Archives for April, 2011
Human maturation happens. Whether we pursue growth or not, we gain wisdom. But by actively trying to grow up, we can speed the process. This benefits our loved ones, who get to experience us as more giving, tranquil people. And it benefits the world, by increasing humanity's stock of enlightened beings. I would add it benefits ourselves, but by the time we reach the state of Open Heart, that no longer seems so important. On the other hand, it is usually the self's suffering that spurs the quest for transcendence. So let's say we're looking to grow. How do we facilitate development? There is no shortage of sage advice along these lines. I'm continually amazed by the number of books that offer terrific insight and suggestions that can guide us to awakening. Most cities have meditation centers, and many spiritually potent teachers travel the world leading retreats. So resources abound. But this is a blog post, which to my mind means it should offer a pithy simplification of how to effect the grand blossoming of awareness. Last night I participated in a meditation group and as the post-sitting discussion roamed, a nice way of framing growth occurred to me. It centers around the two main poles of Eastern meditation: concentration and mindfulness.
In seeking satisfaction, it helps to explore a broad spectrum of human potential. To use Ken Wilber's language, we can look at multiple "lines of development," such as material security, emotional bonding, and spiritual realization. Our relationship to each of these important currents in life grows through relatively definable stages. For instance, our attitude toward material acquisition might start with concern about our own sensual pleasure, then extend to wanting to provide for our family, and then mature to a calling to do our part to help a world in need. Similar stages can be mapped for emotional and spiritual growth. In evaluating progress along these various lines, I often consider one of my favorite Daoist quotes: "He who knows he has enough is rich." We can apply this simple aphorism in all three directions outlined above, and others as well.
I opened my last post by warning that its message might be upsetting, but my admonition may have been unnecessary and melodramatic. The essay said nothing too surprising. Today's post will bring us closer to the edge of psychic discomfort, I hope. For what's the point of blogging about mental health if you don't explore the raw surfaces of emotional life? So what did I say last time? Desires can lead to trouble. I hear my readers thinking: “Tell us something we don’t already know.” We've all read many novels depicting the mayhem that surrounds those who act without restraint. We recognize that a major task of growing up is learning to steady our behavior rather than pursue our whims. Granted, the Buddha took that basic knowledge to the next level, and showed how even subtle craving can cause suffering, but the message still sounds like common sense: unbridled wants lead to angst. In the millennia since the Buddha imparted his teachings, these concepts have been elaborated into sophisticated recommendations for achieving equanimity. During the past fifty years, many Westerners have adopted Buddhist practices and precepts. For instance, the doctrine of non-attachment has entered common parlance. As I have done with a number of spiritual systems, I devoted myself to Buddhist study and practice for a time. I learned the deep peacefulness that comes with following the breath during meditation. I even managed to experience my egoic personality as a mirage, as a biological process within this body’s neural structure, suspended midway between the subatomic and galactic realms.
After so many posts and comments about hardship, an essay about pleasure seems appropriate. I should warn you, however, that what follows might be just as unpopular as my saying that life's ordeals foster human growth. Most readers will be familiar with Positive Psychology. Championed most prominently by Martin Seligman, its thrust is that researchers have learned what makes people genuinely happy, and this information can be put to practical use. It is a movement away from traditional therapy, where the client talks about his or her misery, and toward more proactive intervention. Why seek assistance only to quell despair? Why not get help building genuine and lasting satisfaction? Positive Psychology prods us to plumb the deepest fonts of satisfaction in life. It's promoters, and Seligman in particular, seem well aware that fleeting 'good feelings' do not lead to contentment. We need richer fare than that. We need to feel useful, and ethical, and wise. We need more than just momentary "up" emotions.
