My House Burned Down. I Saw The Moon. (Buddhist Poem.)
Last week I asked about perspectives on suffering and how they translate into culture. This week I want to talk specifically about what can be learned from hard times. Abraham Lincoln said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” This sums up nicely the roll I think adversity plays in our lives. When everything around us seems to change, we are left to notice what is unchanging. Loosing everything only shows us what can’t be lost. When disabling health challenges take away the sense of meaning we get from what we contribute, we are left with the possibility that the inherent value of a soul is not measured by what we do, but is established by our very being.
When our illusion of control melts away, we are left to leave it in God’s hands. Fear of things “getting worse” only invites us to notice what is untouched by “better” and “worse”. When we are utterly alone in the world, God becomes more real.
It’s not that loss, illness, and isolation are necessarily ideal or welcome. Who knows their cause and if they are really necessary in the grand scheme of things? But, when bad stuff does happen, Grace seems to have a way of scooping up the dangling threads and re-weaving them back into a pattern even more beautiful and strong than before. So, we can end up grateful for hard times that we would never have chosen.
When I had a disabling illness and lived my life in bed, I struggled to find value in life through what was left available to me: prayer, sending light into the world, seeing the Christ in everyone I happen to meet in my little bedroom, elevating my own consciousness. I say I “struggled” to find meaning in these things because I also had to accept that I was utterly unable to actually DO any of them amidst active, persistent, all-consuming suffering. I could think about them, but I couldn’t really do them. I could try to remain committed to a heart open to the whisperings of the Spirit, but I only succeeded for fleeting moments. I had to let go of my attachment to doing something worthwhile with my life, doing anything at all, or even being proud of how I was handing illness. I had to let go of utterly everything, even the desire for meaning itself. Life got really simple when there was nothing to do but notice the mountain in my back yard.
I can’t say that I would sign up for these experiences again, but I can say that by living out some of my worst fears, I became free of them. I’m no longer afraid of embarrassment, disappointment, being misunderstood or alone, a “wasted life”, “wasted talent”, or “not reaching my potential”. I’m not even afraid of failing to fulfill my “purpose” or missing out on having some grandiose “calling” to serve and help others, (making me “special” in the process.) These fears were my masters before.
I’ve come to think of adversity affectionately as “forced Buddhism”. Far from the “attachment to non-attachment” that can come from reading books and “trying” to let go of attachment, real experience of limitation and suffering over time caused me to get so used to the idea of permanently unfulfilled desires that I gave up on them entirely. This sounds garish and depressing (and at times it was), but absolute lack of desire is also what Buddhists call Nirvana. This is because the flip side of desire is fear. During one “awakening” type moment, I found myself in total presence, with the total absence of desire and its accompanying fear, and it was the pinnacle of joy. Things I might endeavor to create seemed more “choices” than “desires”, because there was no longing for anything to be anything other than what it was. This was a peak experience that didn’t last more than a couple of weeks, but over time it has become grounded and stable through long term illness and the acceptance that comes with it. Ultimately, if we believe that at the soul level we cannot be harmed, even by the ultimate loss – death – then what is there to fear?
Now, as I’m returning to health and activity, I’m taking these perspectives with me. It is a profoundly more joyful life.
Here are my questions for you:
Have you experienced surrendering completely to a painful emotion (such as resignation) and finding that there was a joyous flip side to it?
Do you have experiences where loss or limitation simplified your life and made God show up more clearly?
If we are “saved by grace after all that we can do”, do you think you could accept an acute illness where you really couldn’t “do” much of anything for a long period of time? Would you fear your salvation?
Has adversity strengthened your faith? How?
I love this post. I went through a difficult time as few years ago. I did all the typical LDS-based things we are told to do: pray more, read the scriptures more, go to the temple, etc. I wasn’t getting anywhere. A friend introduced me to a book of the Dali Lama’s teachings. I read much more about Buddhism from there. At the end of the day, I found much more peace and relief in Buddhism than anywhere else. So, thank you…
Thanks, Mike S. You inspired this post!
Hi Ecu-good to meet a fellow traveller.Sounds like we have been to some of the same places.Can’t tell you-but I don’t need to tee you-how much it means to me that you have been there too.
At this point I’m not so clear as you are about what I have learnt-I’m maybe not far enough away to have sufficient perspective,although I am just capable of recognising that it might be possible to feel that way.But in some ways I am more afraid-I am even more aware of how fragile we all are.
