Suffering and Enlightenment

So I mentioned a while back that I’d been engaged in some reading about Buddhism, and in particular I’ve been looking at the problems of fear and suffering. I think these are the great existential questions, the basis of all that makes life hard, complicated and, from time to time, unendurable. Fear and suffering and our desire to avoid them lie at the root of most of the decisions we make, have a great deal to say about who we are and show us the truth about our communities. You can judge a society, I think, on the way it deals with the problems of fear and suffering, and in this respect it’s probably best to draw a veil over the West. We don’t tend to handle them well.

So it was with interest that I turned to Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart. Chodron is a renowned spiritual teacher in America and the author of a series of Buddhism-made-accessible books. In this one she is particularly preoccupied with pain and suffering as an opportunity for growth. The mistake we make, she insists, is to run from suffering, to distract ourselves from it, to hold it at arm’s length and to revile it as a meaningless obstacle in our lives. Instead the book considers the possibilities that open up if we reframe it; if we understand pain to be the point where we have something profound to learn about ourselves, and where we can put ourselves back in touch with a kind of fundamental humanity, common to all. If we accustom ourselves to suffering, Chodron insists, we might lose that extra dimension of anxiety that fear of suffering brings into our lives, and the valuable energy we expend struggling against the negativity that arises in our souls could be better spent enriching our wisdom mind. At the heart of these teachings is an unpalatable but unavoidable truth: suffering is part of life and cannot be denied. We cannot control what happens to us, no matter how hard we try. And so the only authentic way forward, the only way that works in harmony with the reality of life as we must live it, is to accept suffering and welcome it, not as menace and heartache, but as a higher form of experience.

Now before I go any further, I should say that I agree with the premise of Buddhism. The only emotion that lasts forever is the one that gets repeatedly repressed, denied and ignored. That emotion – sadness, distress, grief, anger – poisons us from within and slowly becomes a consistent part of our experience, not least because we must always keep one figurative hand on door behind which we’ve banished it. Life isn’t open to our attempts at manipulation, or at least other people and external events certainly are not. It’s far better to have a good idea of what we can control rather than what we can’t, and to lower our expectations. But having said this, I find it difficult myself to accept these truths. The Indian philosopher, Krishnamurti, talks about life as a rushing river that flows past in constant evolution, whilst for most of us, we’d much rather live in the stagnant pool alongside it, where the water is calm and stable. Now this is absolutely true. You’re looking at a very keen stagnant pool dweller here. And as I was reading this book, I had a disquieting glimpse of the kind of horrors that life holds in store. One of my best friends wrote to me, upset because a colleague’s son, a boy who had just finished his A levels and had been in perfect health, collapsed suddenly and was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He has less than two years to live. You may imagine that this news sharpened my attention as I read Chodron’s book and provided a kind of benchmark against which I could evaluate her teachings. I am always aware that this is the kind of trauma that awaits us all, and much as I use it to acknowledge how few real disasters there are in life, the fear never diminishes that one of those real disasters will happen to me.

And so I have to say that, whilst there is much of use that can be extracted, what disappointed me about this book was how glib it is. ‘All that is necessary then is to rest undistractedly in the immediate present, in this very instant in time,’ Chodron declares. ‘If we begin to get in touch with whatever we feel with some kind of kindness, our protective shells will melt, and we’ll find that more areas of our lives are workable.’ Or again: ‘what we habitually regard as obstacles are not really our enemies, but rather our friends… What may appear to be an arrow or a sword we can actually experience as a flower.’

It’s not that I disagree fundamentally with what Chodron says, rather I disagree with the level of work she implies is necessary to achieve these spectacular results. It’s the ‘and then’ quality of her arguments that disturb me. There’s no ‘and then’ about the practice of meditation, or any of the other processes she explores. Opening up the human heart is a torturous business, fraught with fear and anxiety and pain; for most dedicated Buddhists, the attainment of any kind of serenity involves the work of a lifetime. And to dismiss suffering with a wave of a flowery sentence is charming to read but misleading in reality. There is a very, very good reason why we try to avoid suffering and that’s because it enacts a toll of destruction on the soul; it merits at least some anxious respect. I don’t believe my friend’s colleague is experiencing her suffering as a potential flower right now, or indeed accepting that the fundamental quality of life is joyfulness. What I’m suggesting here is that the notion of transforming suffering into wisdom is a misleading one. There is suffering and it contains the possibility of wisdom, if we manage to find the grace of insight. But suffering can’t be diminished quite so speedily or simply. If it is, then we are back in the place of denial, lying to ourselves about our feelings, when the point was to accept them, just as they are.

