Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Art of Happiness 11

Facing Suffering

Papal Cross, Phoenix Park, Winter 2010
One of the areas of arithmetic I cover with first year students in my care is that of finding the common denominator of a group of numbers.  When we look at human beings, no matter what shape or size, colour or sex, or indeed age they may be, we will find that there are many common denominators.  The greatest common denominator is undoubtedly our mortality.  We are born, we age, we wither and we die.  Such is the fate of each one of us.  Coping with our own mortality is one of the central existential tasks we have in life.  Some four years back one of our third year students died from Sudden Death Syndrome at the early age of fifteen, and unfortunately later the same year one of our sixth years was tragically murdered on the night of his graduation.  Having done some training as a counsellor, I was more than aware of the trauma caused both to staff and students by these major crises.  Needless to say, counselling was offered to the whole school community - all staff and students.  The biggest and hardest thing for any of the students to accept was, of course, the tragic deaths of their friends at such a young age.

Strength in Solidarity

As we all know so well, there is very little to say at times of great crisis or trauma.  Suffering on this level, or indeed on any level, can never be explained away.  What's more important at such times is simply the strength we give each other by just being there to listen and to comfort.  And yet, if we are meditators or of a spiritual/sensitive turn of mind, we can prepare ourselves to cope with the inevitability of suffering.  Here, I'd just like to quote somewhat at length the following words from the Dalai Lama:
In our daily lives problems are bound to arise.  The biggest problems in our lives are the ones that we inevitably have to face, like old age, illness and death.  Trying to avoid our problems or simply not thinking about them may provide temporary relief, but I think that there is a better approach.  If you directly confront your suffering, you will be in a better position to appreciate the depth and nature of the problem.  If you are in battle, as long as you remain ignorant of the status and combat capability of your enemy, you will be totally unprepared and paralyzed by fear.  However, if you know the fighting capability of your opponent, what sort of weapons they have and so on, then you're in a much better position to deal with them. (The Art of Happiness, p. 112)
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

Poppies, April 2011
As anyone acquainted even slightly with the tenets of Buddhism will know, the motivation of its founder Siddhartha Gautama was precisely the above mentioned dilemma, how to deal or cope with the perennial problem of suffering.  They will also know that the Buddha's first sermon after his Enlightenment centered on what he called the Four Noble Truths, which are essentially the foundation stones of Buddhism. The truths are:
  1. The truth of suffering (dukkha)
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
  3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
  4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)
In short, these foundation stones offer a way or what Buddhists believe to be the way par excellence of coping with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" or suffering in our lives.  The whole positive thrust of the above four truths can be seen in its refusal to engage in denial of any type.  This is surely a key to coping with any problems with which we are faced in life.  Acceptance of a problem is certainly half of the battle as the old cliché has it.

The Dalai Lama goes on to clearly explain that for him personally the strongest and "most effective practice to help tolerate suffering is to see and understand that suffering is the underlying nature of Samsara." (ibid., p. 115) The WIKI defines Samsara thus:
Saṅsāraor Saṃsāra (sanskrit: संसार; Telugu: సంసారం), (in Tibetan called "khorwa")[1], literally meaning "continuous flow", is the cycle of birth, life, death, rebirth or reincarnation within Hinduism, Buddhism, Bön, Jainism, Sikhism, and other Indian religions. In modern parlance, samsara refers to a place, set of objects and possessions, but originally, the word referred to a process of continuous pursuit or flow of life. In accordance with the literal meaning, the word should either refer to a continuous stream of consciousness, or the continuous but random drift of passions, desires, emotions, and experiences. (See this link here: WIKI )
I am quite taken with this idea of "continuous flow" of life, or the cycle of life, which, as it were, is unending.  We are literally sucked into that by virtue of our birth into whatever society.  The causes of suffering, therefore, spring from the our lack of consciousness of all these influences around us.  Indeed, according to Buddhist thought, the root causes of suffering are ignorance, craving and hatred.  The Dalai Lama is keen to point out that ignorance does not mean any lack of information or knowledge of something.  Rather, it is what he calls a "misperception of the true nature of the self and of all phenomena." (ibid., p. 117) The true nature of these phenomena, of course, is simply that they are IMPERMANENT.  Desiring things to be permanent is simply unrealistic, and what's more extremely harmful to one's mental health -  arguably harmful also to one's physical health, given the reality of psychosomatic illnesses.

Eastern versus Western Understanding/Acceptance of Suffering

There is a startling difference in attitude between the Eastern and Western approaches here, and I'm speaking primarily of the man and woman in the street, not what philosophers think or write.  Most Westerners have a higher expectation from life.  I've noticed a considerable change in this regard here in Ireland since the Celtic Tiger days - now we demand better and better medical care, and what's more, we want it immediately, now, this instant.  We also look on life in a way "too positively," in the sense that we believe that the world is and should be a nice place to live in.  On the other hand, Easterners look on life in a more balanced, some would say even negative, way, realising that bad things as well as good things are part and parcel of life.  We Westerners are more likely to say: "Why me?" "What did I do to deserve this pain or suffering?"  An Easterner would be less likely to ask these questions as s/he is so aware of the inevitability of suffering. They would more easily understand and perhaps be able to ask the questions: "Why not me? Am I any different to anyone else?"

Strangely enough, it was the great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking who taught me this lesson some ten or more years ago.  In a biographical sketch, written by colleagues John Gribben and Michael White, Hawking tells them that he never felt sorry for himself, quite simply, because as a physicist, he knew how silly that was, because what happened to him was based purely on chance, and as far as the great theoretical physicist was concerned, being angry at an indifferent universe was simply stupid.  In fact, since the book was written Professor Hawking has gone on, despite his severe physical disability and obvious suffering, to write many more books and still remains very cheerful and positive.  Life is unfair.  Accept it and get on with it!  So says Professor Hawking, and he definitely knows.  This agrees with what Dr Albert Ellis calls a rational belief. An irrational belief is one like saying "life should be fair!" Ellis called his psychotherapeutic approach REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy).  In this sense, objective science is very Eastern in tone, or Eastern belief is very scientific in tone.  Take your pick! 

Dr Cutler underscores the point of the previous paragraph by outlining the fact that studies by social scientists show that most people in Western society tend to go through life believing the world is basically a nice place in which to live, that life is mostly fair (an irrational belief as Dr Albert Ellis would put it), and that they are good people who deserve to have good things happen to them.   It is in disabusing our minds of these false and irrational beliefs that we can cope better with suffering.  The Buddhists would have us meditate on the Four Noble Truths, while central to Tibetan Buddhism has been that wonderfully sobering and enlightening classic The Tibetan Book of the Dead or the Bardo Thodol

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