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Graves to Gardens: 3,000 Years of Pain and Transformation

Millenia of spiritual and philosophical tradition has taught us one thing: suffering is the path to awakening.

Feb 24, 2024
Sterling Lentz

There is the transient. And there is the eternal.

For now, we are earthbound and human. Our ears poorly tuned to the harmonies of the angels, our eyes blurry to the presence of God alongside us. The mind fixates on the finite, even as our souls flow constant along a river of stars.

Among many things, life is the struggle to remain in touch with forces for which we are inherently ill-equipped to distinguish. This constant struggle of the human experience, to sense deep down that we are peering out into existence through a pinhole, defines our spiritual lives. We are granted only glimpses—if we are lucky—then left to contemplate their incomplete truths.

Our natural tendencies nearly guarantee that we’ll spend life not basking in the wisdom and perfection of the universe, but instead lamenting the doors we did not open, the paths we did not take, and the loves we lost along the way. This discomfort with endings, and our unwillingness to let go, both certifies our humanness and ensures that our suffering stands always in the foregrounds of our mind.

Our universal aversion to loss reveals just how uncomfortable we are with growth. There is no greater impetus for growth than pain. And nearly all pain flows from a wellspring of loss. Despite this, many of us find growth unappealing when stasis will do instead. We seldom pursue serious transformation in the absence of anything but the most excruciating of experiences.

Heartbreak is one of those experiences. It's one of just a handful of phenomenon of the human heart cataclysmic enough to dictate real growth, irrespective of our personal attitudes about it. For anyone who has experienced it, the shattering pain cannot be forgotten. You are quietly literally destroyed, broken into pieces, and left to rebuild yourself without instruction. You cannot emerge from the painful end of a relationship the same person who entered into it. It’s just not possible.

This doesn’t mean though that you will grow in the ways you need to. Many of those experiencing heartbreak grow only in their bitterness and resentment, plunging themselves into a play pretend world of victims and villains. Others grow stunted and numb, gnarling their emotions into a knot and sequestering them away in some dark vault within. Neither response advances the cause of love, either in our own hearts or in the world. They are inherently fearful reactions.

There is guidance all around us, and the most timeless instruction encourages us to resist the temptation to use our pain to bad ends. Instead, we are too look within and recognize the presence of pain in our lives like the arrival of a great and wise teacher. Let the lessons begin.

Ancient traditions and religions have always held pain and suffering in the highest regard, recognizing it as the sharpest scalpel for internal surgery. From Joseph in the Pit to Siddhartha with the Samanas, there is a rich history of agony we can all lean on as we struggle with our own pain, including heartbreak. The answer has never been, and will never be, in deflection, denial, demonization, shaming, or endless suffering, the easy explanations culture encourages us to embrace. We are here to grow in compassion and understanding, and to that end, we must take it upon ourselves to use our pain to greater ends.

The Eastern View

Pain is certain, suffering is optional

In the East, there is the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, whose teaching dealt extensively with the subject of pain. In many ways, Buddhism itself is a spiritual exploration of our relationship with pain.

Around 500 BCE, Siddhartha spoke of the Four Noble Truths. Pain exists, he declared. The cause of pain is desire. Yet it's possible to overcome the suffering caused by pain. We transcend it through the Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Views
  2. Right Intentions
  3. Right Livelihood
  4. Right Mindfulness
  5. Right Speech
  6. Right Conduct
  7. Right Effort
  8. Right Concentration

Buddhism plainly admits that we can do nothing to avoid pain. Our attachments we have to things assures that we will experience great loss. There will be the things that we want desperately and never attain, the things we love to the ends of the earth and lose, and the things we can’t quite have the way we’d want. In every expression of attachment, there is pain.

Pain does not mean we must suffer, at least not endlessly. We can at least attempt to align our mind in balance and awareness, such that painful experiences can move through us and not make a permanent home.

As with all spiritual paths, this requires tremendous discipline, intention, and balance. Much of the Eightfold Path is echoed in various forms in the traditionally Chinese philosophy of Confucianism and in the Tao, which urges us to stay in the present moment, accept everything, and let go completely of judgement or attachment. In this spirit the Taoist master, Lao Tzu, once wrote:

“If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial. If you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up.”

