I learned denial as a survival mechanism when I was a child. In my universal child's world view, if things were normal, then I must be safe; if things were not normal, I was in danger. Therefore, all in my world was normal even in its abnormality. It is a strategy that works...for a time, and then it wraps around and traps us in the greater pain of disconnection from our very selves. Yesterday I sat at the kitchen table and worked all afternoon writing and producing low quality video blogs <grin>. It's my practice to do so because I have discovered that working at the table in my office chair (yes, my office chair sits at the kitchen table because it allows me to eat meals in relative comfort) caused me to feel better than working in bed. Mind you, I hadn't been working in bed because I am lazy but rather because it is the only place I thought I could work when my pain is severe. As I sat in my chair all afternoon and dinner approached I became aware that I was in fairly significant pain. How could this be? Well, some of it was because I was really into the work I was doing. A lot of it - who knows how much - was due to my ability to block my pain, both physical and emotional, until it reaches a certain threshold and the levee breaks.
Sure, I would love to retire to the monastery. In fact, you can read about my plans to do so here. It's not time for that quite yet, however. I have much to do before retiring, including getting my throwing arm in shape. You'll understand if you read about my retirement plan.
One of the problems is that, from a strictly behavioral perspective, we want to do what lessens our pain. Decreased pain provides reinforcement for the behavior that cause the decrease in pain. When we put
Wrong. As I intimated earlier in this article, blocking pain only works until a threshold is crossed. Once that happens, when the levee breaks, the only effective alternative is to turn toward the pain. Can I say how much that irritates me? It means I have to drop the denial, admit I am compromised, and go let Shinzen Young whisper in my ear. I hate that reality! Everything in me rebels against it because I have not yet successfully completely deprogrammed myself from the cultural message that worthwhile males are productive males, and males who are no longer productive need to be thrown on the scrap heap. The only moment I don't feel that way is when I find myself immersed in spiritual practice - especially spiritual practice that has as its focus the real issues confronting human beings. Such practice can be found in every tradition, but many popular expressions of spirituality choose something else as their primary focus - usually the groin and the things that happen there, and at my age I am grateful to have been based with a decreased obsession around and about the groin - both mine and those in the possession of others.
Pain, both physical and emotional, may be the universal human experience. Even those rare people afflicted with congenital insensitivity to physical pain still feel emotional pain. In fact, I believe that it is pain that opens us to spirituality both initially and in ever deepening ways. I have long read people who claim that pain and suffering are somehow separable, that we can have pain without suffering. They say that suffering occurs when we resist the pain, resist the change in our lives that pain represents. Often these people come from the Buddhist tradition, and I understand where they are coming from...but I am not sure that belief is nuanced well enough. There is pain, both physical and emotional, that is so severe suffering is inherent in it. I believe that there is a threshold within us that, when it is crossed, suffering occurs. That kind of pain reaches out and grabs us, and in my experience it has not been possible to accept that pain, turn toward it, or do anything else with it. My post-operative pain after my back surgery was certainly like that. I believe that there is some pain so severe were are biologically hard wired to seek some degree of relief before anything else is possible and to deny that is to do a disservice to us all. What's more, to say "I'm not suffering" at moments like that is to be in denial about the reality of our experience in that moment - and that leaves us not only hurting but confused.
I believe the first thing we need to do, if we are followers of the Buddha, is stop mistranslating The First Noble Truth as "Life is Suffering" and use instead the (in the mind of many) more accurate "Life is Unsatisfactory." Let's stop stigmatizing those of us who from time to time - or most of the time, in some cases - experience suffering in our lives as if we are doing something wrong. Let's acknowledge that there are times when our experiences are indeed overwhelming and give ourselves permission for that to be okay. I have noticed that when I can say, "I am suffering right now," and give myself permission for that to be okay, my suffering actually decreases. I believe there is a real possibility that in making suffering something to be fixed we set ourselves up to deny we are suffering and so create a bigger problem for ourselves. If our pain
We will struggle to extract ourselves from the black hole of worthlessness because ultimately it is love that heals us, but if we feel we are worthless it will be almost impossible to believe we are lovable. When we believe we aren't lovable it doesn't matter how many people are showering us with love, we will be beyond the ability to feel it. It's as if we have been vaccinated against love, and now will require increased doses to have any impact at all. I'm fortunate to have a loving wife who loves me through my weaknesses and faults - of which there are no shortage! I understand that we all aren't that fortunate, and even for those of us who are there remains the question of our value in the universe. We ask ourselves, "why am I here?" and the answer can be hard to find. I am convinced the answer lies in spirituality, because it is spirituality that gives us the ability to see beyond the human constructed systems that can only provide artificial, arbitrary, temporal, and temporary value. We simply can't see the big picture, for example, within the confines of consumer capitalism. It is consumer capitalism that says we are only worthwhile as long as we can be a cog in the machine, but consumer capitalism is a relatively recent invention! It surely cannot explain why people had value prior to its inception.