happy you can be as a human being. And the funny thing is, the model most people function under is, “If I open to their suffering I won’t be happy.” And the truth is, if you don’t open to their suffering you definitely won’t be happy. And there may be a way to open to suffering and still be happy. And I firmly believe that is true; were it not, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in, in my work and in my life. Because what I find is the closer I stay to the truth of people’s suffering, my heart opens, and by allowing myself to feel it, the more I experience that I am part of the living truth. I am part of the living spirit of the universe. And then I do what I can.

The trap is, if you’re identified with being a do-er, your predicament is that when you see suffering you feel you’re supposed to take it away. And if you can’t take it away you feel inadequate, and you fear feeling impotent in the face of suffering. Your heart’s breaking and there’s nothing you can do about it. Well that’s true most of the time. And if that’s true most of the time and you can’t stand it, most of the time you can’t stand yourself and it. The fact is, I can’t take away people’s death and suffering when I’m working with their death and suffering. But I can be a presence where they can shift their consciousness in a way so they don’t experience their death and suffering the same way. But I can’t take away all the stuff from people. And the ability to be with somebody where your heart is breaking because they’re suffering and you do not have the power to take away that suffering… and the feeling you have under those conditions has got to be reflected upon. You have to take the time to reflect upon that, in order to find peace within that situation.

~Ram Dass, October 15, 1995


5 thoughts on “Shifting the Perception of Suffering”

  1. thank you Ram Dass, I am struggling every day with whether I am doing the right thing to pursue a career in helping people, your talks are very inspiring, I hope I’ll make it, hope I’ll learn of love and open up.

  2. Thank you, Ram Dass. I am getting ready to go visit a wonderful lifelong friend in New Mexico who is just realizing she is dying of cancer. First, I found I had to deal with the fact that I was just realizing she was dying of cancer. But now I just want to see her, for however long I can, and help as much as I can. I feel inadequate, but realize down deep I need to open up and trust myself do be the vehicle for the right thing. She is such a lovely woman and I love her so much. I am going to read your words here over and over and meditate on them, trying to let them sink into my heart so I can share this attitude with her. Please accept my gratitude.
    Cathy in Montana

  3. Dear Ram Dass,

    I had that with my Dad. He isn’t dying yet but I had to jerk him out of his home and put him in one of those places. His body works okay but his sense of safety is missing so he fell down his stairs and after that I couldn’t keep him in his home. I wanted him to be able to die there. I’m not a caregiver type. I had to come to grips with that fact but he didn’t for the longest time. He was so angry with me, we could barely speak to one another for some time because of course I was angry with him for having such impossible expectations.
    I started chanting. I chanted for our healing, I chanted to let go of my guilt and anger. It took a long time, I’m still working on it because taking care of him has ruined our friendship. His karma seems to indicate that in order for him to let go of life he has to slowly forget his life. His dementia is why he can’t be home alone but it’s also the only vehicle that will allow him to pass on peacefully some day, he’s 93. All his stuff is still his even though he can’t use any of it.
    I paid attention when you said, how you can only work on yourself in the face of other’s suffering, so I’ve been doing that. Also the Gita says that you must do your own karma even if it’s imperfect, which this is. Your guidance via lectures, audio books and podcasts have been a great help.
    Thank you.

  4. Dear Ram Das. How amasingly deep and uncomplexed your’e words seem to me. I can’t really express how meaningfull it is to me to read your’e post and folow and breatheinto your’e teachings.
    I am at a point now, i have been wating for for meny many years, where i feel readdy to go beyond a scertain point i have always feard. Letting the huge have it’s rightfull life and follow 🙂
    In this, connecting to your’e heart seem almst like the only meaningfull nourisment i can find.
    Thank you. And hope that i will make it, so i can see you in the flesh soon, be around And hear you talk.


Leave a Comment

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.


Ram Dass Online Shop

Buy books, media, digital downloads, apparel, devotional, art & other great items!

Join Our Newsletter

Sign up for the Love Serve Remember mailing to receive news, exclusive offers & more.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Donate to LSRF

Help ensure that the teachings of Ram Dass will be available to generations to come.

A Network of Mindfulness & Spirituality Podcasts
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap