Now I wish to discuss using suffering as a portal to what Dogen calls “boundless light.”
“The whole universe is one bright pearl. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light,” says Dogen.
As much as the oyster would like to cleanse itself of the piece of sand, patiently opening up to it in a non-judgmental way is the doorway to liberation. Zen practice is all about opening to whatever suffering we have instead of reacting with defeat, humiliation, shame, passivity, helplessness, or guilt.
American culture seems to have had a primary focus on reducing pain for some time. But what about ancient Greek culture? In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s struggle to return home entailed great suffering, noble suffering, even glorious suffering, which gave his life deep meaning. And the same can be said of the 20th century European existentialists.
“It is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometime humiliating, but the suffering of being is life,” wrote Albert Camus.
Soren Keirkegaard’s biographer wrote of him, “By the age of 25 he had lost both his parents, and five of his six siblings. In addition to this, his sensitive temperament, his tendencies to melancholy and anxiety, and his difficult relationships to his father and his one-time fiancée Regine gave him an intimate understanding of various kinds of psychological pain. Rather than avoiding or denying suffering, Kierkegaard was unusually willing to confront it and investigate it. His sensitivity to suffering extended to others: one of his friends remembered that "he gave consolation not by covering up sorrow, but by first making one genuinely aware of it, by bringing it to complete clarity.”
In American culture we tend to view success as primary, which includes the ability to control outcomes. We tend to hide deep internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety so we will not be labeled as incompetent or as a loser. Why acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?
For two or three years, we could not understand why my grandson was so anxious and did so poorly in school. Then he was tested and received a diagnosis of dysgraphia, difficulty in writing. Once his suffering was acknowledged ad its cause understood, he and his teachers both relaxed considerably into simply dealing with “what is.” He no longer needed to conceal his suffering but became open about it. This made all the difference in the world to his experience at school. Avoiding suffering flattens life. One way we can normalize suffering is by naming it, as was done in my grandson’s case.
And it’s a basic principle of Buddhism that it’s our reaction to suffering, rather than suffering itself, that’s a problem. Our goal is to separate our resistance to suffering from the actual pain and loss. There is always going to be both in life.
The year 2020 was a year for Americans in which many experienced an inordinate amount of stress and chronically high stress levels often lead to physical and mental exhaustion. In years like the last, depression or anxiety was really on the increase. Often these are accompanied by exhaustion. We wake up in the morning feeling tired or “weighted down.” Often this means that our brain stem or amygdala has been incessantly on alert, preparing us to fight or flee. The more our brain stem is chronically on alert, the more we misperceive our current situation. We are succumbing to pressure from past suffering projected into the future.
“Fight, flight” isn’t intended to be turned on for long periods. The continual flood of neurochemicals which make up this process may cause damage to our heart, glands, and entire nervous system. On the one hand, we are built to cope with pressure and to recover when over. On the other hand, if our amygdala is lit up for a long period of time, we become out of balance or sick. Our brain is built to handle periodic or brief episodes of stress but not built to handle the continual level of stress many Americans were feeling for the duration of 2020.
So, what’s the antidote for constantly feeling stressed? I’d like to suggest that there are four things we can do.
First, we can ask ourselves: “Is this really dangerous or am I simply feeling a lot of pressure?” We can assess our situation and then clarify what action is called for, accepting that there are times when you will feel pressure and times when the outcome of a difficult situation is very ambiguous.
Second, as in my grandson’s case, we can name the problem and acknowledge the challenge that the pressure presents.
Third, if we’re still feeling inadequate, confused, or scared, we may need to think how we can bring balance into our lives. Maybe our eating or meditation has gotten out of whack. Are we getting outside even in winter? Are we keeping heart connections going during these COVID times when we are each in our own little pods?
Fourth, if we are developing a “story” or identity of being anxious or depressed, we might ask yourselves, “In what way does feeling stressed all the time serve me? If I weren’t so stressed, what would I be feeling? How would I live differently?”
There is a huge distinction between “I am a depressed, anxious person” and “I am feeling stressed or down.”
If we do all four of these with patience and persistence, we may be surprised to notice that the abrasive piece of sand inside is actually encompassed, as Dogen suggests, by boundless light, turning it into a pearl.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher