Friday, November 11, 2016

“No Mud, No Lotus: A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering”

The Buddha said he taught one thing – suffering and its cessation. And he said that it’s possible to end suffering in this lifetime, that the point of life isn’t to suffer now and celebrate in the after-life. All of his teachings – and of the lists and stories and even all of the thousands of talks and books interpreting his teachings – come down to this: You don’t have to suffer.

That doesn’t mean that an enlightened person exists in some kind of bubble where there’s no pain, no grief, where nothing bad ever happens to them. Because the Buddha distinguished between pain and suffering. Pain is a natural and inevitable part of life, he said. Suffering is optional.

It’s obvious what pain is. Specifically, he said, birth is painful, along with being sick, growing old and losing capabilities, and death. Not getting what you want is painful, as is getting what you don’t want.
Suffering, though, is what we layer on top of pain.

The Buddha told a story about the distinction. If you’re shot with an arrow, he said, that’s painful. Then the thoughts that come after that – who shot me, what was their motive, why me, how can I avenge myself – those are suffering. That mental activity, he said, is like being shot by a second arrow because it causes as much stress and discomfort, if not more, as the actual arrow.

An enlightened person, he said, still feels the physical pain from the arrow, but that’s it. An enlightened person doesn’t add suffering to the pain.

The Buddha also taught that suffering isn’t something we do only in response to being shot – we do it all the time. It pervades our lives.

You may be familiar with the Buddha’s first teachings, the Four Noble Truths. The first is commonly translated as the truth of suffering. Everyone suffers.

For some people, hearing that is liberating. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg had a difficult childhood -- both of her parents died when she was young and she went to live with grandparents who didn't know how to help her process her grief and confusion. When she took an Asian studies class in college, she heard the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. She says a light came on for her. “I knew it to be true. The circumstances of my own life proclaimed it,” she writes in her book “Faith.”

There's a lot of pressure on us to be happy. Consumer society runs on our unhappiness and the idea that
there are things we can acquire that will make us happy. Not just medications but food, drink, cars, gym memberships, vacations, credit cards, clothes. The list is endless. Pretty much every commercial you see is built on our underlying unease or unhappiness and the desire to find the thing that can make that it go away.

Consider also that our Declaration of Independence enshrines "the pursuit of happiness," along with life and
liberty, as an inalienable right. Our nation is founded on the right to pursue happiness. We have to do it.
That's a lot of weight on our shoulders.

So if we're unhappy, if we're suffering, not only are we uncomfortable personally but we are failures as consumers because we haven't found the right thing to buy to make us happy and we're traitors to the principles on which our country was founded.

Talk about stress!

And let's talk about stress. Because many scholars and teachers now think that "suffering" was a bad translation of what the Buddha was trying to communicate. He used the Pali word "Dukkha," which literally refers to an axle, like on a cart, and how a wheel fits onto it – appropriate for someone in an agrarian society. So rather than saying that everyone suffers, with the heavy connotation we may bring to that word, he was saying that everyone experiences times when things don't go right, when the wheel doesn't turn smoothly, when existence is like pushing a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel. Rather than suffering, a lot of Buddhists now use terms like stress, discomfort, unease.

One popular characterization of dukkha is “wanting things to be different than they are.” Thinking that we’d be happier if … the room were warmer or colder, the chairs were softer, the speaker was more interesting. ... That "if" is a sign of the suffering mind speaking up. Or like the farmer in the reading – My wife is great, but she nags me. My farm is good, but sometimes it’s not. The “but” brings in the suffering.

Call it what you will -- suffering, stress, unhappiness, discomfort -- everyone's life has those moments when things don't go according to plan. The car breaks down. The friend doesn't call. Someone you love is sick. Or you are. Someone you love dies. Things aren’t as good as they could be. The neighbor’s grass is the weed-free green you want for yours.

Life is not always comfortable. It can't be. The Buddha's First Noble Truth acknowledges that. But how we respond to that discomfort determines how much we suffer.