Since I fell ill with chronic fatigue, twelve years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the problem of suffering, because I know for sure that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger. Whilst I have no answers, here’s what I’ve learned: Where problems are concerned, separate the issue from the emotions it provokes. Very few problems are worth the level of angst we invest in them and particularly disproportionate are those that arise out of wounded vanity or pride. In work, the key is to extract the maximum pleasure out of accomplishing the task. Whatever else happens is irrelevant. In love, support the people who matter by really listening to them, and teach them gently how to listen to you. With children, love them by learning who they are, not who you wish them to be. When alone be honest with yourself, don’t let yourself off the hook but treat yourself with humour. And if the big storm clouds gather, get help of every possible kind. Knowledge, support, practical care, whatever it takes – that’s what other people are for and it makes them feel good to help you. Not the snappiest of mantras, I know, but they are things that do work.

20 thoughts on “Suffering and Enlightenment

  1. Litlove, this lovely, thoughtful post comes at a time when I really needed to read something such as this. The acceptance of suffering is a key element when one reads biographies of the saints, for instance. One might not believe in the premise of sainthood, but the lives of those we have declared saints always demonstrate a unique bravery in the face of suffering. And you are so right that suffering, by itself, does not necessarily lead to wisdom. But it is very difficult to find that grace of insight. That grace must be chased down and harnassed and held onto. Not an easy thing to do in pain. Fear…well age seems to take care of that little by little. The older one gets, the less fearful one seems to feel about oneself. The fear of disaster striking someone one loves, never goes away, but only becomes greater with age. At least that’s been my experience.

  2. I don’t buy into the idea that suffering should be seen as an opportunity for growth. Sometimes its possible to rationalise suffering in that way but sometimes it just crushes people and there’s no justice and no sense in it. And no one is bullet proof. A lot of the bad things that happen to other people will happen to you. My own personal take on Buddhism and suffering and what I have found has helped me is the idea of acceptance of suffering as a constant. That helps to remind me to be mindful of the times when things are going well and of beauty in the present moment. I was having a pretty miserable time a few years ago but every morning, as I was waking up the sun shone through the tree outside my bedroom window in quite a lovely way. That moment honestly keep me going through the day. Also acceptance and mindfulness can provide a tiny but sanity saving amount of distance from whatever is happening. If I am angry about something taking a moment to remind myself that its unrealistic to expect life to be smooth and fair because suffering is constant gives a bit of perspective. And if that doesn’t get rid of my anger I can at least take a step back and notice I’m angry and hurt and accept that. It’s suprisingly calming.

    My personal philosophy/coping mechanisms are a terrible mishmash and it all sounds rather trite when articulated- I’m kind of also drawn to chivalric ideals of courage and honour and personal integrity as shields against adversity. You can’t control external circumstances but you have some control over yourself

  3. Litlove I think that this is a lovely post and insightful as well as thoughtful. I agree that it isn’t easy at all. You might enjoy After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfeld. It’s more realistic about the path and its ups and downs. I found that even with something as simple as having flu and then bronchitis (a far cry from your friend’s suffering), that fear and discouragement got to me after a while. I’m able to maintain a spiritual connection and to work through emotional suffering. And even for a couple of weeks of bodily suffering. But right now, I just want to be well and the fear of not being well so easily breaks down what I would have thought to be a stronger spiritual base. It’s really quite surprising. A very timely post for me, too.

