The Buddha frequently used the image of fire when explaining suffering. In one well-known teaching, he describes how to the untrained mind every sense gate can be a source of suffering: “The eye is burning,” he said, “visible things are burning, the contact of the eye with visible things, be they pleasant or unpleasant, is burning.” In other words, anything you become identified with will burn you. It is either immediately a cause of suffering or will become one in time.
Ironically, exposing yourself to the heat is how you begin the journey that will eventually put out the flames. If you don’t submit yourself to the fires of your dukkha—your pains, losses, frustrations, as well as your likes and dislikes—they will consume you.
Only by experiencing your internal responses to life’s inherent stress around getting and keeping what you like and avoiding or enduring what you don’t like can you know suffering in a manner that will ultimately free you from its grip. The Buddha referred to this state when the mind is no longer consumed by suffering as nibbana. The pains of life do not disappear, but rather their ability to burn you ceases. What you see with your eyes, touch with your body, taste with your tongue, smell with your nose, hear with your ears, and think with your mind may be pleasant and enjoyable, or unpleasant and quite painful, but they no longer burn; you are not in a state of suffering.
In the poem Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot’s description of the process of transforming suffering into joy by embracing the suffering echoes that of the Buddha. He was writing as a Christian, yet he too pointed to the necessity of penetrating suffering, as paradoxical as it initially seems.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
When Eliot says “pyre or pyre,” he is referring to two ways of experiencing suffering—mindful versus reactive. Similarly, Ajahn Chah points to this same freeing insight when he says, “There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering.”
If you try to deny the truth of dukkha or run from it, you will be consumed by your desires, dislikes, and fears. The sole solution is to open to the fires created by the discomfort of your mind and body in such a way that you are transformed by the heat, softened, and made stronger by it.
–Phillip Moffitt, from Dancing With Life (Rodale)