Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Art of Happiness 12

Suffering as Self-Created

Relaxing on lungomare, Badolato
We are at least partly conscious that we can create a lot of our own suffering.  Admittedly, much of our suffering comes from unconscious drives and stymied desires.  We show our partial consciousness of our own responsibility in creating a lot of our own pain when we say such things as: "He is his own worst enemy," or "She doesn't realize that she provokes Tom so much," etc.  We also, of course, create more suffering for ourselves by refusing to admit that it is a natural part of life.  No matter how positive one is, there will always be pain and suffering. 

In fact, even the way we learn incorporates suffering, e.g., when we say that we learn by our mistakes we are, in fact, saying that we are learning from painful occurrences, as mistakes are by definition evil in so far as they cause pain, suffering, harm or damage to someone or something.  When we learn to incorporate suffering into life as an integral part of it, we then allow ourselves to be less reactionary and less railing against life, against our bad luck.  Also we learn to cease to be victims.  It has often been said, and rightly, too, that the refusal to accept suffering as a natural part of life can lead to viewing oneself as a perpetual victim and/or blaming others or this or that for our problems.

Re-playing old Hurts

We are strange creatures indeed, as we are almost obsessional in our re-playing in our minds tapes of when X or Y hurt us.  Yes, indeed, we often continue on with this for years, never mind months or days.  This is irrational behaviour obviously.  We must learn to let go of old hurts, old gripes and cease to be consumed with bitterness or regret or even guilt.  All of this obsessional behaviour increases our suffering.  And, yes, all of this in certain cases can escalate out of all proportions and destroy the lives of some people.  As some wise person once remarked to me whether Mr X or Ms Y speaks to me or not, praises me or not, is simply not my problem - it is their problem (obviously, I am referring to a scenario where the other refuses to acknowledge me despite my best efforts and has nothing whatsoever to do with my actions.)

Inflating our own Importance

Crucifixion, Vatican Museum
There are dangers when we personalize our pain.  Everyone is out to get at me in one way or another.  In fact, they are doing it intentionally.  One might even become paranoid.  All of these reactions are irrational, and as Dr. Aaron Beck puts it, we must strive to recognize these irrational beliefs, and once we have done so begin to replace them with rational ones.  This is one sure way of lessening our personal suffering.

My goodness, we are such self-conceited and egotistic creatures. If anything, a lot of our cultures have inflated our importance completely in the scheme of things. Hubris or unbounded pride has brought about the downfall of many a self-important leader. The mythical story in the Bible about the tower of Babel is a wonderful little story that portrays humankind's hubris in seeking to build the highest tower possible that would reach into the very heavens. According to this mythical account, it was as a consequence of humankind's unbounded pride that Almighty God punished humankind by inventing a plurality of languages.

Dr Howard Cutler tells the story of Jacques Lusseyren, who was blind from the age of 8 and who went on to be the founder of a resistance group during World Wat 2 and was subsequently thrown into a concentration camp.  Lusseyran gave the following interesting insight into happiness/unhappiness:
Unhappiness, I saw then, comes to each of us because we think ourselves at the centre of the world, because we have the miserable conviction that we alone suffer to the point of unbearable intensity.  Unhappiness is always to feel oneself imprisoned, in one's own skin, in one's own brain. (quoted The Art of Happiness, p.126)

 A Note on Karma:

The Dalai Lama defines the word  Karma as "action,"  that is that no matter what we do results in consequences.  Every action has a consequence.  The Buddhists will see Karma as related to reincarnation and former existences as well, of course, as our present lives.  Our actions in a former life as well as those in this one have consequences.  I remember once reading Deepak Chopra who defined Karma as basically "cause and effect."  Here are the words of the Dalai Lama on this concept:

Karma is a very active process.  And when we talk of Karma, or action, it is the very action committed by an agent, in this case ourselves, in the past.  So what type of future will come about, to a large extent, lies within our own hands in the present.  It will be determines by the types of initiatives that we take now.... This indicates that there is an important role fort the individual agent to play in determining the course of the Karmic process... (Ibid., p. 128)
Therefore, we are not just victims of fate - we can, in fact change it and fashion our destiny.  In this way the Karmic process is active and not passive, to use the Dalai's terminology.  Hence, this concept properly understood and actively implemented can and will lessen one's suffering.

Coping with Change

Anyone who has lived any length of time in this world will know that coping with change is a major source of stress and suffering for individuals.  In my field of work, teaching in an ASD unit, all my charges literally hate change and are extremely uncomfortable with it.  Of course, it's not just Autistic and Asperger boys who fear change.  We all do.  Within the world of work, it is one of the major sources of contention in any office or factory.  Hence, we can agree with the Dalai Lama and Dr Cutler that one of the primary causes of suffering is our resistance to change.  Change is obviously linked to the central Buddhist axiom of the impermanence of things: "So at any given moment, no matter how pleasant or pleasurable your experience may be, it will not last.  This becomes the basis of a category of suffering known in Buddhism as 'the suffering of change.'" (Ibid., 135)

The concept of impermanence plays a central role in Buddhist thought, and the contemplation of impermanence is a key practice.  As I've said many times in these pages, life is change.  I've often quoted the famous assertion of Heraclitus that no one can step into the same river twice - as it has literally flown onwards and is certainly not the same water one stepped into firstly.  Hence, meditating on this notion of change on a personal level will help those of us worried by ageing or by the wrinkling of the skin or the graying or balding of the hair.  Having idealised images of our looks is setting ourselves up for more suffering, e.g., the extreme suffering of an anorexic person is based on the false belief that they are literally too fat and too ugly for this life.

Also, we must be aware that change is also a central characteristic in our relationships as we all grow, and to grow is to change.  Here is some wisdom from Dr. Cutler on change in relationships which is worth pondering:

We may discover that it is at the very time when we may feel the most disappointed, as if something has gone out of the relationship, that a profound transformation can occur.  These transitional periods can become pivotal points when true love can begin to mature and flower.  Our friendship may no longer be based on intense passion, the view of the other as the embodiment of perfection, or the feeling that we are merged with the other.  But in exchange for that, we are now in the position to truly begin to know the other.  (Ibid., pp. 140-1)

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