This fundamental paradox lies at the heart of Eastern spiritual thought. In order to get everything we desire, we must completely stop desiring it. This mind-bending task never fails to challenge us. After all, our daily lives are defined almost entirely by striving in one form or another. Our desire for love, happiness, justice, fairness, equanimity, and so on make it eternally difficult to accept a reality in which all of these things come easily when we stop caring about them. To not be able to not care locks us in a struggle as our most noble desires become the final obstacles in our spiritual path.

A Relationship Lesson

When we lose someone close to us, we must confront the plain reality that they were never ours to begin with. And it’s not them, it’s our attachment to them, that is the source of our pain. This dynamic reveals itself in our unwillingness to cut contact, delete photos, forget about, and otherwise move on from those we love. We feel these are the last bare threads connecting us to someone we hold dear, and we’d rather cling to these last vestiges than contemplate a future without them, even if doing so prolongs our suffering.

If we can quiet our mind, we can for a moment appreciate that we are capable of such intense and lasting attachment, such that a loss of someone we love can feel indistinguishable from losing a part of our physical body. If we are strong enough, we can investigate and meditate on why we are attached in this way. This is the Buddhist practice of Sati, or mindfulness, the beating heart of Zen Buddhism and Tibetan meditation tradition. From this practice, we develop compassion, and include ourselves in that compassion. We are now in a position to observe our attachment without being consumed by it. With time, we accept the situation as it is, and let go.

Greek Mythology

The ancient Greek poet Hesiod, second only to Homer, writes of the Algea, minor goddesses often regarded as the daughters of the Goddess of Night, Nyx. They were personifications of all kinds of strife: pain, grief, sorrow, murder, lies, and ruin to name a few. Hesiod wrote in his poem ‘Theogony’ around 800 BCE of the Algea,

"Also deadly Night bore Nemesis (Indignation) to afflict mortal men, and after her, Deceit and Friendship and hateful Age and hard-hearted Strife. But abhorred Strife bore painful Toil, and Forgetfulness, and Famine, and tearful Sorrows, Fightings also, Battles, Murders, Manslaughters, Quarrels, Lying Words, Disputes, Lawlessness, and Ruin, all of one nature, and oath who most troubles men upon earth when anyone wilfully swears a false oath.”

The presence of the Algea symbolized a deep, unmet need among the Greek people. In modern times, we can appreciate these goddesses as representatives of the damaging paths that lay before us when we do not take into account our true needs. As the famed psychiatrist Carl Jung remarked about mythology, “The gods have become diseases,” in reference to all of the maladaptive coping mechanisms we humans develop in the face of unmet desire. The anxiety, addiction, depression, and so on. Encouraging us to become aware of our needs, and how we respond to them, Jung wrote,

“He [man] should learn to acknowledge the psychic forces anew, and not wait until moods, nervous states, and delusions make it clear in the most painful ways that he is not the master in his own house.”

Pain is very much a psychic force as Jung described, and it moves us to act consciously and unconsciously in all kinds of ways. Many important inventions and technology are born from pain, and our attempts to alleviate it. As are endless wars, genocides, and quarrels large and small. What would humanity be without pain? Would we have the intrinsic desire to escape inertia were it not for our discomfort?

When used correctly, pain is our most powerful, incisive tool for awareness. It points us, sometimes quite blatantly, in the direction we need to grow. Writ large, we can use pain to address the needs of humanity. And in smaller ways, we can use our own pain to identify where in our heart we have more room to expand. Just as a small physical pain in our body immediately draws us to the exact spot needing attention, emotional pain provides a similar roadmap to the true source of our suffering.

Using pain as a vehicle for consciousness instead of a tool for destruction requires internal awareness (responsibility) instead of external explanation (blame). One place to start is the appreciation that pain is a mechanic of the universe, designed not to crush you under its weight, but to apply the appropriate pressure for necessary change. And if it is necessary, the universe will always make it possible.

A Relationship Lesson

The pain of a heartbreak or loss can be so extraordinary, we will do literally anything to alleviate it, and quickly. In our mania, Algea, these unconscious psychic forces, rear their ugly heads and leave even more damage in their wake. This human tendency to externalize our pain creates all kinds of mischief in our relationships, and we can even mistake the magnitude of our pain for evidence of our love. The man whose love has left may think, “If I’m in this much pain, it must mean I love this person even more than I ever imagined!” Then we are off to the races, desperate to prove just how much we are in love by any means necessary, when in fact we are just in pain. Or he may take an alternative, and no less destructive route, choosing instead to wallow in his pain and use his lover’s absence as the clearest evidence yet that he is undeserving. There are other paths too, where we can vilify our lovers, or pretend they never meant much at all in the first place.

