Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Pain of Joy

Shadows and Light - Grand Canyon, 2007

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?

The Overlook - Grand Canyon, 2007

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?

The Dharma of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

I’d issue a spoiler alert, but I figure since the movie has been around for 65 years, you’d have watched it by now if you wanted to.

I’ve never paid close attention to this movie until we just recently watched it as a family.  I always had it in my head that it’s just a smarmy, overly-sentimental Christmas movie.

But upon closer inspection, it appears to embody the Buddhist idea of finding joy in the midst of suffering.

When the main character comes back home after his nightmare hallucination with the angel, he is no longer depressed or hopeless, and yet nothing has changed. He doesn’t yet know that his daughter is feeling better, his house is still drafty, he doesn’t know that his money woes will be resolved, he doesn’t even know that he won’t still be jailed.  The only thing that has changed is his point of view.

Amazing!

I want to learn how to do this, sans angel.  (Or, if I need an angel, fine, but be quick about it.  I don’t have hours every day for rambling what-if scenarios.)

Can I approach every situation being grateful for all the wonderful things about it, while dealing intelligently with the not-so-wonderful things about it with an eye toward possible solutions?

Can I leave aside the oh-so-cool cynicism of my youth, the existential angst that insists the only things worth noticing are the things that prove that nothing matters? (Definitely not present in the movie, but something I think we as a culture picked up along the way in the last part of the 20th century, and something that colors our perception toward the negative.)

Can I embrace the positive at risk of being accused of Pollyanna-ism?

Can I acknowledge and then leave aside doubt, fear, worry and regret and remain open to what is?

Using the Negative

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” — Kenji Miyazawa

Lao Tzu says that we must feed the good and the bad will wither and die.  This approach feels right to me, as I see so many people stuck in the “bad,” whether it is being trapped by worry or feeding negative fantasies until they come true or even talking obsessively about the “devil” and what he is trying to get them to do.  If we pour our energy into the positive, we cultivate the positive, and the negative has nothing to feed on.  (Why the “devil”-obsessed folks don’t just turn their attention to their faith in Jesus I cannot understand.)

So the negative withers and dies.  Compost!  It is still usable.  The idea of turning to the positive is a helpful reminder, but to turn our backs on the negative permanently encourages a dangerous denial; we don’t have to be afraid to look the dark side in the face and use it for good.

I think I have resisted optimism for so long because it seemed pathetically passive, to be a weak pawn clinging desperately to happy thoughts against the raging storms of chaos that toss us all around.  I could never understand how it could be better to be clueless about how bad things really are and to pretend that everything is okay.

But to be optimistic in the face of the suffering, the horrors, the pain of life, what courage and strength!  True optimism does not deny the negative, it simply acknowledges it, refuses to feed it, and converts it to positive energy to move forward along the path.

Cynicism and pessimism, which I used to think demonstrated a brave, bold acceptance of reality, I now believe are signs of defeat, of allowing the negative to swamp you and take over your life.  It is a cowardly surrender to despair.

There is suffering.  The negative does exist, and you will meet it on the path with alarming regularity.  But it is not the Way.  If we keep to the Wise Way, we will find love even in the midst of pain and sorrow, and our hearts, minds and wills can follow that light through any darkness.

“To Suffer Is Not Enough”

I was taught by my mother and grandmother to be a martyr to the cause of the family.  They had to constantly worry, fuss, struggle and work to make sure everyone else was happy.  Their own happiness was just a shy smile to see others enjoying life, and then it was back to the grindstone.  They’ve been shining examples of selflessness, which is a difficult act to follow.

So when I read passages like the following by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” it is like a total release of all the anguish built up over the years of believing that suffering is a sign that you are caring enough, doing enough, loving enough:

The ocean of  suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land.  The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.

Being allowed and even encouraged to have happiness as one part of your reality is a dream come true.  Not just my own happiness, of course, but the happiness of all beings.

And we don’t have to get rid of suffering entirely to be happy!  What a concept.  How many of us are waiting until conditions are perfect before we can be happy, whether it’s getting the bathroom sink fixed or having our child cured of his cold, we feel we must not allow ourselves happiness while there is still something amiss.

Hanh continues:

When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it.  But don’t overlook all the healthy trees.  Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life — the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees.  To suffer is not enough.  Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.

“To suffer is not enough!”  I will suffer, and I will feel that pain, and things will be amiss, and I can work towards eliminating that suffering, but while I’m traveling that road — I am allowed to be happy!  I am allowed to appreciate what beauty and pleasure still exists!

I am reminded of the story of the man chased by a tiger.  He falls over a cliff, and realizes that he is hanging by a root which is slowly pulling out of the dirt, with a snarling tiger waiting on the cliff above, and sharp rocks far below ready to make pulp of his flesh.  In the midst of this, he sees a little plant growing right beside his cheek, smells the perfume of the plump, perfectly ripe strawberry, plucks it and savors its juicy sweetness.  Who among us has the courage to find and appreciate joy under such pressure?  How do we cultivate that kind of awareness and focus?

Do you suffer from a martyr complex?  Have you found any ways to overcome your tendency to color the whole world with the pain of the worst thing that’s happening in your life right now?  Can you care for the sick tree while drawing inspiration from the healthy ones?  Are you waiting for an end to all suffering before you experience joy?