  4. I’ve been thinking about your post. The best Buddhist writings that I’ve read have great compassion for human pain and don’t shrink from the reality of it at all. In Buddhism suffering has a particular definition: ie the avoidance or denial of pain and the clinging to pleasure. It is suffering because it’s impossible. What is is, and is constantly changing and can’t be held onto. And to attempt this impossible loads fear and anxiety onto the present moment, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. The goal of Buddhist practice is to be fully present in the moment as it is. That doesn’t mean the moment is easy or should be glossed over or called a flower when it sucks. It is an ability to accept and be with what is in the present moment whether it is breaking your heart or filling it with delight or just washing the dishes. I don’t think that requires it to be a lesson. Teachers come in many forms. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and calling it something else isn’t exactly being with what is. Mindfulness practice helps to expand awareness of what is. As Make Tea Not War said, noticing the sun through the window. My favourite Buddhist writers encounter human pain and woundedness with compassion, tenderness and understanding. It is that and their sense of humour and their ability to delight in the sun through the window that is impressive. Thich Nhat Hanh, who lives in France now, was a leader in defining engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam war. Monks came out of the monasteries to help people in tangible ways (no flowers) who were in terrible straits because of the war. After he was exiled, he eventually settled in France, but made it his life’s work to bring peace between peoples.

  5. Oh I have to add something else, too. Being in the moment and accepting what is doesn’t mean being passive. That’s why I mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh. Being fully aware doesn’t make everything hunky dory. He saw the pain and distress of his people and he acted on it. His awareness, his full presence, enabled that action. There are some really funny Buddhist stories like the one about the zen master being scared shitless being driven in a car along hair-raising roads…but being present with his scared shitlessness. As for your friend’s colleage and son–it is simply a terrible tragedy. That’s what it is. And yes it hits home, what if that happened to me, because it could, because shit happens all the time, terrible terrible shit. And Buddhist practise is bringing yourself back to the moment that you are in, where that shit isn’t happening to you. Where you may feel sorrow for that person, great sorrow. And being aware of your moment right now with whatever is in it and being there, and then it passes and there is this moment now, and being in it.

  6. I like your final paragraph of “reminders”, for lack of a better word, very much. Life is so funny in the lessons it presents us; only this afternoon I was browsing through books on philosophy (I am very weak on philosophy) searching for the answer to a particular problem. In reality, as you point out, the answer lies within: how to be humbled and empowered (in a way) at the same time…Thank you.

  7. Litlove! You should follow your own advice! You quite rightly say it’s probably best to draw a veil over the West, but despite the beguilingly ‘Eastern’ name, this is a renowned spiritualist from/operating in the United States…! Hmmm… I don’t like the glibness either, but I have to say, I do think suffering is part of human experience and is absolutely, fundamentally unavoidable. So… I guess I believe it’s how you deal with it – and fear – that matters, and how you deal with it very much influences your quality of life. Things are less fearful when you accept there will always be moments when you are afraid.

  8. As I’ve probably mentioned elsewhere, Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice has helped me more than anything else in life, so I’m very happy to find you writing about this, as eloquently as usual. Pema Chodron is obviously a great and beloved teacher. But her books are not amongst those that have affected me profoundly (though many people love them), not because of the subjects (far from it, she goes for the really hard, really important things), but just because her writing is probably too bald and straightforward to be satisfying to me. I hugely recommend, if you haven’t encountered him, the work of US Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein. I can very much imagine that he might appeal to you, as he does to me. One of his books is wonderfully called ‘Going to Pieces without Falling Apart’.

  9. Something else I wanted to say (but my mind obviously veered away from it while I was typing the other part of my comment), in response to your mention of how you felt on learning about the young man who is dying. This is where I’ve really got nowhere with all my studies and practice of buddhism, so I really feel for you. Being ‘sensitive’, very gentle and reactive, is I guess a nice thing in many ways, and anyway we can really not do anything about our individual temperaments except accept them. But I would respond like you probably did to hearing about this, be unable to stop thinking and grieving about it and imagining how it might be for him and for his family, and how I would feel myself in the face of such tragedy. Sensitivity is no help in dealing with life and suffering, in fact it makes it harder and doesn’t help anyone else either. And it’s terribly hard to know how to work with it, how to learn to combine resilience with sensitivity. I guess the only way is to be willing to face it, not turn away, to keep experiencing again and again that emotional suffering hurts a lot, but usually will not destroy us. I’m facing this right now, because a friend of mine – 50s, three children – is dying of Motor Neurone Disease. The fact that I love her so much and I just can’t bear it is of no help to her at all. Only my willingness to carry on being there although I can’t bear it is of any use. I think this is probably one we only get any better at by actually going through it. Which is why it is a particular problem, perhaps, that in our society a lot of us go throught at least the first half of our lives without coming close to intense suffering and death, so we don’t have to experience our own strength. I guess maybe this is what people mean when they say that, although they would much rather not have had it, suffering has in a strange way been a gift (perhaps not quite the same as ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, which I agree is a big glib).

