Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Art of happiness 18

The Importance of Pain

Clouds over Baldoyle last Sunday
It would seem to be patently obvious that pain serves a vital function in our everyday lives.  We all withdraw our hands rather quickly if we touch something hot like an iron, a boiling kettle or a hot pot.  In this sense pain serves the function of letting us know of imminent danger to some part or indeed all of our body.  If we did not pain we simply would not know that X or Y or Z possible injury is about to happen (or has happened) to our bodies.  Hence, pain plays an important protective role within our human physiological structure.  Also, it is worth bearing in mind that physical pain and suffering would seem to belong to different categories of experience - the former is essentially a physiological process while the latter is a psychological one insofar as it is essentially our mental and emotional response to pain.

Dr. Howard Cutler adds some very interesting facts from the world of research into pain which I will summarize here.  He quotes the rather insightful research of Dr Paul Brand.  This researcher is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist.  In the words of Cutler, we read:

[Dr Paul Brand] found that the ravages of leprosy were not due to the disease organism directly causing the rotting of the flesh, but rather it was because the disease caused loss of pain sensation in the limbs.  Without the protection of pain, the leprosy patients lacked the system to warn them of tissue damage... Without pain, sometimes they would even stick their hands into a fire to retrieve something.  He noticed an utter nonchalance towards self-destruction.  (The Art of Happiness, p. 174)

The conclusion that Dr Brand came up with at the end of his study and research was that pain is not the universal enemy that we believe it to be in the West.  On the contrary, pain is a remarkable, even an elegant and very sophisticated biological system that warns us of damage to our body.  It is, he argues, very unpleasant with the distinct purpose of drawing our immediate attention to danger or injury.  We are literally forced to notice what is happening or going to happen to our bodies.  Dr. Brand argues cogently and reasonably that by using the insights he has garnered over years of research into pain and suffering that we can prepare for pain and suffering ahead of time, and in so doing we can begin to change our attitude to these two realities.  Cutler, once again quotes the learned doctor as being "convinced that the attitude we cultivate in advance may well determine how suffering will affect us when it does strike." (Quoted ibid., p. 175)  In such a way both he and Cutler argue that we can even learn to develop a sense of gratitude in the face of pain.  The pain itself may be excruciating, but when we gradually come to terms with what pain as a functioning system is about, we may learn some deeper appreciation which in itself lessens the mental pain, which is another term for suffering.  This research, indeed, fits in with a lot of Buddhist thought and practice.

Indeed, Cutler invites us to do a thought experiment.  Let us imagine we were at different times a construction worker and a concert pianist who have received the same injury to our fingers.  While the physical pain would be exactly the same for both, there would be little mental anguish on the part of the construction worker or builder while that of the concert pianist would be far more extreme.

There is a distinct difference between the pain as pain and the pain of pain.  The former is purely physiological while the latter is essentially psychological or mental.  In short we convert pain into suffering in our minds.  Therefore, if we know how to control our minds, as indeed all Buddhist practices aim at, we have a considerable chance of lessening and alleviating or diminishing suffering, though we will probably never totally eradicate it.

Pavlov managed to train his dogs to overcome the pain of shocks to get to their food, while a researcher named Ronald Melzak managed to raise Scottish terrier pups who could feel no pain by raising them in a totally padded environment.  Much of what we call pain, therefore, he concluded was learned rather than instinctive.  Even different ethnic groups show different responses to pain. 

Another interesting conclusion that Dr Brand arrived at is that pain helps to unify the individual or give him or her a sense of their bodies as a whole.  Those individuals who had reduced pain-awareness or none at all simply had little or no sense of their bodies as a whole unified system.  Leprosy sufferers simply saw their limbs as mere tools which could be worn down and broken.  In one sense, then, pain serves a function of unifying us as distinct entities or units.  In another sense, also, pain and our experience of it helps us to gain a sense of our unity with others.

