Sunday, September 2, 2012

Is Suffering Really Optional?

Ai Weiwei, who is not crazy.
It's a Buddhist proverb often quoted: 
Pain is inevitable;
Suffering is optional.
And often I restrain myself from commenting, for I know people mean well, and want to be happy, and I know that's what the Four Noble Truths seem to say.  But I am not much of a respecter of authority.  I go on my experience this life, which is also a fundamental premise of my church, UU, and of Buddhism, at least of the freelance American Zen I practice: be a lamp unto yourself.

And I have bipolar disorder; used to say "I AM+ manic-depressive."  This has changed, in a move to get mental illnesses accepted as illnesses, and I respect that.  But the fact is, I AM bipolar.  I swing from hypomanic to depressive, with symptoms normal healthy people never have in their whole lives. It's very much me.  It informs my creativity and empathy and spirituality and sense of humor, and rules my calender.  Sometimes it terrorizes me and ruins my sleep and causes physical pain and rips up relationships irretrievably (though not relationships worth saving).  For decades, I took many many medications that helped me "pass" - until they destroyed my kidneys.  (Warning: whoever you are, when you get your annual physical, get copies of your own labs and do enough research to understand the state of your health. Don't let your doctor make the decisions.)

I do thank Sylvia Boorstein, one of whose early books I reread recently, in which she takes care to say that she has not "solved" all her suffering, not yet anyway.  But that her practice has helped her soften, restrain herself at times, maybe get over things with more ease.  Yes, me too.  She allows that is possible for a normal human to achieve that advanced enlightenment; she just doesn't know anyone who has - and she knows all the big people. 

If it is possible at all, if that's what enlightenment means, maybe it's possible for a bipolar.  And if I get there, if I find out how to not suffer during these painful, disabling hours, sometimes months, I will certainly share the news.  (Practice has helped me considerably, and I share thoughts on that from time to time here, too.)

Meanwhile, everyone should chill out on this positive thinking trip.  Accept that you have pain and  sadness and disappointment.  Sometimes things get you down.  Have some chocolate and take it easy on yourself; don't expect to defeat all your conditioning and your ancient twisted karma and be smooth and clear and grateful for every f------- painful person and moment in your life.  Some days nothing helps.  That's* the truth.

+ Bipolars LIKE all caps.
* Bipolars really like italics.

p.s.  My Spellcheck thinks bipolars is not a word.  That's not stigma, though. Just software.
p.p.s.  There is an asteroid named after Ai Weiwei, whose art and life support human rights in the face of frightening oppression.


  1. I guess you can't spell check your life, which leads to a lot of should haves, and painful tie-ins to current misery which is fine enough left alone in its raw state. Why gang up suffering to make a mountain one can never climb?
    I am glad you shared your long-term drug effects on your body, as I feel like I am the sole survivor of Common Sense Island when I cut all drugs, supposed needed for my stroke and am doing fine considering.

    1. You know, when you say something like "you can't spell check your life" to a writer, they are likely to grab it for themselves. "Current misery..." is enough. I remember a Bible verse, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Of course, we Buddhists are trying to get it down to the moment. It's always nice to hear from you.

  2. Hey Dalai Grandma,

    You know I believe suffering is optional! I'm convinced because ailments and injuries and depressive moods are fickle; sometimes they feel like the end of the world (suffering?) and sometimes they're just there. I think it's the difference between it feeling heavy and feeling light. I think it's the difference between saying this the way it is, and this is the way I think it is.

    My ups and downs don't often make sense. Buddhist psychology tells me that's okay, that everything I make contact with is a secondary cause...that first cause is this mind.


    1. So if it's temporary or if it changes, it's not suffering?

  3. Temporary or changing seems besides the point; what's not impermanent? Maybe Dharmakaya.

    Suffering is extra. Suffering is the second arrow to strike the Buddha, the one he puts in himself; event he 1st arrow is extra and really the second cause; the first cause is pain. Being a victim is extra.

    Your experience, my experience, is pain- that will never change. We are of the nature to get sick. Does this mean I sing and dance about it? Nope, no positive trip here.

