My mom has a strange trait. She has a habit of getting all worked up about little things that are going on in her life. She’s very easily ruffled when it comes to planning a party or working out where to go given two invitations on the same day, for example. Get her into a situation where the proverbial feces is truly hitting the fan and she’s a rock. She’s great in a real crisis, like when my dad needed coronary bi-pass surgery. How funny is that?
I’ve noticed that in general the magnitude of suffering does not appear to have a direct relationship to the magnitude of the thing that is causing the suffering. Suffering appears to be perceptually relative. There also appears to be a disconnect between overt and internal/silent suffering that belies the truth of the degree of suffering that people are experiencing. It’s so darn convoluted and counter-intuitive.
One time, when I was visiting Minnesota, I needed to go into a convenience store. Being from the Boston area, where people are notoriously mean (sorry to my fellow Bostonians, it’s true…), I was wary of seeing a homeless guy heading in the same direction. I expected some kind of confrontation. We ended up getting to the door about the same time and given the configuration of the area we kind of bumped into each other. Instead of being all cantankerous, he and I both chuckled and did the old “whoops, dancing!” thing. Despite his overt level of general suffering in his life, he was able to have this moment of levity. Another person, with different baggage in their life I believe might have seen me as just another “wealthy” person who didn’t care enough to look where I was going. Then the interaction would have been much different.
My 8-year old daughter has a thing about mosquito bites. Every time she gets one, it’s a major event. Get two? She’s gonna die. Oh, the itching is such suffering to her and she can’t think of anything else. Okay, she’s still a kid. We were probably all that sensitive once. Right? Maybe not. This is the same girl who can speak with a straight face about the night that police officers came to remove her from the home of her biological family. Am I to assume that because there is not a flagrant display of distress that this does not cause her to suffer?
Considering myself, I have been pretty fortunate in life. My family is nearby. I have many close and real friends. I have never experienced a fire, flood, tornado, or devastating earthquake. I have never been homeless or out of work for a lengthy period of time. My business is currently surviving this economic crisis – it’s hard, but we’re still here! I have not truly had anything to complain about. Things happen. Sure, but notreally. Not like other people I’ve encountered. Yet, still my temperament causes me to struggle with anxiety and melancholy. Things that happen to other people always make me suffer because somehow I always feel, “If it could happen to them, it could happen to me.”
The flip side to that compassion response that makes me suffer is a hefty dose of cynicism. Despite the fact that I am very connected to the people I know and encounter in a personal (and even sometimes cyber) way, I suffer from the delusion that “people” in general cannot be trusted. This comes at me in a way that can make me feel very isolated in the world. More suffering.
As someone said in the Facebook community, “The irony of life is that we’re put here and nobody/nothing will tell us why.” I endlessly revolve similar thoughts in my head, perhaps revising like this: “The irony of life is that we all suffer and nobody/nothing will tell us why.”
I can speak only for myself, but I do find the buddhist practices to be helpful. They’re not a cure all. They’re not going to change my fundamental personality, which it would appear is somewhat wary of life. But they do provide me the opportunity to open up my perspective to new possibilities of how to approach challenges. Not to deny the suffering. Not to suppress the suffering. Just to admit the suffering and forge ahead despite it.
It is a lifelong journey. May it turn out to be meaningless in the end? Yes. But if working with the practices helps me cope, even just a little bit better, in the now, then it has been of immeasurable benefit.
I’m feeling really agitated tonight.
My furious instinct and my heart’s desire is to make it stop – right now! There are at this moment, however, none of my usual go-to tricks for escape available to me. I am currently sitting in a dorm room at a university in Virginia with only a week’s worth of belongings. (well, not quite a week. I forgot to grab the rest of my underwear from the drier before leaving. So, now I’m having to wash each night for a few nights – ugh!)
Apparently, there is cable here, but I wouldn’t know, because I would have had to bring my own TV.
I found out from my assistant today that a health insurance company is trying to mess with us again.
I called home this evening only to find my spouse had been having a bad day.
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.
I really want to write some more tonight, but I’m feeling too enervated to be inspired.
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble. Blah!
No TV. No chocolate. Just blank white walls with left over pieces of sticky squares all over them and a dilapidated dresser drawer that barely opens and shuts.
What am I supposed to do now?
I tried pacing and scrubbing my hair with my knuckles.
Tried laying on the floor, willing myself to feel better.
Added legs up the wall.
Still didn’t help.
Went to the “funny-singing-videos-from-YouTube” night here at the course. Laughed, but…
I’m still a grumbly, whiney mess.
Raspberries to everyone! Meh!
As I’m settling deeply into my wallowing for a long, miserable stay, I suddenly recall Pema Chodron’s teachings on learning to stay.
I think what I didn’t understand the first 100 times I listened to the audiobook “Getting Unstuck” was that learning to stay with the discomfort doesn’t make you actually feel better. Rather, whatever “icky” that you stay for becomes something you learn to tolerate to the point that the label “bad” disappears. Then it just is what it is.
There is a similar concept in the “Poetry of Compassion” by David Whyte that I’ve mentioned before. There is a phrase in there that states (I paraphrase), “You have to love both the waxing and waning parts of yourself. You can’t just be out there loving yourself when you’re feeling full and then disappear entirely during the three days of your new moon.”
I recognize that I’m sitting here feeling all uptight about my “grumble grumble” when in fact I should be rejoicing that I have the opportunity to sit and stay with this feeling without interruption; that I am able to have some prajna while my mental state works its way through.
Darn you Pema, ruining a good self-righteous wallowing!