All of these responses are united in their complete absence of awareness. The answer is always within us, if we are willing to investigate further. Yet for some reason, we’d quite literally look anywhere else. Because of this, we spend most of our lives in the ebbs and flow of turmoil.

Roman Stoicism

The great Roman philosophers spoke at length about the importance of what we may today call trusting the process. At a certain level, we can link emotional pain in an otherwise healthy mind to a lack of trust in life. We have serious doubts that everything is as it should be, and that events are unfolding exactly as intended.

With so much ambiguity surrounding us, it’s only natural to doubt the goodness of life and our goodness along with it. This tends to only intensify as we grow into adulthood, as we lose much of the wonder, mystery, and awe we held as children. We feel compelled to make sense of things, and to contemplate how somethings could have been different if only we were different too.

If we aren’t in control of these intrusive thoughts, they quickly multiply and monopolize our mind. The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, knew this well when he wrote:

"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

The ancient Stoics always walked a fine line between harnessing the mind in pursuit of virtue and attempting to control it. Stoics encourage us to accept the inevitability of our fate, and to view the world and our circumstances with equanimity. In other words, we can control a few small things within our own consciousness, and must leave the rest to be as it is.

Like Socrates, Plato, and the Greeks before them, the Stoics of Rome saw pain as an unavoidable and necessary part of life. Like the Buddhists, they distinguished pain and suffering, and saw circumstances not as the main culprit of pain, but our reactions to them. Seneca writes, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” While pain could be some external thing, our suffering, and the extent to which we stay in turmoil, was up to us.

This combination of disciplining your mind to your best ability, and accepting everything else, can be a potent antidote to suffering. Epictetus, both a philosopher and Roman slave, wrote,

"Practice having a grateful attitude and you will be happy. If you see everything from a broader perspective and understand the usefulness of things that happen, it is natural to give thanks to the Supreme for everything that occurs in the world."

In commenting on this page, the philosopher and educator, Lúcia Helena Galvão writes,

"From the moment we start to trust life, we realize that it is cosmos and not chaos. Its events obey an exact intelligence, which gives each one what corresponds to them. Therefore, we find purpose and meaning in the events of life. And we realize that they always, when well used, can leave us greater on the other side of their passage.

When we realize this, we are grateful for life. We do not demand anything, we do not curse against events, we do not have expectations that things be otherwise. It's not the way life chose, because it is wiser than us."

A Relationship Lesson

One lesson of Stoicism we can take into our relationships is this: when someone wants to leave your life, let them do it. Far from being uncaring, this reaction (or non-reaction) reveals an incredible level of emotional self-control and compassion. It’s message is clear to anyone who receives it: I care for you so much that I am willing to accept your desires without question, even if they are different than mine. I take an expansive view of the situation, and my purpose and meaning are not tethered to one person. The power of this gesture is so great that many find their wayward partners magically returning, sometimes emotionally so, in a matter of days or even hours.

As someone who has begged, pleaded, and chased until I’m lying in a puddle of my own tears, I can assure you that the alternative rarely works. Yet because of attachment wounds, our own fears of being left and abandoned are often beyond what we can bear. In the moment, we feel we must pursue, and we often humiliate ourselves in the process. Of course, this drives our loves further away until, liked whipped dogs with our tales tucked, we are forced to reckon with the loss all the same as we wander on home.

Stoicism is not easy. It’s strength is not drawn from pettiness, apathy, or callousness. Your heart remains open. The pain of loss still hurts. But you choose to bear it, in part because you know the choices of others, like the whole universe, are beyond your jurisdiction. You may not agree with them, but you trust in the wisdom of the cosmos to make discernments about your life and the direction you should take. As Seneca wrote, “fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.”


Trusting the cosmos requires that we have faith, a measure of our belief in sights unseen. The fact that we never have the complete picture, and never will, make faith one of the most astonishing acts of human spirituality. Many people struggle with faith outside the context of a God, or another higher power. The universe is too broad and unfeeling, and philosophy alone lacks the emotional intimacy God can provide.