Sometimes when I get an intriguing comment, and especially when my response gets lengthy, I move both into the main body of the blog. It's an easy post. Maybe it's cheating. But often the most important material comes to mind after a challenge. So I'm leading off with a comment from Adnan, of Oslo, Norway. As many have, he takes exception my post, Growth Hurts, in which I suggested that hardship can be growth-enhancing. Although I tried to counter readers' objections in a more recent post, I did not directly address Adnan's point: are some experiences so awful that absolutely no good can come as a result? Here is Adnan's comment: I’ve often heard others speak of a positive and beneficial impact suffering, pain and hardship can have – and as you yourself emphasise it can help us grow. I’m wondering, however, what you think the exact benefit of extreme trauma is. I’d like you to consider the following two examples. (Both of these are concerned with Bosniak victims of genocide/ethnic cleansing that took place during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina [1992-1995].) The first example concerns Victim No. 50 – a girl who in 2000 testified in the Hague how she was forced into sexual slavery by Serbian soldiers. She was imprisoned for two months and during that time raped so often by Bosnian Serb men that when questioned about it at the trial she couldn’t give a total count. (You can read a more detailed description here: http://articles.latimes.com/2000/mar/30/news/mn-14282) The second example concerns a young boy who was the only survivor from a group of Bosniak men selected for execution. (You can find the incident described in Carla Del Ponte’s memoir ‘MADAME PROSECUTOR – Confrontations With Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity’ or in a review of the book in which the incident I mention is described in some detail: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/books/review/LeBor-t.html) So, I’d like you to explain, in your opinion, what possible benefits, educational or edifying, these two victims can draw from their respective ordeals, for I seriously can see none whatsoever. And here is my response:
Upsetting readers is a good way to garner comments, which always look good on a blog. Even so, I usually try to avoid riling my audience. Admittedly, I've been known to make statements likely to be disputed by militant atheists, but in doing so my intent is to respectfully challenge fixed viewpoints, not to insult or anger. So at first it surprised me that my last post stirred up such strong feelings, both on WillSpirit! and GuidePosts to Happiness. But looking back at what I wrote, and remembering my own evolution toward acceptance, it seems clear to me that the outcry could have been predicted, and possibly avoided. Not that long ago I attended a weekend retreat at a local Buddhist meditation center. The topic was trauma, and how we adapt to it. The facilitator insisted that because we attach to our ‘stories,' we perpetuate whatever pain we've suffered in the past. I took exception to her statement, because it seemed to me that coping with the after-effects of vicious child abuse counts as more than mere storytelling. The way my stepmother mistreated me as a young boy was highly traumatic, terrifying, and damaging. It offended me to hear devastating childhood events discounted as a mere ‘stories.’
Does trauma edify? Does bereavement educate? Do we learn from hardship? Anyone reading my recent posts would get the message that I believe so. And I doubt many would argue the point. Sure, in the face of recent loss the potential for growth may be hard to accept, but when people look back years later, many dreadful experiences can be seen as transformative. And the idea that life teaches us lessons has obviously been around a long time. "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Right? Then why do we balk at our ordeals? Why is hardship so, well, hard? You would think a universe constructed to help us grow would make the maturation process easier. Of course, we have no proof that the cosmos serves any particular purpose. The fact that we learn from life doesn't mean the purpose of life is learning.
The Buddha recognized long ago the universality of suffering. His study of human discontent highlighted the types and causes of distress. The Pali word dukkha, which is usually translated as 'suffering,' is said to be more properly rendered as 'unsatisfactoriness.' This refers to the fundamental angst of being alive, where nothing ever quite feels right, or at least not for very long. One does not need to be deeply depressed or explosively agitated to suffer; one can just look around, see a disappointing world, and feel that fundamental lack of contentment we all know too well. The Buddha's prescription is to meditate, observe the mind's turbulence, and release desire. But most fundamentally, the solution to suffering seems to be acceptance. One heals by adopting a spirit of neutrality toward events in both the outer and inner world. Most spiritual disciplines, not just Buddhism, recognize the necessity for embracing life in all its misery, ecstasy, and boredom.
The movie, "I Am" was recommended to me several times before I decided to see it. For some reason I expected a typical New Age feel-good film, overly general and sparse on novel information or outlooks. But as you might guess since I'm writing about it, the film surprised me. One of its best features is film maker Tom Shadyac's statement that his is a story about mental illness. Indeed, we see how he suffered a post-concussion depression that changed his life. But the psychiatric disorder Shadyac refers to is of a different sort. He points out that indigenous cultures look at people who hoard rather than share resources as mentally ill. This makes sense. The biggest problem in the world today isn't pollution, or warfare, or injustice, it's greed. The insane hunger of the elite, who exploit and hoard on a vast scale, is the root of most other global difficulties.
Humans do not see the big picture. We see only fragmentary slices of it, and the true effect of events only becomes apparent as time passes. The temptation to rush to judgment is strong, but we are well advised to resist it. The last post talked about how even those we think enemies can be proven something else, with time. Maybe they can never do enough to make up for their "sins," but they can surprise us just the same. And often the apparent harm they inflicted will eventually be seen to have shaped us in some vital way, and granted us unexpected treasure. This truth is part of a larger reality: it is hazardous to judge anything or anyone. We don't know how life will unfold.