  10. This post and the comments reminded me of how much wisdom there is in Buddhist philosopohy and writing. I particularly liked Jean’s comment because it reminded me that Mark Epstein has been sitting on my TBR list and I want to order one of his books. Your very wise comment about suffering not necessarily making us stronger but requiring us to be present and to go through it reminded me about turning into the pain rather than avoiding it. So hard to do sometimes because we don’t want to be masochistic about it, but it’s so necessary not to spend unnecessary energy on denial and over-reaction. I forget who it is who talks about being hollowed out by suffering but it’s an image which has stayed with me. All the people I really admire have had this quality about them. Their painful experiences have deepened them and yet they have still kept their sense of humour and a lightness about them. Thanks for this – definitely one to return to.

  11. I just bought this book based on Stefanie’s review, and now I’m even more interested in reading it, having read your thoughts. I liked your comment over at Stefanie’s blog that Buddhism makes sense but might not work well for everybody — that makes sense to me, and one of the things I like about Buddhism is its assertion that you have to find what works for you, whether it’s Buddhism or something else. It’s very pragmatic. I can see the potential problem with the book’s glibness; perhaps it’s best to look elsewhere for more focus on the process of opening up to life and a recognition of how hard it is.

  12. Thanks so much for this post Litlove. My fibro’s in a bad place right now (I had to give up my recently acquired nanny job, because my body can’t handle 40 hours a week), so this came at a very good time.

  13. I’ve always kind of thought of Pema Chodron as “Buddhism Light.”

    I like your mantras. And I like the concept of separating the issue from the emotions. That’s a very useful way of putting it, and one I will ponder further in my own struggles to, um … well, get over myself, actually. 🙂

  14. I liked reading your thoughts on the book and all the comments! You are right that the book does not go into a lot of depth about the process of meditation and turning suffering into a flower, but I didn’t find it glib. I took the book as being more introductory food for thought to sort of give people a gentle nudge into thinking about suffering and pain and hopefully encourage them to open up a little to acceptance and pursue the ideas further. What she suggests is very very hard esepcially for us in the West because our culture glosses over pain and suffering, asks us to look on the bright side, keep a stiff upper lip, and here take this pill. A good friend’s mother just died after a long battle with lung cancer and she told me that if one could say that any good came of it, she became closer with her mother and she got to see a side of her father that she had never seen before–he turned into a gentle caretaker who was always there for his wife instead of the stoic always absent man she saw him as. Your friend’s colleague’s son’s diagnosis is a tragedy and I hope in the time that remains there is joy and peace.

  15. Grad – hugs to you my friend. I believe you when you say the fear for those we love never diminishes – hasn’t happened over here yet! But I’m also intrigued by your mention of the saints. I’m rather interested in the concept of saintliness and in particular the relic, as if one of St Teresa of Avila’s fifty or so fingers dotted about the globe could confer protection and courage. I must read up on that!

    Care – oh thank you! You are more than welcome.

    Ms Make Tea – I agree very much with all you say here. The need to take the broader view in troubled times is a skill suffering squeezes out of all of us, and we can reach a higher level of humanity if we learn how to own our emotions without necessarily being plunged into action because of them. I like your trio of qualities with which to face adversity, and I’m all for doing the most internal work possible in order to respond to external horrors. It doesn’t always work, but still, it’s the best you can do.

