Sunday, August 7, 2011

What to do about Suffering (and Demon Bunnies)

"There is suffering in life. So how do we detach ourselves from suffering or not follow suffering into its depths?" That was a question recently posed to me by someone trying to understand the Fourth Noble Truth, which says, "There is suffering." The Fourth Noble Truth is sometimes translated as "Life is suffering," but I think that must be a terrible translation since I've never heard a true Buddhist teach anything like the notion that all we have is misery and pain in life. In fact, Buddhist philosophy strikes me as exceedingly able to teach us how to enjoy and appreciate life, while also diving head first into the painful truths that we must face in order to live free from ignorance. This quality of going straight into the painful stuff with no Kool-Aid to be drunk, is what attracted me to Buddhism in the first place, and it is also my answer to the question posed above.

First a disclaimer: I don't want anyone to think that I think I have all the answers. I encourage anyone reading this to test everything for themselves. The Dharma is a practice of developing oneself and seeking the truth through empirical knowledge. Nothing on the Dharma path that you take on faith is worth a penny. Now, back to our program...

Buddhism is largely about the cessation of suffering. The way we can detach ourselves from suffering and avoid following suffering into it's depths is to
  1. Recognize suffering when it appears and the feeling it causes.
  2. Have the courage to stick with the feeling, while refraining from telling yourself things that will make you more comfortable.
  3. Through this we may come out seeing more clearly. We may gain true insight that helps us appreciate our lives more.

Meditation is a practice that strengthens the mind by touching thoughts and letting them go, one after the other, for a long time. When we become intimate with thoughts, we start to feel the qualities of different thoughts, and we start to recognize their energy manifesting in our bodies. So, for example, I may be having a thought about a guy who made a racist comment directed at me. If I cling to that thought and get my mind moving, the thought fornicates, procreates, and spawns angry thoughts like little red-eyed demon bunnies of hate bouncing all around in my head. Suddenly, these demon bunnies are singing in unison (not in a cute way) about what I should have done to that guy. Chains of searingly rational thoughts describe bullies in school, super Kung Fu punches like the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, and of course, revenge. But hold on, hold on.... Instead, I could just recognize the thought and the pain when it comes. Even if I'm already running down this dark path of violence in my mind, I'm able to recognize the thoughts and feel my chest tightening, my vision tunneling, the heat inside me and the pressure in my temples. This is all very interesting, and then I let it go and focus on my breath again. I am learning non-attachment to my thoughts, because there are no real flying karate kicks in this story. The story just ended.

Some thoughts are seductive, like the one about that great blog post I was going to write, or mundane (I wonder what ever happened to Johnny from kindergarten?), or painful, like the thought that spurred the invention of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. But those painful ones are often the ones that multiply the most. They may be fears, like thoughts of our loved ones dying, or feelings of inadeqaucy or unworthiness ("is my boss ever going to figure out that I am completely incompetent?"). Those thoughts can take hold of us and we have a tendency to deal with them with ignorance. Either we turn on the TV as soon as they appear, to the point we don't even realize why the TV is on. Or we tell ourselves stories about how it is all going to be alright. It might not be alright. It might all end it tears and suffering. We have to face it.

When we are confronted with these terrifying thoughts it feels like a big scaly monster with bloody fangs is standing in front of us. Meanwhile, we can feel like weaklings who can't do more than 2 pushups, with nothing to defend ourselves with but a raggedy old baby blanket. But stand in front of that scaly monster for a while. Don't run screaming, don't tell yourself it will be alright, and don't react. Just hold still. Do that for long enough and that big scaly monster will start to weaken. You will grow up into a courageous warrior with shining armor and a sword that cuts through confusion and fear. The monster won't seem so scary anymore, and with practice that monster will eventually leave you alone. Maybe he'll even become your house servant, cook you vegetarian chili, wash your brave warrior-mobile and do your dishes... now there's a thought...

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