Saturday, January 10, 2015

The First Lesson is that Life Sucks

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that “Life is dukkha”, which is usually translated as “suffering”, although some teachers prefer the word “challenging”, which is more accurate. Dukkha really means “out of whack” or “unsatisfactory”. Besides those moments where there is serious pain or loss, there are things that you want that you don't have; there are things you have that you don't want. You have unpleasant physical feelings. Sometimes, we'll feel pangs of sorrow or worry or regret, even when life is going well.

On the whole, we don't like acknowledging this. We feel like it's a weakness to admit that we aren't really happy. Certainly, we find it unattractive or childish when others complain. We're taught to be strong and act like everything is o.k. One of the first lessons in Buddhism is that we have to stare our own suffering in the face if we are ever going to find the way to end it. Try meditating on just your own physical aches and pains – checking out all the places in your body that don't feel quite right at the moment. I did this once with the Tuesday night group, and I've never spent a more miserable time meditating. But Buddha insists that you face reality, and your own body is a good place to begin. One thing you notice besides the fact that you have a lot of places in your body that don't feel good is that these unpleasant feeling change, they ebb and flow, twist and pang, getter a little better and a little worse. The very fact you're always having to cope with the way life changes is a form of dukkha.

Mental suffering is even worse: We are trapped in an endless cycle of desires. Even when we get what we want, it's never enough – we'll want something more, or better, or crave it repeatedly. Even worse, we have a hard time letting go of thoughts that make us sad or angry – there just seems to be something about our brains that wants to hang onto those things. One theory is that we've evolved so that our memory records bad experiences so we can avoid them in the future. I know that one reason I keep turning over bad situations in my mind is I think that I will be able to defend myself better – but it never seems to happen that way.

I find it sort of ridiculous sometimes: One one level, I'm really quite happy with my life. I love my job; I'm happy in my home life. My kids are grown, so the tough job of getting them through adolescence is done and I can just enjoy their company. Yet, I also have a long list of complaints – the aches and pains of middle age, stressful situations come up at work that I worry and stew about, regrets from the past pop up in my head for no reason whatsoever, I worry about money even though we're getting along fine and have everything we need. I run into people that irritate me, or conversely, I worry that I've offended somebody accidentally. My life is great, but I still suffer from pain, anger, and, fear, and most of it is completely needless and self-induced.

Part of Buddhist practice is that we have to be aware of our suffering, accept it, live with it, and learn to let go of those thoughts and desires that cause us to suffer. I've just been listening to an audiobook of Jack Kornfield's Bringing Home the Dharma, where he tells how his teacher in Thailand used to send his monks right into situations that would cause them the most stress: The monk who was afraid of the dark would have to go meditate in the forest at night; the one afraid of public speaking who be required to give an extemporaneous dharma talk, and so on. And the point isn't to be mean, or even to force them to get over the fear, but to be mindful of what the stress does to body and mind. No matter where you start in Buddhist practice, the lesson is always about mindfulness. You learn to be in the present moment, even when the present moment sucks the big one.

The lesson is also always about compassion as well, because we become aware that if life is difficult for us, we realize also difficult for everyone else to one degree or another, and if we can remember that, it ought to make us a little kinder.

Thursday, January 01, 2015


I've been working on this topic for a while – at times abandoning it because it can be a depressing and emotionally-fraught thing to think about. But, with everyone out there making New Year's resolutions, this seems like a good time to post on it.

The way temptation works is pretty similar, no matter what the object – food, drink, smoke, video games, shopping – whatever the particular individual's weaknesses are. The want pops up in the mind – and the closer and more available the object is, the more often it will pop up in the mind. And you say “No”. Good for you. Then, it pops up again. “No.” And again, “No” Then, there comes a point that unless the object is completely out of reach, you're gonna cave. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating says that the average person makes 200 decisions a day about food, including each of those times we say “No.” His whole system is built around making it easier for the idea to not pop up, and for you to say “No.” when it does. The point is that so-called “will power” isn't just a matter of dropping a bad habit once, or limiting it to a reasonable level once, it means you have to do it over and over, maybe for a lifetime. It's a really boring and bleak way to have to live.

So, eventually, we will cave in to our desires. It takes something big and powerful for the desire to go away. I was a smoker for years, since I was a teenager. I continued to smoke as it fell out of fashion and smokers were shuffled into unpleasant corners, then to the cold outdoors. I continued to smoke while doctors gave me lectures every time I or either one of the kids had to go in for an upper respiratory infection. I tried to quit several times, but the reward of being a non-smoker just wasn't worth the misery of the nicotine fit. What finally got me to quit was that the smoker's cough became so severe that it interfered with my ability to teach – and that, I couldn't stand. I switched to nicotine gum, and later, lozenges and stayed on those for years and only finally quit them when I couldn't afford nicotine any longer.

In some ways, addictions are easier to kick than other bad habits, because the physical craving does go away eventually. (Although I still miss nicotine from time to time.) Food is probably the most difficult, because it's not a matter of getting something “bad” out of your life, but a complex set of choices that often has consequences for your social life and even your closest relationships. When you stop eating (or drinking) with someone, it creates a distance -- which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. The alternative of sitting there with something permitted while everyone else indulges is uncomfortable, and probably not sustainable for long.

Other desires fall in between those two, but they still involve the same process of saying “No” to yourself repeatedly. You give yourself rules, limiting the tempting object to a certain time of day, or to a number of times a week. Or the ultimate in obsessive rule-making – the calorie count diet, which requires you to keep track of virtually every mouthful you eat. It does work to a certain extent, though; it's easier to postpone or limit a desired object than it is to deprive yourself forever. “I'll only drink after 7:00”; “I'll only spend $50.” “I can eat this and still be under my calorie limit.”

I don't think anybody has ever been successful at making changes when feeling bad about themselves. That's the reason shaming and nagging are so ineffective. It's better to start from a place of self-nurturing and to proceed with a commitment to mindfulness, rather than the tension of white knuckles and forcing yourself to “be good”. Will power works only in the short run; it's brittle and can be easily shattered. I don't know if metta and mindfulness are more effective as tools in reaching a specific goal, but I do know they are effective at creating more happiness in your life – which is pretty much the end of all those goals.