To be born human is to suffer.
Humans who suffer have a very great tendency to cause other humans suffering.
In fact, I think it is safe to say that only those who suffer cause others suffering.
Thus, by extrapolation, it is safe to say that the great human perpetrators have all been great sufferers. We may not be able to see it, and we certainly may not have it in us to feel compassion, but Bashar al-Assad must be in some state of deep agony these days. Think of Plato’s Myth of Er and imagine the soul that is to take its place in Hitler’s life. Can you imagine the suffering of this soul? Can you imagine the deep compassion you would feel for this soul if you were the one who sent it off to be the human who caused worldwide, multi-generational torment?
I saw a Facebook meme recently that said, “You are the sky. All else is weather” with a picture of a blue sky under which were rolling storm clouds, etc.
In some spiritual sense, I am the sky. But in a very human way, I am also the little dust mote blown about by rough winds, am also the water particles in the storm clouds, caught in a vortex of crazy pain, confusion, and hate, wreaking destruction on everything in my path, but also on myself. The more I rage against the storm clouds, beating at them in my frenzy to be more like blue sky, the wilder the storm becomes. And this simply goes on and on – me shouting and yelling at the world to let me be more blue sky, at myself to be more blue-sky-like, and all the while whipping up the very storm I’m hoping to destroy.
So there are two questions that follow:
What causes this essential suffering?
Is it possible to stop it – to stop suffering and to stop perpetrating the suffering of others?
The first half of the second question first. It is, of course, impossible to stop, prevent, or end the suffering we feel as long as we are alive as humans. Because the suffering is essential – it is the very nature of being human. If, with the help of all sorts of methods and people I won’t even try to list here, I manage to end my own suffering – reach perpetual blue sky existence – I will still be confronted with the suffering of others and the knowledge of what Man does to Man. Storm clouds are storm clouds, no matter over whom they hover.
It is, however, almost possible to almost stop hurting others because of my own suffering. There are layers and layers of this, which means that ‘almost’ is not even close to ‘completely’ – not by a thousand zillion leagues. But, yes – there is some hope here. Like Sisyphus, we must subsist on this hope.
The orthodox Jains wear masks over their mouths because with each breath (to stay alive), we humans must kill off some microorganisms we can’t even see. To live in New Jersey means that I consume more than my share of the planet’s resources. To drive a car is to emit noxious gases that will harm others and the planet. And on and on. Pretty bleak.
However, there are other, more conscious hurts I inflict on others though my own pain and ignorance, when I cannot control my wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. (I have to think about that gluttony part – does my gluttony hurt others?)
This is where the Buddhists and the Medicine peoples have found a way. To become completely conscious of our pain and hurt. To accept it completely (almost completely). To surrender to the fact of it. To learn to breathe it in, sit in it, feel it, without denying an atom of it. To refuse to act it out. This is a way that works. Within the parameters of being human.
But that first burning question – What causes all this suffering? The Christians have a metaphor that I like a lot. The story of the Fall is the understanding that to be human means to perceive ourselves as separated, as separate. The sentence begs a prepositional phrase – “separate from …?” Add any noun or pronoun to complete the phrase and you have it. To be born in to separate from the mother. To be conceived is to be separated from whatever is on the other side of “mother.” To be human is to be literally encapsulated, separated from all that is on the other side of skin. All my most basic needs – water, air, nourishment, pleasure – I must take in through openings in this skin. It seems so odd when I think about it. Unnatural.
Being cast out of Eden is a pretty good metaphor for being born. And we are so silly that we believe that if we have more money, more security, more something or other, we will be able to re-create – what a thought – that Eden. So satisfying the craving intensifies the separation – who needs that Eden when I can re-create my own? It’s a pretty glorious fuck-you, and we name it the indomitable human spirit. We dwell in darkness caused by this indomitable attitude.
The Buddha’s explanation is that suffering is caused by attachment, craving, greed, desire, or some near synonym. Which, I guess, is the other side of separation. We crave something only if we perceive that we don’t have it. Antidote to the craving could be acceptance of not-having. Resignation after healthy mourning. But there’s more. It has been clear to me for a while now that within our longing is the thing that we long for. Go deep enough into the yearning and there it is. The problem is that it hurts so very much to go into that need for anything. My daughter is gone off to college and I miss her terribly. It’s sometimes easier to move away from that pain, to distract myself. But if I breathe it in, all the way, go deep into it, there she is! I can hold her close and love her and feel her. This works with the other stuff too – missing a mother, a father, a lover, a home, comfort, love, god. The Upanishads say that in every cell of our being we carry everything – as in Everything. At any given moment, I am lost in my longing of some little part of this Everything. If I can make the time and space, find the courage, and breathe into this long dark tunnel of longing, I can touch this treasure – there all the time.
This is the way back to the Garden, our separation from which is the thing we have been born to feel.
What could be the purpose of this journey? Why go off to learn what it feels like to be separate? And then learn to reconnect. It seems an odd project. Most important, is there a choice?