We don’t like to be uncomfortable. We don’t like pain. That’s a kind of biological imperative – pain in the body is a sign that something’s wrong. So when we encounter a painful situation, we try to find a way to reduce or end the pain or something to distract us from it – and that’s where we create suffering.

Suffering is largely a mental experience, although it does manifest in the body, in the tight shoulders, headaches, ramped-up heartbeats that come from the stress, anxiety, and depression we can experience. Sam Harris, the outspoken atheist philosopher, who’s a dedicated meditator, told a friend who was going on a silent Buddhist retreat: “Remember, if you’re suffering, you’re thinking.”

Shinzen Young, a former Buddhist monk who now teaches a secularized version of Buddhist teachings, stripped it down to an equation – suffering equals pain times resistance.

How do we resist pain?

We might get angry when we feel pain and look for a way to get rid of it by discharging that energy onto someone or something else. Say you’re walking through your house in the dark and you step on something, maybe a Lego block – one of those small, hard, sharp plastic bricks. You’re first thought is probably ouch. But you might move quickly into …those darned kids, why can’t they pick up their toys, they’re so lazy, I ought to go into their rooms and throw Legos all over the floor so that when the wake up the can see what it feels like! Pain leads to anger leads to ideas for revenge. Meanwhile, you don’t even notice that your foot no longer hurts.

We can do that in bigger, more complicated ways too – being angry at whole groups or people or societies, creating a climate of hate and fear, threatening wars.

Another way of resisting pain is to look for something to distract us from it. Advertising is happy to help here. Feel dissatisfied or lonely or sad? Here’s a new car or a great beer or a sale on this season’s clothes to make you feel better. And it might work – for a while. But satisfying desires doesn’t get rid of the pain. Eating a piece of fine chocolate makes you happy. But if you continually turn to the chocolate, you’re creating another problem. The extreme case of covering over pain by satisfying desires is addiction.

Or you might ignore or deny the pain. You might convince yourself that everything’s fine, even when it’s not. To do that, you have to shut off certain parts of your experience, stop feeling things, and when you do that you’re closing off other parts of your experience. You feel less pain, but you also feel less joy. You simply feel less, and you’re boxing yourself in, putting up walls that shut out life.

Those three – aggression, passion, and ignorance – were named by the Buddha as the three root poisons. In another list, they’re three of the five kleshas, or afflictive emotional states that cause suffering. That list adds jealousy and pride. You can imagine how those work.

Those reactions become habits. Anger at someone else distracts us from our own discomfort so we turn to it again and again. It becomes our default, our way of responding to the world without even considering whether it’s wise or appropriate. And when we react in the same way over and over, we let that define us –we see ourselves as an angry person or a jealous one, someone who is always craving or someone who’s checked out and spacey. Under it all, we’re discontented and stressed.

So … if our traditional ways of reacting to pain aren’t helping to ease the pain but instead are creating suffering, what can we do instead?

The first step is to recognize the pain. Just that. See pain as pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental. Respond to physical pain – pick your foot up off the Lego, bandage the wound from the arrow – but do it with compassion and without leaping ahead mentally to who you can blame for it and whether you can sue them or how much the doctor’s bill will be and whether that means you won’t be able to afford a vacation. You can deal with that later. Simply take care of your pain.

Similarly, with mental or emotional pain, let it be without elaborating on it. Don’t tell yourself a story about what caused it and who’s responsible or worry about when it might reappear. Just sit with it. Thich Nhat Hahn urges us to welcome suffering, to greet it, by saying, Hello, suffering. I see you.

This is why Buddhists sit in meditation, noting thoughts, letting them arise and move on. This practice is called “Shamata,” a Sanskrit word that means “calm abiding.” Sometimes it’s more about abiding than calm.

