Sunday, December 16, 2007

Suffering, and So Forth

On the one hand, the conviction that this alone is life, this alone has value, this, this right here, not the new life, not the purged man, not the sainthood to be, but only this, however banal, however ordinary. It is here or nowhere, now or never, it is here in the imprudent third dry oversugared pastry from its plastic tray, in the endlessly repeated computer game, in the procession of increasingly vapid images of appealing unclothed girls. This too, say the theologians of my sect, arises from Buddha-nature. What else is there, after all, for it to arise from?

On the other hand, the sense that drove Mole to the river (and thence to the Wild Wood), that inspired Sendak's dog on her travels -- "there must be more to life." It is as inescapable as the banality, twinned with it somehow. And I want to practice, I want to meditate, not to achieve some higher state of mind or even some lowering of the pitch of anxiety in my life, but just because of the stillness, because of hearing the drops of rain spattering the driveway, because there is a sensual pleasure in knowing that the heater will turn itself off in twenty minutes, back on again in another twenty minutes, even in watching the gentle, twitchy way my mind starts trying to persuade me that this time, this time there must be more than twenty minutes between cycles of the heater, and I could just look at the clock -- as if anyone would know or care!

So I began to expound an opposition but there isn't one, not really, and there is no choice between this and that. There is this immense fragility -- and everything does break -- but Buddha-nature is leaking into reality inevitably, despite, or rather because, of the breakages.

The suffering is huge. I have been reading, with impatience, an anthology of 20th Century French poetry. They seem to have the notion that their suffering is unlike everyone else's. Not all of them. But most of them do a remarkable job of cutting the contemplation of suffering off from its normal consequence of compassion. The truth of the matter is far more appalling than they think. If they knew, if they really knew, the whole thick rope of suffering that runs through the center of each human being, they would be stopped in their tracks. Each step we take is through a red trembling mist of desire and every floor is iced over with anxiety, and our bodies are, at the best of times, decaying and weakening and coming to pieces. You flee bourgeois life not to escape respectability and limited horizons, mon frere; you flee it because your little sister has cerebral palsy and and your aunt's spine is fusing into crook and you can't bear to look at them, and you want to run to where the people are all young, and the wounds are all self-inflicted.

We conceal our suffering from each other, and that is perhaps the worst disservice we regularly all do for each other, because it gives an absurdly false picture of "normal" life as pain-free. Clergymen, therapists, and doctors are some of the few people who are in a position to know just how much suffering, how much illness and agony and misfortune, are going on all the time. The rest of us walk around and see what we imagine to be the smug faces of self-satisfaction, rather than the laboriously maintained public expressions of people who are barely managing to get by.

The people who go into massage therapy are mostly young, and healthy. Part of our massage trades for classes was taking each other's health histories. The number of things wrong with these young healthy people was astonishing. Twenty-year-olds taking half a dozen prescription drugs, with chronic disabling back pain, agonising tendonitis, depression, bulimia, migraines, diabetes, frozen shoulders -- you name it. As the months went our histories all became much healthier, because we grew less scrupulous and more tired of listing everything out. My high blood pressure and cholesterol medicine disappeared; I noticed other people's TMJ and sleep apnea and arthritis and depression vanishing. But having glimpsed it all once, I had to look at everyone a little differently. Nothing in my massage practice since has led me to think there's less general suffering than that glimpse revealed.

I belong to a couple of mailing lists: one for my sangha, on which people regularly post requests for prayers for the seriously ill and the dying; another on which we are on such terms of intimacy that we speak of divorces, financial disasters, the serious illnesses ourselves or of our children, the descent of loved younger brothers into addiction , or of aging parents into Alzheimers. After a few years you begin to realize that these things are not -- as they would appear to each of us alone -- remarkable events, but the regular fabric of human life.

Life is suffering, said the Buddha: and of course we are quick to point out, rightly, that "suffering" is a technical term, there, that it includes a plethora of things that we would ordinarily class as pleasures. To someone able to parse it carefully the turbulence of mind involved in, say, eating lunch with a friend, the anxiously preserved and obsessively protected sense of self, the endless yammer of that imagined self for validation, makes the most pleasant lunch date largely an affair of suffering. True enough. But just in an ordinary way, the Buddha's assessment is just. We live, even we fortunate first-worlders far from the wars, in an ocean of pain.

Is this discouraging? Perhaps, to people of a more pollyanna-ish disposition than mine. To me it is profounding encouraging. The mess humankind has made of its own nest is one thing, if you think of it all as having been done by healthy carefree unencumbered people with time to look about them and think about things. It is a different thing if you think of it as having been done by people deep in trouble, worried about their friends and families, and very short on resources. In that case you might think it remarkable that things are not very much worse.

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