Be as a Lake: A Fresh Perspective on Pain and Suffering

By Richard West

Guest writer for Wake Up World

I came across this awesome story recently. It really touched me and I’d like to share it with you here and talk about it a little bit. Here it is:

Become a Lake

An aging master grew tired of his apprentice’s complaints.

One morning, he sent him to get some salt.

When the apprentice returned, the master told him to mix a handful of salt in a glass of water and then drink it.

“How does it taste?” the master asked.

“Bitter,” said the apprentice.

The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same amount of salt and put it in a nearby lake.

The two walked in silence to the lake and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt into the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”

As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?”

“Fresh,” remarked the apprentice.

“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.

“No,” said the young man.

At this the master sat beside this serious young man, and explained softly, “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However, the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”

A Fresh Perspective

The thing I love about this story is that it shows us who we really are. Too often we identify not even with the glass of water but with the salt (pain) itself. Of course, this applies to all types of pain — any areas in our life in which we may be suffering.

The story shows us that we are the water, not the salt.  The pain that we have exists within us but it is not us — we are not defined by it.  By this I mean that the pain we have controls our perspective and our behaviour.  Here are some things you might hear someone who is identified with pain say:

  • “I wish this pain would go away”
  • “Why did this have to happen to me?”
  • “I can’t do it, the pain is too much!”

This happens when we are the glass of water.  The salt is all that we can taste and so it is all that we can focus on.  So, how can we expand the glass and become the lake?

Expanding Into Emptiness

I’d like to focus on physical pain here, but like I said, this applies to all types of suffering.

Let’s take an example of having pain in your knee.  You can of course imagine pain anywhere on your body for the sake of this exercise, wherever is most personally prominent for you.

With pain the natural reaction is to seek to alleviate it in some way.  You may immediately begin to start moving or supporting the area in pain, or you may seek medication, or some method of distraction.  This creates an identity around the pain, in essence you see the pain as being separate from yourself — an unwelcome guest.

Instead of doing this, we can go into the pain and examine it.  We’ll override our averse reactions to the pain by working with breath to relax and soften.  And then we’ll observe the pain for what it is, allowing it within us to the point where we  become the pain.  The funny thing that happens here is that suddenly, when we are no longer defining the pain as ‘pain’, then it no longer defines us.  There is still the feeling but not the suffering that comes with it.  Suddenly we have become the lake.

6-Step Guide to Becoming the Lake

So, here’s a step-by-step process for becoming the lake:

  1. Observe your body and where you are tight or tense.  This may be anywhere, not just around the pain.  Work to relax and unwind any tension using the breath.
  2. Observe the pain.  How does it feel?  Where is it?  Try not to define any sensations with the mind, but simply observe them as they are.
  3. Observe that when you do this, the pain is no longer a tight, gripping sensation, but somehow seems to float in space.  It may help to close your eyes if you haven’t done so already.
  4. Keep working to soften into the pain, further relaxing the whole body.  Fully accept the sensations as being part of you.  You may wish to send love from the heart centre if you feel to do so, but be careful as this can separate you from the pain again.
  5. Perhaps the sensations want to express themselves in some way.  This applies especially for emotional and mental pain, but can also be applicable for physical pain.  Perhaps you want to move in some way, shout, cry, dance or even laugh.  Or perhaps being still is the best expression.
  6. Observe that all this is just an experience.  It is part of you, but it doesn’t define you.  You are not these sensations.  You are the lake.  An expansive source of energy lovingly holding any sensations which happen to fall in.

My Personal Experience

I’d like to leave you with a personal experience of mine that happened a few years ago.  It was my first taste of being the lake, and it was such a revelation I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being taught to everyone.

I came across something amazing today.  I was out walking and it was very cold and wet.  I felt like it was seeping through my bones and I couldn’t stop shivering.  I just wanted to get back inside and warm up by the fire.

But then I remembered something I’d heard in a martial arts film about becoming ‘one’ with things.  So I gave it a try.  I noticed that my whole body was tense.  I unwrapped my arms from around my sides and and worked to relax all my muscles.  That’s no easy thing when they are going into spasms from the cold.  I let the cold come into me instead of pushing it out and imagined that I had become transparent.  The wind was blowing through me and not coming up against any resistance, like I had become the air itself.

Suddenly I realised that I was no longer shivering! The cold was so much a part of me, that I really was one with it.  I didn’t suffer any more as I continued walking. Wow! I never thought such a thing was possible.

Recommended Reading

Finally, for anyone who resonates with this approach, I can really recommend Stephen Levine’s book “Healing Into Life and Death”.  It focuses on examples of people who are going through the dying process but much of it applies to anyone who is experiencing some kind of pain, which lets face it, is pretty much all of us.

If you want support with managing physical pain or processing emotional or mental pain, please book a session with me.

With love,

Recommended reading by Richard West:

About the author:

Richard West

Richard West is a carer, psychologist, spiritual facilitator and writer. After a life of much change, both wanted and unwanted, he decided to embrace all aspects of change, and be a reflection of this for others. Today Richard is a spiritual facilitator at Openhand. He offers services in Spiritual Facilitation and Conscious Dying on his website ‘Back to the Source’ and writes regular articles on his blog.

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