I do know however that I do not have to be anything to have my Father’s love.I’m not sure that I was completely convinced before that I did need to be a high achiever-whatever that may be in whatever cultural and historical moment we happen to be in. I am convinced that it is the depth and breadth of our relationship with Deity that bonds us together.
ButI do want stuff-now more than ever.I’m hungry for every possible human interaction every day.My loneliness has increased,knowing how alone I can be,and that’s in the midst of a loving family.I think that if I want nothing,then I will be nobody.I need to want to eat,to see colour,to be touched.Whilst I can very much recognise that this is the root of human suffering,it is what makes us who we are,each with our individual wanting.
I even want to clean-just because I can.If I want nothing,no progress, no stimulus,then I have no reason to want to recover.It’s hard to dare to want,it’s hard to dare to care enough to want.
So,no,I have no fear for my salvation.It’s maybe continuing to live as an engaged human being that troubles me.It hurts,now more than ever.I’m hoping that will change,or that I will learn to live with that.
A great irony is that by letting go of wants you actually become more. Look at many of the great people we remember for good in history. Mother Theresa, Gandhi, St Francis of Assisi, Buddha, Jesus Christ, etc. These are all people who literally gave up everything regarding this world, yet gained everything. By caring less about things around them, they were able to care more about people around them. They all did what was right, not what was popular.
And you can do all those things. You can eat. You can clean. You can appreciate the colors and the beauty of the world around you. You can love everyone. And by wanting them less you will appreciate them more. Just be aware of what you are doing. When you are eating, smell the smells, taste the tastes, feel the texture on your tongue, hear the crunch of the food, enjoy the look of the food on your plate. Carry that over into everything, and the hurt will slowly melt away. It takes time. It’s not easy. But it happens.
Wayfarer, I know what you mean about daring to care enough to want. Early on in my illness, when used to have improvements in my health, I would assume that I was done being sick and try to get my life going again, only to slam down even harder into crushing exhaustion. I started to not even want to get better because if I got my hopes up, I didn’t think I could emotionally go through “loosing everything” yet again. It does take a lot of guts to want.
I think it’s more fun to “enjoy” than to want. It sounds to me like you could just as easily say that you enjoy companionship more than you did before, that you don’t take it for granted. When we “want” something, we are by definition, not having it. I think words can be very powerful ways to alter our relationships to things. A change in consciousness one degree can make all the difference. I “enjoy” singing, and I “would enjoy” having another band someday. If I got back into “wanting” it, then instantly I feel fear of not having it and I miss that I do have it in some degree. When I say I “enjoy” having people to sing with, then I suddenly realize and appreciate that I do.
As for being nobody if we want nothing…there is a Buddhist joke that goes like this: In the Monastery the wisest elder sat down one day and said gleefully and laughing, “I’m nothing! I’m nothing!” Other monks heard him, considered it, and also sat down happily saying, “I’m nothing!” The man who mopped the floors happened by them and heard what they were saying. He too was filled with joy at the revelation and joined them, sitting and saying, “I’m nothing!” Some of the monks turned to one another and scoffed, “Heh. Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
I guess that joke isn’t particularly relevant here, but I think it’s funny.
Being nothing has beauty in it too. When I used to live with a family member and people would come over to the house and meet me, they would ask, “What do you do?” I would say, “Nothing”. It bothered me at first. But if I’m not busy being something and making sure other people know who I am, I am more free to be present to listen to whatever it is they would like me to know.
I’m not saying I’m even good at listening to people, but there is a lot less noise in my head distracting me from being present because of my ego being demolished by illness. Psychology says that we should have a strong ego and sense of self. Spirituality often says that we should destroy ego. They’re both true on different levels.
I know what you mean, Wayfarer. On a really simple, ordinary level, it’s healthy to have an active interest in life, and the will to fight for a return to health. Different ideas help at different times. Trying to let go of desire can make you more depressed at one time, but less depressed at another. There were times when all the lofty thinking in the world couldn’t help me. It’s only that grace has made me well again that I can wake up and notice that I’m changed.
I just think there’s a great opportunity in being forced to let go of everything, because you get to find out what is left. Silent awareness. Maybe silent awareness is all the identity we need.
Wise words for which I am deeply grateful from you both,and to which I will give a great deal of thought and attention.
I’m becoming increasingly aware that I have a pretty oppositional nature,and that I have a compulsive need to resist being told by others how to respond to my circumstances.We live in an age that tells us that being happy will make us well-so we become responsible for our own illness and misfortune as well as being ill and unfortunate.
I guess I feel a need to champion the randomness of it all,and that we can live with that.
I fear the monks might take pride in their nothingness,and I resist that too.
