I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, which keeps me mindful of sensory experience, the fleeting nature of thoughts, interbeing and the simultaneous possibilities of suffering and joy. Our animal nature instinctively wants to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so the idea that we might accept both of these in order to reach joy takes some getting used to.
Parenthood has taught me a lot about accepting the paradox of opposites emerging from the same situation, existing in the same space and time. Among other mind-blowing revelations surrounding my first child’s appearance on this planet, it occurred to me that as I gave birth, I also gave death. We cannot bring a person into the world without simultaneously condemning them to face their last breath someday. The pain of joy!
So philosophically I’ve understood the idea of the connection between pain and pleasure, but my body finally truly got it the other evening. I was driving to teach my Spanish class and mentally reviewing the events of the day, which included some wonderful news from several members of my family. I began to feel proud, relieved, excited, happy. Instead of judging these feelings as “good” or “pleasurable,” I just felt them as they welled up. I quietly watched how my body was responding to these emotional thoughts. (Somehow I kept driving too… not the best situation to get distracted by an awareness exercise, but that’s about the only quiet time I get these days.) My eyes were tearing up, my chest was squeezing tightly, my breath was shallow and strained, my head felt like it was going to explode. From my removed perspective, I realized that it felt exactly like grief. This overwhelming wave of happiness resembled exactly my recent experiences with crushing sorrow over the loss of my Grandma, except that normally I would have labeled it “good” and so it would have felt amazing. When it is about something “bad” then it feels awful.
I’m not sure what to do with this new physical awareness. Does “good” become tainted with “bad”? Having seen the man behind that curtain, do they both become irrelevant? Is there no longer pleasure or pain? Can we trick ourselves into thinking “it’s all good!” and avoid pain forever?
Is there a new place to dwell, a mountaintop above these paradoxical dualities, where we can see something more true and real than animal emotions and senses which flash hard and random like lightening through our conscious minds?