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Friday, February 14, 2014

Suffering as Path

As many of you know, I am working on a book on suffering. I'm not making much progress beyond an initial outline, and it recently dawned on me why that is the case. I had been seeing suffering exclusively as a problem, and I now realize it is the essence of the spiritual path. Some of you may be thinking that the Buddha's First Noble Truth is that suffering exists and that the Eightfold Path shows us the way out of suffering. I believe a better translation is that life is unsatisfactory - and it's not because I am a Pali expert, because I certainly am not, but because many who are Pali experts have suggested that as a better translation. I've also read more than a few Buddhist teachers who suggest that while pain is unavoidable, suffering only occurs because of the thoughts we have about and around our pain. I suppose that depends on how you define suffering. Certainly, we make things worse when we believe that our pain will never end. Many of us also catastrophize, effectively turning a hangnail into gangrene with our projections. I have read with interest the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, and highly recommend his book Full Catastrophe Living to everyone on the planet. I have enjoyed reading all of the theory around suffering, and I would certainly agree that we make our suffering worse by how we view our suffering. I also agree that we can do things to lessen our suffering, and highly recommend meditation to that end. That being said, I do not believe we can eliminate suffering, and I am not sure it would be desirable to do so if we could. Allow me to elaborate.

I am a chronic pain patient. As I write this I have been up since 3:30am after going to bed at midnight. I have been awake largely because of my pain. Barring an unforeseen miracle or the invention of new medicines or procedures, I will die a chronic pain patient - hopefully many years from now. In fact, approximately half of all Americans have chronic pain at some point in their lives. For some of them, their pain resolves. For many others, it will not. At times they will suffer despite the best efforts of modern medicine, psychotherapy, physical therapy, and spiritual practice because at times their pain will be more than they can tolerate. We might tell them in those moments to notice how their pain changes, how it won't always be the same and so on - but at those moments, they suffer. No amount of philosophy will change that, and that's okay. Why? It's okay because I am a big fan of facing reality, but more importantly it's okay because suffering opens us to the spiritual path - in fact, I am convinced suffering is the path.

The first reason I believe suffering is the path is that suffering, more reliably than anything else, convinces us of the truth that we are not in control of our lives to the degree we like to believe we are. To be sure, we have some degree of control and have free will. We make choices. We also make plans, and quite often those plans don't quite turn out the way we expected because we cannot control all of the variables necessary to make our plans turn out. How many of us are working in the career we thought we would be working in when we graduated from high school? How many of us have been divorced? With just those two questions I have proved to the vast majority of people that our plans often don't work out.

When we realize that we aren't in control most of us put a lot of effort into regaining the control we never really had. When those efforts don't work out we are ripe for the spiritual path. Some people use the spiritual path in an attempt to regain control - hence the appeal of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, which promise that if we just follow the rules everything will be fine. In other words, if we follow the rules we will regain control. The problem is that fundamentalists and evangelicals still get sick, still lose their jobs, still get divorced, still lose loved ones, and still die themselves. When things go wrong, their pastors tend to tell them they don't have enough faith - that it's their fault that the promises their religion made fell flat. It's an odd cycle of recognizing you are out of control, trying to regain control by agreeing to be controlled, then losing control and being blamed for it.

Back when I was a part of the institutional church we recognized that people tended to drift away from the church during their college years, if not before. They would return to be married and then drift away until they had a child and needed the child baptized. Then they would drift away again for a while. Sometimes they returned because they wanted to raise their child in a religious environment, but I believe they more often returned because of some level of suffering in their lives. Of course, I can't prove it because there aren't any studies - the church doesn't ask people returning why they came back, they are just so glad someone came through the doors they don't take any chances asking questions. Despite that, my informal polling suggests that when something cracks the very natural delusion of immortality that characterize our teens and twenties, we start looking for reassurance that there is meaning in life. For many of us, whether we look for that meaning in formal religion or not, this constitutes the start of our adult spiritual journey - and it's suffering that opened the door. The odd thing about institutional religion, and in my estimation a large reason for its decline in our day, is that it has historically spent more time judging people for the reasons they suffer than inviting them onto the path. We then go back and forth between denial about the truth that we aren't in control to pursuing the spiritual path. (Even the people who believe they have rejected spirituality and chosen to place their faith in science have made a spiritual choice, for one way that spirituality can be defined is the way we make sense of our world and our lives.) 

One of the things I have noticed in my own life is that times of illness and injury have been times of great spiritual growth. I'm not alone in that experience, and I believe the reason is that when we are physically diminished we cannot deny that we are not in control. We also tend to be willing to consider that there is more to life than our grand plans. In other words, we realize - perhaps for the first time - that life is not all about us. We are opened to possibilities. There is something larger at work, seven billion other people on the planet asking many of the same questions we are asking and wanting many of the same things we want. While we certainly aren't comfortable at those moments of illness or injury, we in the developed world are still more comfortable than most people in the world on their best day. What does that mean? If we are sick we probably know at least one person who has a more severe illness, and if we have lived long enough we know someone who has transitioned this life into whatever is next. These are some of the profound issues of spirituality, and there is something about suffering that simply won't allow us to ignore them.

Of course, I'm not advocating running out in pursuit of suffering. There have been periods in history when that was the practice, and I want to suggest that not only is it more than a little bit twisted but it is profoundly ineffective because it is a false sort of suffering that I control - and authentic suffering is about being out of control. Fortunately, life is more than happy to provide us with opportunities to suffer. Ironically, they become a little easier to deal with when we start to see them as opportunities on the path - but they nevertheless retain the quality of suffering and aren't something we look forward to! The spiritual path is full of paradox.

Can we come to see our suffering as opportunity? Can we take advantage of that opportunity to explore the great questions of life, to search for meaning even in the unpleasant, to understand that our time is limited and use that understanding to examine how we spend our time and learn to use it more wisely? Rather than hide our suffering away, can we allow it to be seen so we can teach others that it isn't all bad, that an opportunity is conceal within it? I believe learning to do these things significantly opens the spiritual path to us, in fact I believe these questions are the heart of the path. Won't you walk it with me?

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