When I’m working with someone in voice therapy, I find I often have to reframe their responses when they find the exercises to be challenging.
First to explain voice therapy. It’s like physical therapy for the structures in your body that are associated with making your voice. The goal of therapy is to figure out what’s going wrong and change how the system is operating in order to get voice function back where it needs to be. Sometimes the problem is strain, other times there is neurological injury. There can be any number of things that start the problem. In order to get their voice back, decrease pain and strain and relearn how to function at home and in their jobs, people come to me.
Conceptually, voice therapy exercises can be somewhat challenging because the muscles are so tiny and you can’t see how the movements are changing as you work with them. Add to that the fact that most people are not used to taking something automatic (for example how we speak) and bringing it to a level of conscious awareness for long enough to fix the problem.
I told you that to tell you this.
As the patient is working with the exercises, they usually need to make a bunch of tries. Some will go the way they want them to; others will not. I encourage people to stick with the experience and observe. Inevitably, however, I get a constant string of commentary. “That was a good one.” “That was a bad one.” “I can’t do it.” (usually said as they are actually doing it…) The bottom line is that all of this judgment distracts their brain from processing the experience and using it to make positive change.
Here’s something else you may not know. When you’re learning to make new movements, the brain learns it largely by trial and error. The brain has no judgment about it though. The brain is just looking for feedback about results. Yup, that’s what I was going for or Nope, not was I was going for. That’s all the brain needs along with repetition in order to learn what to do. All the judgment does is get in the way.
So, I try to reframe patient’s responses about it. “Just saying that it’s bad doesn’t help.What precisely was bad about it?” or “Hey, that just told us something about your inner body assumptions. Now we can work on that!” or “Great! That’s information we needed.” The thing is…
It takes a really really really long time for people to be able to provide the reframing for themselves.
As we grow up, I think that we’re taught very young that mistakes are “bad”. In the United States, certainly, there is also shame associated with making mistakes. Therefore, we not only shun mistakes we have made, but also learn to judge it and if at all possible to deny we made a mistake at all. The thing is though, we get so much good information from the mistakes we make.
There was a story I heard on a CD I have called The Poetry of Self Compassion, by David Whyte that makes this point – let’s see if I can get it right:
Thomas Edison had been working on his invention of the light bulb. His assistant was getting discouraged and suggested that they stop trying. “We’ve tried a thousand times and a thousand times we failed. We know nothing more than we did when we started.” To which Thomas Edison replied, “Nonsense, we know a thousand ways in which it doesn’t work.”
I may have some of the details wrong there, but the point is that we need to rejoice in the information we glean from our mistakes as much as we rejoice in the things we do that have gone well. Even if the experience was uncomfortable, if we can at least be grateful for the lessons we have learned, then we continue to move forward.
This theme has come up in my Pema audiobooks. She cautions us not to use the teachings against ourselves, as a way to perceive our own failure to match up, but instead to use them as a guide to help us understand where our goals lie. She has indicated that the propensity to do this is somewhat Western in nature. Perhaps that’s true given the way in which making mistakes is anathema to we bootstrapping Americans.
Even for me, as much as I am writing about this and need to help my patients with it daily, I forget. Something goes wrong and I start beating myself up about it. Sometimes I can stop. Yeah, success! Sometimes I can’t. Yeah, I’m learning!
YouTube clip: Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. This is what we do every day!
There’s a story my mother tells from when I was a child. She used to be very involved in the church we went to at the time (Episcopalian). One day she was volunteering at a ecumenical luncheon being attended by our priest and priests from several other denominations. Perhaps there was a rabbi there as well. It’s too long ago for me to remember, but no they did not go into a bar…
In any case, the subject of pre-marital counseling came up. There was apparently some discussion regarding how the Catholic priest can adequately provide premarital counseling when he is unable to get married. Naturally, the priest became somewhat defensive and asked how any of the others could provide counseling for terminally ill parishoners, given that they had never been terminally ill. Our family’s priest then countered with something to the effect of, “Yes, that’s true. But I have at least been sick.”
In the context of Buddhism this raises a significant question, given our emphasis on compassion practice. To what extent does one have to have an experience oneself before one can truly be compassionate for others in a similar situation?
Another example came my way last week, when one of my singing students was telling me how her husband does not understand her or their son’s allergies. She told me that he is the type of person who has never been sick a day in his life. He missed one day of work at one point because she made him go to the doctor to have something checked. It was fine. He has no allergies, no chronic medical conditions and has never been seriously injured. Their son, on the other hand, is on significant medication for allergies and asthma and this guy can’t understand why they can’t get a dog. After all, the kid is on the medications. Doesn’t that take care of it all? He just doesn’t get it.
Historically, I have gone through difficulties at time with depression and anxiety. So, when I am presented with a therapy patient who has trouble in this arena, I recognize it very quickly and instinctively understand how to approach the person to try to diffuse the situation. I find that I am able to be quite patient with these folks. Even when there are other, presumably less stressful things that may completely stress me out. I like to think I have cultivated this compassion, but I wonder sometimes if I have only cultivated the ability to recognize my own pain in others.
At some level, recognizing one’s own pain in others is the heart of Tonglen practice – breathing in the pain of all others who are experiencing something similar and then breathing out healing. So, perhaps even at the heart of buddhist philosophy is an inherent understanding that we need experience to fertilize our compassion. Nonetheless, I don’t think this is necessarily all that is required of us. So, I wonder to what extent it is possible to be truly compassionate without similar experiences to draw upon.
Some day, when I’m a bodhisattva, perhaps I’ll understand…
Now buy the Book!