Archive for May, 2010

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To Live Is To Cause ______, Part Deux

May 25, 2010

I had a long talk with my therapist about the situation I mentioned in my previous post, and about the post itself, and when I told her the title she corrected me: to live is not to cause suffering, to live is to cause problems.

The point here is that suffering is something which occurs internally.  Suffering is caused by attachment or aversion to a particular set of feelings, thoughts or beliefs within us.  Pain can be caused by external factors, which is what I caused – what we all cause – but suffering is developed from within.

It’s an interesting and important distinction, both when we are the receiver and giver of pain, to know that the hurt occurs in the moment, but lingering suffering is produced by the Monkey Mind.  I’ve heard Sharon Salzberg talk a number of times about the mind’s ability to “collapse” in on a particular event. Like when we say something we shouldn’t have, or do something we wish we hadn’t (or vice-versa, have something painful said or done to us), how those words or that event gets repeated over and over and over.  The tape keeps getting rewound, sometimes with new endings, sometimes with the same, ad nauseam.

We’ve all been there.  That’s suffering. That is attachment.  And letting go is so effin’ hard.  It feels like we couldn’t stop replaying those events for a million dollars.   As far as I can tell, mindfulness is the only real solution.  Each time you see the thoughts returning to the painful event, making the conscious decision to let it go and focus on what’s happening right now is the only way to chip away at and eventually release that repetition.

Drinking definitely used to be my solution.  I mean, how many times have we all announced, “I need a drink,” in regards to a difficult moment in our lives?  Unfortunately, it’s usually only a temporary solution, and in the  morning I’m back to the repetitive thinking, or worse, I start building recurring patterns over time.  Deciding not to dissolve away experience means sitting with those compulsive thought patterns and seeking other relief.

The discussion made me question what suffering I’m holding on to, from previous pains.  Who am I holding as a static being in my head, unchanged from when the pain was inflicted to today?  They aren’t that person, and I’m not the same person who was hurt.  But on this relative plain it’s so difficult to see the people in our lives as dynamic, ever-shifting creatures.

Not surprisingly, former lovers came to mind first, most notably the one guy I actually dated briefly (now married), and wonder what suffering I’m creating, and if I can let that pain go now.  But the nice thing about this investigation was realizing how much I have, in fact, let go.  I have strong relationships with a number of men who hurt me at one time in my life, and that’s heartening.

I think about my best friend, one of my first serious crushes, with whom I had a contentious friendship in our youth, and who then came out of the closet in his 20s, and think how easy it is for me to see both of us as different creatures from when we met 15+ years ago – how fluid our relationship has become – and it gives me incredible hope for the future of other relationships.

So, retraction stands: to live is not to cause suffering. Just problems. A whole lot of problems. All of which are fodder for growth on both sides of the problem.

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To Live Is To Cause Suffering

May 7, 2010

I googled “Four Noble Truths” just now, to find the exact wording of these Buddhist precepts, and came across the following definitions from this website. This isn’t how I learned it originally, but it’s the perfect translation for what I want to write here, particularly for the first truth:

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable
  4. [The eightfold path is] the path to the cessation of suffering.

I learned, and always thought about the First Noble Truth as “To live is to suffer.”  There’s an innate passivity to this particular translation, though.  In my head, those words preach the inevitability of “suffering will befall you,” and leave out “you, too, cause suffering.”

But the sentence, “Life means suffering,” is a two-way street.  Life means suffering – in all its form, received and given.  From as small as the bacteria I destroy by bathing, to the greatest harm I can cause a loved one, I will cause suffering, no matter what.

I’ve spent the majority of my life seeing myself as an effect, instead of a cause.  When I was a kid it was an extreme: I used to believe no one – shy of my parents & grandparents – could possibly think of me if I weren’t in their direct presence.  If someone called me I was floored, if someone new it was my birthday, well forget it. I was awestruck.

This continued to make its residual appearance when I was in college.  When someone I had been friends with for 3 months already, used my last name calling to me from the back of a crowd, my jaw hit the floor that he had learned it. Three months. I know the full names of some people I’ve met once, just a week ago.

In my head, I didn’t really exist.

This belief is a symptom of a major world-view problem: seeing myself as an effect, instead of a cause.  It’s a power-sucking position to take, and one devoid of self-worth. If you believe you are only done-unto, then you can not do, and your actions have no merit. Or, more dangerously, your actions have no consequences.

Three years ago, this worldview allowed me to cause a number of people who are very close to me, a great deal of pain.  But if you don’t believe your actions matter, you don’t have to believe you could possibly cause suffering. You can do for yourself, and for your own advancement, and believe that either things will work out, or suffering will befall you, and that’s all there is to it.

Over recent years I’ve chipped away at this belief, but it’s only in recent weeks that I’ve begun to grab the steering wheel and finally throw the car into drive. My therapist is fond of saying, “The universe has a tendency to treat you how you treat yourself.”  Having started to take some power back, to view myself as someone who forges change, who is not just a climate-taking thermometer, but a climate-changing thermostat, it’s not surprising, then, that I would be confronted last night by one of the people I hurt the most.

With great reclaimed power comes great responsibility to one’s actions.

As my friend addressed me, calm, calculated, obviously hurt, I saw my old internal patterns rear their ugly heads: an out-of-body feeling, a distance from the experience, the thought that she was talking about someone else, because clearly I don’t cause these feelings in other beings… I had to keep acknowledging those patterns and coming back, over and over and over again, just as I tell my students to come back to their breath, until finally I was able to lock into it: “I  have caused deep suffering.”

Regret is a useless state of being, but remorse is a powerful tool for change.  I lay down an apology, and I’m well aware I have a lot of work ahead of me to regain the previous strength of our relationship.  Though I do feel incredibly sad, pained, remorseful for having hurt her, I’m so incredibly grateful for her strength to confront me as she did, showing me from the other side of the coin what it means to be a cause.

Critics of Buddhism often site the first noble truth as nihilistic, but I feel that knowing all life is suffering, that I’m not alone in my suffering and that every moment of  mindfulness erases a moment of conditioning, is hugely liberating.

I have a lot of continued work to do. And I’ll hurt people in my wake. But I’ll probably help a few, too. Maybe the same people.  But at least I’m starting to garner an understanding of my Cause, beyond just my Effect.