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-=[ Responding to Suffering ]=-
... an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.
-- Jimmy Carter
A lot of people get a quizzical look when I tell them I’m a practicing Buddhist. I understand that I may not fit the stereotype of a spiritual seeker: I cuss a lot, get angry, sad, happy, horny -- the full catastrophe! LOL I certainly demonstrate little patience and don’t tolerate fools easily. What’s more, I am politically motivated, an engaged activist. Too often people don’t see the connection. From my perspective, spiritual practice is not as an escape from the world, but a way to engage it in a conscious and ethical manner.
In short, my activism is a response to suffering. I mean, look around, there seems to be a lot of it going around, and, as the historical Buddha very likely put it, there’s a lot of suffering in life. Indeed, Buddhism’s first truth is simply an acknowledgment that to live is to know suffering (dukkha). But what is suffering?
I have a simple formula for suffering. For me, suffering is pain (what is) combined with stress (what we bring to it):
pain + stress = suffering
I gave it away early in the post because I need to construct my post rather quickly today. LOL
Let me expand on this a little just so we can create a foundation. Suffering arises because when we experience pain -- when we are injured or startled, or are treated unfairly -- we normally react by lashing out at others and even at ourselves. We are conditioned to believe that this will somehow lessen our pain. It’s almost like shooting yourself in the foot as a response to being shot. In Buddhism, the image of two arrows is used. We act in such a way that a second arrow is shot, at us or others, on account of the pain of the first arrow. When we shoot the second arrow, we “pass on” the original pain. We have to admit, if we look at this critically, it’s a childish coping strategy. If we’re honest with ourselves, however, we recognize that we all do it to a certain extent.
So! According to my “formula,” suffering can be understood as a kind of resistance or reaction to the pain of the present moment. We tend to react physically, emotionally, and/ or mentally when we experience unpleasant sensations, emotions, or thoughts. With physical pain, the tendency is to become tense or to contract around the area where the pain is coming from as if this will somehow lessen the pain. Some doctors say that 80 percent of what patients experience as pain is the not the result of the original cause of the pain, but rather the resistance to the cause. See?
pain + stress = suffering
It’s the same with emotional pain. A perceived slight from someone close to us, or the break-up of an intimate relationship, will result in a flood of emotions, culminating in psychological and often physical pain. We might generate anger (more on anger in a later post), judgments of others, and ourselves, and rationalizing it. The tension usually builds compelling us to seek release from the pain through food, shopping, sex, or mindless entertainment. As humans, we do this individually and through groups, as well as in our communities and nations.
For me, the work of spiritual practice is not to get rid of the pain, but rather to learn how to open to pain and suffering, when they appear in ourselves and others. In this way, I can learn to be present with the pain, but without suffering and without compounding the pain.
My political work and activism is informed by this framework of responding to pain. The people you see spreading all the hate and vitriol are effectively causing themselves and others suffering. It’s a suffering based on the delusion that we are somehow not connected. Compassionate responses to such behavior can manifest in many different ways. Sometimes it can take the form of what I learned to call fierce compassion. Its modern-day equivalent would be called “tough love.” A lot of what I’m seeing today calls for this type of compassion. The tricky part -- indeed, the hardest part -- is maintaining a compassionate attitude in the face of so much mindless hate.