    Lilian – thank you so much for your wise and wide-ranging comment here. I know just what you mean about the way that something supposedly trivial – like an illness that won’t go away – can really deplete our resources. And I do agree that mindfulness is the only genuine response (and that it doesn’t come with strings attached as it were, that it’s about removing strings). I think I prefer the writing of Jon Kabat-Zinn to Chodron, as he seems more able to stress the difficulty of what’s being asked, as well as the opportunity it presents. And I will definitely look out the book you recommend – thank you for that!

    ds – isn’t it a pain when the answers always lie within? Sometimes you just wish you could refer to a good index and find the exact right page number… I don’t know much philosophy myself – hence the recent reading! But it’s always worth the time you spend on it, I find. I hope you had some joy from your reading, too.

    Doctordi – you’re right, perhaps I should avoid the Westernised writers! I’ve got several more books to read, and it will be interesting to see how they all compare to one another by the end.

    Jean – you say it much better than I do – ‘bald and straightforward’ is exactly right about Chodron’s writing and pinpoints my difficulty with it. I agree she isn’t a poor guide through Buddhist thought, just not quite the right explicator for me. I am so terribly sorry to hear about your friend. These things chill a person to the core. And so often what one feels in those circumstances is not something the sufferer wants or needs to hear; it can in fact be even more of a burden. It’s these contradictions that bother me. When I was tested, I thought that strength was the ability to carry on, to push forward, and curiously enough, I’ve spent the past four or five years learning that for me, at least, strength has actually been more manifest in the ability to say no and to stop. It’s been a strange paradox to come to terms with, and one that I can’t really explain to other people (although I think you may be someone who can understand). It isn’t the semblance of normality that has to be preserved, but an authentic response to emotion. Thank you very much indeed for the book recommendation – you can be sure I’ll be looking it out.

    Pete – yes, the people who emerge from suffering with moral wisdom are to be admired, aren’t they? It’s a fine line between accepting the pain, collapsing into negativity and staying with what one authentically feels. Masochism or melodrama always beckon. I’ll be interested to know what you think of the Epstein – hope you get around to him soon!

    Dorothy – I will be extremely interested to know what you think of it!! It does many things well, and covers a variety of Buddhist tenets in a very comprehensible way, and I’m aware that my own response here is indeed a deeply personal one. I guess you can’t avoid gut reactions when you’re trying to deal with the big, tough emotions!

    Eva – oh I am so very sorry to hear that you aren’t so well at the moment. You know you have my every sympathy. Take it easy. Accepting I could do less than I wanted and being disciplined about placing a cap on my activities has been the only way forward to recovery that I have ever found. It’s monumentally hard though. Hugs to you.

    David – that’s a very good appellation for Chodron! And the separation of issue from emotion was a real eye opener for me. I cannot claim it as original insight – it came in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, which I can highly recommend.

    Stefanie – I’m very glad you’ve commented as it’s good to have a different reaction to Chodron’s book here. As I was saying to Dorothy, I think when you’re trying to deal with the big, tough emotions at ground level, you can’t help but have an emotional response to the books that purport to help. She didn’t quite scratch the itch for me, but that isn’t to say that her writings wouldn’t be of tremendous use to others. It’s just a question of the right book at the right time for everyone. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s mother. I know suffering teaches us all kinds of things, but I get obstinate about the fact that we could learn them in other ways. Still, that’s just my own problem with life! 🙂

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  17. I’m sorry it didn’t suit! Like Stephanie, my abiding impression is not one of glibness and, that she recognised that getting to know and live with one’s inner self, with emotions and beyond the worded mind, is the work of a life-time – and Stephanie’s always right! But then maybe I am conflating what I drew from her other books, or have filtered out and forgotten those comments I disagreed with. Sometimes it’s useful to hear what one already knows in a different voice; sometimes it can be irritating.

    Anyway, as ever, there can be no complaint about the advice offered from that other spiritual teacher, Litlove.

  18. Lokesh – if I only had an organised life I would have dropped you a proper email before I posted this review. Although Chodron contained irritating elements, I also found a lot that was interesting and highly informative. It’s a very good basic guide and I was glad to have read it. You are too kind about me, but I do agree that Stefanie is always right! 🙂

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