Sunday, March 25, 2012

Authentic Suffering and Health

In my family growing up there were two deep cultural traditions around the enumeration of suffering.

One of these came from what I have to assume was a South Eastern US pass-time of gossiping about the neighbors' hardships, with the obligatory hand-wringing, doleful noises, not so secret sense of superiority and relief that lightning hadn't struck closer to home. More than semi-pro, such sessions could go on quite a while in gruesome detail until our elder matriarch might state with finality, "Well let's not dwell on that, no we won't dwell on the negative. No." 

And our poor young psyches, still vibrating from what one of my siblings calls the "litany of horrors" were expected to switch gears and go on with a light and lively conversation. Pass the dinner rolls, dear, thank you. 

Alongside and intertwined with that was a Southern European tradition that I only became conscious of when watching the singularly depressing My Life as a Dog. Which is to say whenever we were confronted with suffering in our own lives, we engaged in a group exercise of pointing out that surely there were others who were suffering much more, and then go on to list a few examples in great detail. So while meant to make you feel better in comparison, such a verbal smoke-bomb instead reduced the value and integrity of whatever experience we might have been needing to work through.

While I think I've done a good job eschewing the gossip, damned if I can't break myself of the My Life as a Dog habit even now, facing my own recent health issues. "Our friends lost their son in a freak accident; so and so's child has cancer..." etc.

All of this is adding story on top of story, layering and spinning so that we aren't present with our own suffering. An attempt at self-insulation. My sense lately is we cannot find perfect health, even amongst infirmities, unless we can be present with the reality of our own suffering.

The Dalai Grandma offers us this translation of a Buddhist chant from Thich Nhat Hanh:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. 
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My  actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences  of
my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Which I will begin working with, and for which I am grateful.


  1. Really like what Katagiri Roshi had to say, which was about a man who he used to see running around a lake he used to walk around. Eventually, this man got cancer and died. Katagiri observed that as hard as we try to be healthy, in the end, we will be "unhealthy." No easy way out.

    This is something I have to remember, because I read the Dalai Grandma's blog, too, and I am around some very old teachers who are limping around and think: "I'll give up salt. I'll take half portions. I'll drink more water. I'll exercise everyday." and I actually do these things. They make me feel good. But I forget that someday I will not feel "good" and that's a part of being human.

    I get little glimpses of this, even with a mundane case of poison oak! It kept me up, tore my legs up, made my toes and lips swell, and I thought: Proceed. Follow the schedule, take care of yourself (which i did with about 5 natural remedies! I could make a zine on poison oak!) but proceed, and proceed with joy and enthusiasm, because I've not seen a quarter of what is yet to happen to this body.

    Humbled and inspired. Thank you for sharing your experience. Did I miss the post where you tell us what happened?

    1. Is that from Keep Me In Your Heart A While? I just learned about it today via your link to Dosho's blog. I own You Have to Say Something but it's been a decade since I read it.

      Yes, Dalai Grandma is forging a path, which inevitably we will follow. And we owe her a great deal for what she shares. May we bear it with one half her dignity and equanimity.

      Poison oak is so rough! My wife has had two cases, one each of the last two summers, spread all over and took weeks to clear up. Glad to hear you are on the mend. If you ever want to share your remedies we're all ears here. There is some soap she uses religiously after every hike now, but even then she can still get it.

      I haven't gone into details on the "what happened," was hoping to keep this less about me and more about the general process of healing, Buddhism practice, and art.

      I may go into it at some point but suffice to say that Ikkyu quote I posted about "mistake after mistake," well that would be my life over the past decade. And the awakening was the wake up call of winding up in the ER more than once recently. Time for a significant overhaul and re-balancing.

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  3. this post resonates with me as health is one of my koans. I have learned in the not too distant past to just be with the feelings and sensations in the body and mind. I see my attachment to having good health and yet know there is a razor's edge to walk here. To pursue good health without attachment (that's the trick) so we can practice the Dharma and do our art and be a positive influence in the world, this is a good thing. And yet it is so easy to get sticky fingers, so easy to want to push away the experience of not feeling well.

    Once when I said to my Zen teacher that maybe I should just give up the attempts to ever feel well, she told me a story of a woman who found something that worked for her after 15 tries. The story was meant to encourage me not to give up.

    wishing you health!

    1. So familiar, that last. I work a lot with something Jack Kornfield related about one of his teachers years ago. His teacher said "You Americans, you always want what you don't have, and don't want what you have. Why not just want what you have, and don't want what you don't have? Simple!" Don't want is a hard teacher, especially around health, pain, fear... and sitting with it is work.

      Fortunately art can be a soothing anodyne, it is work and meditative in its own way, and helps working through issues at a different level. And as you say the main compass and foundation of all of the above is being a net positive influence in the world, which helps keep a sense of orientation no matter how rough the seas get.

      [I'm still new to this blogging thing, I keep trying to reply but I hit post instead. oh well, everyone just ignore the deleted responses...]

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