    If we do what you suggest- accept pain, sadness, and disappointment- I think that's it! I've never believed that the Buddha didn't feel pain after his awakening and it think it's damaging to the dharma to spread that arhart stuff around...

    1. Yes, I can't disagree with what you say. But.

      The best I've come up with for now for the bad days is cultivating the act of witnessing what my body/mind is doing at those times. Physical pain shoots up, perceptions change - when the mood starts to shift upward, it is like *click* a light went on. The room is brighter and the light is more golden. Thoughts become cynical, angry, and so on. The whole person changes in the grip of these chemicals; about all that's left is a certain room off to the side where wisdom says, This too will pass.

  4. It seems like your last paragraph is referring to "choosing" not to suffer. By accepting pain as inevitable, that sometimes we get down, taking it easy on yourself, etc; accepting all that seems, to me, to be letting go of the suffering through acceptance. Is that possible? I'm still exploring the difference between pain and suffering or what exactly suffering IS. I barely can wrap my head around it.

    1. Your comment led me to research dukkha a little, which showed me that there is a lot to think about here. On the Wikipedia entry I picked up this by Chogyam Trungpa: "Understanding suffering [dukkha] is very important. The practice of meditation is designed not to develop pleasure, but to understand the truth of suffering; and in order to understand the truth of suffering, one also has to understand the truth of awareness. When true awareness takes place, suffering does not exist. Through awareness, suffering is somewhat changed in its perspective. It is not necessarily that you do not suffer, but the haunting quality that fundamentally you are in trouble is removed. It is like removing a splinter. It might hurt, and you might still feel pain, but the basic cause of that pain, the ego, has been removed."
      There is a lot more in this article alone that I want to think about.

    2. Thank you for your reply, your thoughts. For whatever I am feeling particularly open to this topic this morning. One thought I had this morning during zazen is that choosing to suffer or not is kind of like a koan. Kind of like the 4 bodhissatva vows (beings are numberless, I vow to save them, etc). That in essence, yes we can "choose" to suffer or not but because we are human it is inevitable that sometimes we will "choose" to suffer. If it is inevitable does that make it not a choice? Maybe. But we will sometimes choose to suffer throughout the course of the rest of our lives but in the meantime I will keep striving to understand it and lessen it for myself and others. And I do think suffering is different than pain, I need to think more about "how."

  5. I know I can make pain worse by fighting it, thinking it's unfair, losing perspective.

    I think about the line, "Greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them." That states straightforwardly that these roots of suffering continue to arise in every one of us. That our vow is to be alert to such thoughts/desires as they arise, and let them pass. I do find for myself that the power of bad habit is very strong, including mental bad habits.

  6. I had a thought! Do you think enlightenment is optional?

    1. I suspect everyone experiences spasms of enlightenment - you can see it in people's eyes after they almost die, or someone they loved dearly dies, especially when these things are sudden. Or when they have a good retreat or a significant kensho. But often same old habitual self comes waltzing back in. The comfort of the usual. So you can see I haven't experienced a total, lasting enlightenment, or seen anyone else do that. To continue practicing being awake, vowing over and over - that takes quite an effort.

      Or was that a serious question? Or do you mean to suggest that life is hardly bearable without awakening? I'd go with that.

  7. I mean life is hardly bearable without awakening.

    And I think good retreats or significant kensho also lead to suffering as easily as breaking a leg or getting fired from a job- are we pushing or grasping? Christmas and a funeral have equal potential for producing suffering. Working only to improve our samsaric life is the misstep of ignorance.

    This habitual self is not to be traded for a "enlightened" self, as we'd just have to get rid of that , too.

    I've never heard of lasting enlightenment either- I've heard of sudden and complete enlightenment for all sentient beings.

    So if enlightenment isn't optional, then suffering would have to be optional if enlightenment is the opposite of suffering, and that is my serious offering.

  8. These thoughts seem brilliant to me. Life is hardly bearable without awakening, absolutely true for me, and what I can see of other lives. "Working only to improve our samsaric life is the misstep of ignorance" that cuts like a diamond. That's where all the self-help get-your-focus in-life books go so wrong. That is it. It doesn't matter what's right if the spiritual is all wrong. Are you going to write more about that or am I?