In conclusion, let me quote once again Dr. Cutler's own words:

Perhaps that is the ultimate meaning behind our suffering.  It is our suffering that is the most basic element that we share with others, the factors that unify us with all living creatures. (Ibid., p.177)    

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)                              

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Art of Happiness 16

Suicide Prevention

In the last post here, I presented the poetic response of William Wordsworth to the death by drowning of his brother Captain John Wordsworth who was lost in a shipwreck.  He wrote the poem a year after his loss, and it is obvious from the text that he has dealt with his grief.  Indeed, the poem itself can be seen essentially as an act of poiesis or healing in action.

There are fewer more traumatic experiences than the death of a loved one through suicide.  Monday September 4 marks the beginning of International Suicide Prevention Week.  In this extended series of posts I have been commenting on The Art of Happiness by His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C.Cutler. This book argues that happiness is a legitimate goal in life and that through the Buddhist practices of compassion and meditation this state can be achieved by the individual.

Listen to Me

As I write these words I am very aware that many of us do not have the time to stop and listen these days.  In the rush and the fret of modern society, fewer and fewer of us have time to stop and listen to others.  Listening is at a premium in a capitalist society whose emphasis is solely on the acquisition of both wealth and success.  Now listening is not just about hearing.  One can hear what people are saying without truly empathising with them, and empathy takes time to learn.  We can teach one another to listen and to empathize.  By doing so we can help prevent possible suicides, and of this there is no doubt.  In Ireland, as in most modern industrialized countries, death by suicide among young men especially is on the increase.  Learning to listen is part of the skill of compassion which both The Dalai Lama and Dr. Cutler impress upon us.  They both emphasize that these skills are infinitely teachable and learnable.

Talk to Me

Now this is a fitting diptych to my previous heading.  Listen to Me and Talk to Me are, as it were, two sides of the one coin.  We must let as many people as possible in our lives know that we are available to be talked to.  No good having all the wonderful listening skills if others don't know it.  That's why I am impressed by the slogan "Talk to Me" which is being used as a key selling point by one organization for the Prevention of Suicide campaign in the US. The Trevor Project has launched a new campaign ahead of National Suicide Prevention Week (September 4 – September 10) called “Talk to Me” designed to get people to reach out to their loved ones and really communicate. There is a particularly good video promoting this campaign by T.V. programme Glee’s Kevin McHale in which the actor encourages everyone to get involved in the Talk to Me campaign by taking the Talk to Me pledge to spread the word about the initiative ahead of  International Suicide Prevention Week.

Talking to someone regularly and telling them about our lives might seem simple and unimportant, but it can produce tremendous and even life-saving benefits. When we make a habit of talking with a friend, family member, colleague or counselor about the important issues in our life, we're more likely to talk with them about those issues that have the potential to be harmful or even life-threatening, including thoughts of suicide.  
Getting into this habit now is also well-timed. National Suicide Prevention Week begins the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and extends through the following Saturday, Sept. 4 -10. This important awareness week helps us learn what to do if someone we care about is in crisis, including if that person is you. One of the best tools to preventing suicide is lowering the bar to getting help. When you say, "Talk to me," your offer of care and acceptance could help save a life. (See here )
Also please listen to the important words of Kevin McHale below:

The Importance of Learning, Conviction and Determination Leading to Action:

One important lesson I have learned from reading this wonderful book,  The Art of Happiness, is that it is possible to learn and to teach compassion as an interpersonal skill.  Fine, you may agree, as certain current research is showing that human beings are by nature compassionate, but without a doubt this basic original compassionate nature has been supressed and indeed virtually completely drowned by hundreds of years of so-called progress that emphasizes materialism, profit and success.  It may be innately there, but it has to be nurtured, sustained, strengthened and promoted by teaching/learning on an on-going basis.  The Dalai Lama emphasizes that while learning is important, it is simply not enough.  We can know something is right and not do it.  After we have learned the facts about SUICIDE, the harmful effects of smoking, alcohol abuse, drug addiction or whatever other pressing human problem is at issue, we must become completely convinced by this knowledge so that we develop a determination to put in the effort to combat the problem.  The Dalai Lama also speaks about "a sense of urgency as a key factor" (The Art of Happiness, p. 186) in helping to overcome problems, whatever they may be.