Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Art of Happiness 17

Finding Meaning in Pain and Suffering

Sheer Existentialism

My candle, atop my laptop burns down....

Existentialist thinkers focus on the question of concrete human existence and the conditions of this existence rather than hypothesizing a human essence, stressing that the human essence is determined through life choices.  So the primacy of human living and a reflection on its vagaries come before an abstract consideration which bears little or no relevance to lived experience.  Hence, existentialism became very much a literary phenomenon ( as expressed in novels, plays and poems) as well as a philosophical one (as expressed in philosophy qua philosophy).

A I write these words, three young students of mine who are suffering come to mind: One nineteen year old Asperger's boy who has left school over a year now and who is functioning on 25% Kidney power; another sixteen year old AS boy with severe OCD who is currently staying in a psychiatric hospital but attends school now and then; and lastly a twelve year old AS student who sufferes from severe Epilepsy.  Now, to my mind, this is sheer existentialism, as I can almost feel their pain as I listen to them, and indeed to their parents.  Listening to them is also an exercise in existentialism, and I take great solace from all the help I have got from the wonderful writings of Professor Irvin Yalom in existential therapy.

I have spent numerous classes with these students attempting to do meditative and visualization exercises in an effort to reduce their anxiety.  As I do my own private meditation later I try to bring all three and some others into my consciousness and attempt in however small and feeble a way to visualize what their suffering must be like.  Obviously the only link here is the suffering I have gone through in my own life with depression and with experiencing what it was like to be at rock-bottom.  Such a meditation or visualization, while small and feeble, is, I find, extremely effective.

Now the Dalai Lama offers an interesting Buddhist practice which for me is very potent and which we will discuss in our next post with respect to meditation and suffering.  Here, I shall let the great Teacher and Guru (in the proper sense of that term) speak his clear and compassionate words as a way of finishing this brief post:

In Buddhist practice, you can us e personal suffering in a formal way to enhance compassion - by using it as an opportunity for the practice of Tong-len.  This is a Mahayana visualization practice in which one mentally visualizes taking on another's pain and suffering, and in turn giving them all your resources, good health, fortune, and so on.  I will give instruction on this practice in greater detail later on.  So, in doing this practice, when you undergo illness, pain or suffering, you can use that as an opportunity by thinking: "May my suffering be a substitute for the suffering of all other sentient beings.  By experiencing this, may I be able to save all other sentient beings who may have to undergo similar suffering."  So you can use your suffering as an opportunity for the practice of taking others' sufferings upon yourself.  (The Art of Happiness, p.171)                              

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