The Bible, and the many teachings of Jesus and his disciples, provides an extraordinarily rich, intimate, and personal blueprint for suffering. Christianity assures us that if we trust God fully, we need not worry about any amount of pain and agony here in this life, as our ultimate salvation will be granted in the great beyond through God’s eternal grace. There are many stories in the Bible of good people suffering great pain who do so willingly, with joy even, because they are full with the goodness of God.

In Philippians, the disciple Paul, after being put in chains in a Roman prison, recounts how his imprisonment advanced the cause of the Gospel. He declares, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!” A transcendent attitude toward death is a sign of immense spiritual maturity. Paul’s approach toward life is echoed in Socrates who was wholly unconcerned about his own mortality after being sentenced to death by the Athenian government.

Both men were firm believers in a soul that exists beyond physical form, and indeed the idea of eternal life is essential to the Christian faith. When we identify with our souls, we take a broader view of our lives that not only mediates our human desires for power, sex, and material gain, but also the suffering caused by the loss of those things (or never having them at all). Jesus was adamant that it was only the love in our hearts, and our feelings toward God, that mattered. All else would fall away in time.

Jesus’s own suffering on the cross demonstrates the power of absolute and unwavering faith, and also suffering’s ability to test that faith. While he accepted his fate, even Jesus cried out from the cross in agony, “My God, my God, why you have forsaken me?” As humans, we all must face a similar anguish. We will feel at times completely abandoned, utterly misunderstood, and forgotten by God. If you do not feel that way, simply increase the pain. Everyone has a breaking point, even Jesus himself. While he always remained faithful to his mission on earth, we will likely experience faith in degrees throughout our lives. We may believe it, but we don’t always feel it. That’s why it’s called faith.

A Relationship Lesson

The personal story of Jesus is unique in its intimacy and compassion. Within the Christian faith, we are all encouraged to treat our fellows, believers and non-believers alike, with understanding and love. This love is not only the lifeblood of our belief, it’s the key that unlocks the gates of heaven. It can’t be faked in deeds alone. It is an emotional heartspace and genuine attitude.

When we are mistreated in relationship or elsewhere, it is a test of our own compassion. How understanding can we be in the face of unfairness? How much can we forgive those who have done us wrong? When we are struck in the face (metaphorically, I hope) can we, as Jesus implored, give them the other cheek? When they demand our coat, can we give them our shirt as well?

Tapping into the infinite source of God’s love has allowed many throughout history to weather storms that would be impossible otherwise. For those in relationships where their partner is unable to meet their needs, a strong faith in God can supply the inner strength to remain loving in the face of lack, even mistreatment. Indeed, a love this bright can shine against even the deepest darkness. Often it is only this kind of unrelenting, unconditional love that can actually break patterns of abuse. When we are able to accept and love ourselves and our partner so completely, and from such a pure source, there is literally nothing more to fight against.


In his book,  A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle, the contemporary German spiritual teacher, writes:

"Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness."

Over 2,000 years later, the same messages still remain. Many cultural modes of thinking have come and gone through the ages, but the basic premises and questions about life on earth still echo through our consciousness, just as they did for Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, and Siddhartha. We have always been wanderers in search of truth, virtue, and faith.

Today, we benefit from incredible access to all the knowledge of the world, but very little of its wisdom. The most important of all human work: the cultivation of a trusting, faithful, compassionate heart remains just as challenging as when Hesiod moseyed down to the seashore to write some poetry eons ago. Like the generations before us, we continue our journey onward through the grand march of time. As the guru Ram Dass used to say, “We are all just walking each other home.”

In this adventure, the challenge presented by pain is the same as it ever was. How can we use our own experiences and suffering to deepen our faith and trust in the goodness of all things? How can we emerge from the most painful of experiences better versions of ourselves, with softer, kinder hearts and wiser minds? How can we embrace this sacred opportunity with loving and open arms?

Life will always provide us the choice to look inward, expand our consciousness, and seek to bring forth from our highest selves, the values, virtues, and wisdom that will enhance not only our own lives, but those around us, and the world at large. The great spiritual and philosophical traditions provide us the template for this work, but it will always be our choice, and ours alone. Can we see through the immediate, the physical, the intensely emotional, into the great beyond? Can we pull up the anchors and surrender control? Can we float along this river of stars?

Sterling Lentz

Co-founder, BHBC