This is from Buddhist nun Pema Chodron:

Patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself. If you wait and don't fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous story line and stay with the underlying vulnerability. That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid. And yet it is painful to experience. Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and with the discomfort of it. This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy—knowing that it’s the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.

On the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha sat in meditation under the Bodhi tree and was met by his nemesis, Mara. You can see Mara as an actual being or as a mental state. Mara tried to disrupt his calm abiding by sending armies of archers who shot arrows at the Buddha; he turned the arrows into flowers. Next Mara sent dancing girls, objects of desire. The Buddha responded, “I see you, Mara.” He recognized the temptations were trying to pull him out of his clear, calm state and didn’t succumb.

The next step is to accept the pain. Yes, life hurts. Yes, people get sick, loved ones die. Some days we’re sad or lonely or melancholy. There’s nothing wrong with that – it is the natural response to the circumstances of life. Accept that life is not all fun and games, but remember that sometimes it is. There’s a Zen saying that talks about life as 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Life contains both – trying to eliminate sorrow and have only joy is futile.

Note that what you’re accepting here is your pain and your natural response. This doesn’t mean that you should accept circumstances that are causing you pain. Buddhism is not about being a doormat and allowing others to hurt you – it’s about knowing what’s happening and choosing how to respond.

Which leads to the next step, investigate the pain. Does it come from external causes and conditions that you can change? Do you need help from someone else to process this? Is it a mental habit – can you change that? If your response to pain is to blame yourself, to see yourself as inadequate – or if someone tells you that you are – is that true? Or are you actually capable? Buddhism calls for a fearless look at ourselves and our reactions to the world with the idea that we can choose how to respond if we are aware of what we’re doing.

Salzberg says in an interview with Buddhist publication Lion's Roar that meditation practice can help us to regard suffering as a way to see more deeply, to get to know ourselves better, and to discern what really makes us happy. “Why suffer unnecessarily,” she asks, “if it’s distorted thinking that’s bringing forth that feeling?” In seeing our suffering, she says, “we also see that there is always an intact place within us, an open space of awareness where we can hold pain with compassion, without becoming overwhelmed or adding to it.”

And while it’s a very personal process, looking at ourselves and our reactions, this is what connects us with the world. If our life naturally contains pain, all lives naturally contain pain. All people hurt; everyone suffers.

My teacher, Lama TsultrimAllione, was born and raised in New Hampshire and went to India where she was one of the first western women to become a nun in the Tibetan tradition. She later gave back her vows, married, and had children. When one of her twins died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, in her grief she began to search out the stories of women in the Tibetan tradition – they aren’t well known – and went on to build a lineage focused on the divine feminine. A few years ago, her husband died suddenly. She says that she got through that horrible first year of grief only by seeing herself taking on the grief of all those who had lost loved ones. We’re never alone in our pain, although we feel like we are – which is one of the ways we multiple it into suffering.

If we open to our painful emotions, they connect us to others and to the world. It’s not shameful to feel sad – everyone feels sad sometimes. We don’t have to lash out at others or buy a new car or pretend we’re not sad. We can see it, meet it with compassion and care, and let it pass.

And when we stop trying to attain momentary happiness, we become more connected to true happiness and joy that isn’t dependent on external conditions. The saying “no mud, no lotus” recognizes that the beautiful lotus flower, a prominent Buddhist symbol, grows in cesspools. When we’re willing to see our dirtiest, stickiest pain, we see also our most beautiful nature, our innate kindness and compassion and joy.

Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lived through terrible conditions for many years during the wars there. He writes:

I wouldn’t want to be in a world without any suffering, because then there would be no compassion and understanding either. If you haven’t suffered hunger, you can’t appreciate having something to eat. If you haven’t gone through a war, you don’t know the value of peace. This is why we should not try to run away from one unpleasant thing after another. Holding our suffering, looking deeply into it and transforming it into compassion, we find a way to happiness.With mindfulness, the feelings that have been difficult and painful transform into something beautiful: the wondrous healing balm of understanding and compassion.

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