What about my poor partner, for whom kvetching is an art form?
No, seriously, this saying has always DRIVEN ME OUT OF MY MIND! Like, okay, say I’m sad. I’m just supposed to presto-change-o kill that emotion? I mean, outside of alcohol, drugs, chocolate, lots of sex, shopping, etc, how is someone SUPPOSED TO DO THAT?
I have a lifetime full of attitudes that may, perhaps, at times, mildly, gently, occasionally need adjustment. My attitude toward this saying can be summed up in the delightful sentence, “Can you New Age lightweights go get some real grief?”
But in my obsession with Buddhism and yoga, I have been reading The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope (because even though yoga teacher training means I’m reading about 10 other books, I just have to go off on what interests or informs me). And it turns out that the full saying is this:
“Pain is a given, but suffering is optional.”
Ah-hah! I wasn’t so off in talking about real grief! Because the thing is, it’s really, really, really important to draw the distinction between the first and second halves of that sentence. Pain is a given. Meaning, it is inescapable. We die. We lose people we love. We sometimes treat each other horribly. There are natural disasters, wars, epidemics. Fear, sadness, sorrow, anger, horror…these are a part of life. You can’t avoid them. They are not optional.
Then what is suffering? According to Cope, who is liberally quoting the Buddha, Patanjali and Jung among others, suffering is the constant re-enactment of our own life patterns. He says that this, really, is karma. These patterns. They are laid down in childhood, they are laid down by repetition, they are grooves in the brain. We fall into them like ruts in a dirt road. But they are not inescapable. Of course, here’s the thing: They are not exactly easy to escape. It’s not easy to find the way to freedom. It’s just very, very possible.
The Hindu religion and Buddhism were and are very concerned with the nature of suffering or dukkha. The sages in India studied the mind in order to learn about human suffering. The Buddha himself, after entering samvega (the full realization of suffering and meaninglessness), wanted to eradicate suffering.
Now, I’m a beginning meditator (even though I’ve been at it off and on since 1987), but not at all a beginning seeker. And what I know is this–your patterns don’t whoosh, disappear. They remain, but not so deeply grooved, if you find a way to freedom. You have more choice. You are not held by your history to the constant dukkha of repetition.
There’s something else, though. As you grow into an ability to hold your own patterns, to know them as you and not you simultaneously, as you grieve for the pain at the heart of them, you become sad in a permanent way. It’s a mature sadness, that is held within freedom. It’s compassion and understanding, because you have gone into the dark and come out alive. It’s a recognition of the world of causes and conditions, the world in which war and poverty and pain exist.
I know that grief, fully lived out, teaches us our humanity. I have yet to read, in Eastern religions, about the power of grief (or intimacy, for that matter, which is also a path). But I also know that, as one of my meditation teachers said so eloquently, that there are many paths to the moon. We all look up, we see it, but we take different routes to get closer.
The best thing about meditation and the full practice of yoga is that they are practices. I think it’s probably best to be in a sangha, a community, to deepen and practice, but it’s just really great that you can practice alone and get freer. In other words, you DON’T NEED A F*&(ING THERAPIST!
This is a great relief to me.
And, I’m going to meditate again right now. Because this morning I was super edgy with my partner. I’d had another one of those moments of seeing her, hearing her, completely separate from my own experience and fear; and, once again, the world shifted. I realized that I don’t know squat and I’m madly constructing reality all the time and I got her wrong, which is not something I like to see or admit. Even though she’s more loving than I even knew, even though I felt an incredible opening, a sense of compassion, yesterday, seeing her. Truth is, this morning, I was just pissed off. I mean, who is she to make me change how I see the whole world?
I have confessed this to her already. One might suppose that I would be grateful to her for popping me out of a dukkha rut, but I found it incredibly disorienting, to tell you the truth. I didn’t know where or who I was without my familiar way of seeing.
Need I mention that I live for these moments? Popped out of dukkha, admitting I’m crazy, which pops me into closeness as long as my partner doesn’t judge at all. Which she hasn’t been doing.
I get to be happy for a little bit in my dukkha, unenlightened life.
I mean, what else is there to say?