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.