Thankyou both for such grace.Submisiveness does not come easy to me.I need good tutors.
One more thing to look into, given your need to resist being told by others how to respond. If you do look in to alternatives to augment your current beliefs, the Buddha actually agreed with you. He said the following (in various translations):
Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it.
Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held.
Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books.
Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin.
Believe nothing just because someone else believes it.
Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true”
We do pay lip service to this – ie. Paul saying to prove all things and hold fast to what is true. Alma’s suggestion to “experiment”. While this is preaches, this concept seems to be missing at the practical level in the LDS faith, which in many instances is a list of do’s / don’ts / should’s / shouldn’ts. We are often told to do something just because someone said to do it, and if we don’t we’re “questioning our leaders/prophets/etc.”. This even extends to something as mundane as to the color of your shirt or how many earrings you have. I don’t know that this level of devotion is what was taught in the New Testament as Christ tried to break down the crusts that had built up on the Mosaic law, but it is what exists in the LDS Church today.
Understanding Buddhism has actually helped me tremendously with my LDS faith. I, too, had the same complaints about rules and what people “thought” about me. Now, I actually don’t care what they think. I still follow the rules to where I’ve always had a calling and a temple recommend, but my intent is much different. It’s hard to explain until you’ve studied Buddhism a bit more, but I’ll try.
Simple example: if someone says you “can’t” drink and gives talks about “not a drop”, my natural inclination is to bristle. If they threaten to withhold a temple recommend or make you a lesser part of the community if you drink, it is a negative reason not to drink. It is a threat, implied or explicit. This is the LDS approach. In Buddhism, they also suggest to avoid intoxication, but how you follow that is up to you. There are reasons given why it’s not ideal, but it’s not considered a “sin”. However, at the end of the day, most practicing Buddhists don’t actually drink alcohol either, but it is entirely their own choice that they came to, not because someone told them. A few may chose to have a single beer occasionally (much like Joseph Smith did) but will still avoid “intoxication”. Either way, it is the PRINCIPLE that counts. It is a much better approach to living. It is a much better way to approach life choices, and at the end of the day, I would argue that the end result is that most Buddhists are more ethical in business, their approach to nature and their fellowman, etc. than we are.
Just some thoughts. Best of luck in your path.
Today I am starting to work on mindfulness.Thankyou for your words of peace,beautifully expressed.
Hoping to fit this on a fridge magnet.
I too have a resistance to being told how to respond to my circumstances. I try to share my experiences and perceptions in words that only suggest possibilities rather than giving advice. I hope I was somewhat successful in that above, because I strongly believe that you are the only one who knows how to navigate your own experience.
I’ve had plenty of experience being told how to respond to my own suffering. It’s painful to see someone suffer, so most everyone wants to offer their solutions. Most everyone has a pet technique that they feel strongly about, and if you don’t take them up on it, they decide you must want to be sick. From Landmark Forum to drugs to “rebirthing” to meditation….. When you’re sick it’s easy to get two or three emphatic speeches a day, containing far more advice than even the healthiest, wealthiest person with no day job could ever follow up on. (But if you don’t you must want to be sick.) In my experience it is extremely rare that advice is helpful, because no one is working with the same information you are, and few if any really have the time and attention to spend the time to deeply understand someone else’s life.
I spent years being treated psychiatrically for tiredness from undiagnosed sleep apnea. Doctors referred me to psychiatrists instead of sleep clinics, and psychiatrists tried to help me “work through” my belief that I had sleep apnea. I had to take a lot of drugs I didn’t need in order to convince the doctors that I respected their judgment and get them to stop seeing my having my own opinions about my health as a psychiatric disorder. I had to get so depressed and tired that I was considered disabled before I could get health insurance, and once I had health insurance, the doctors sang a whole different tune. Suddenly requests for referrals to specialists were reasonable rather than delusional. This has been my life for the last few years. So I know ALL ABOUT not liking to be told how to relate to my own experience.
There is a place for humility before a teacher, but when it comes to spiritual or psychological guidance, I think that’s got to be a long term one on one relationship in which the mentor has invested the time to gather meaningful insight into the student. Either that or the student must really want what the teacher has. Humility comes with respect that is earned.
I think it’s tragic that when people react negatively to the heavy-handed punishment-based approach to spiritual teachings, they miss or reject the principle itself. I find myself often championing the principles, but a lot of people have their mind made up that those principles are just arbitrarily made-up rules that “organized religion” uses to control people’s lives. Some people call it “spiritual abuse” when an organization essentially gives spiritual principles a bad name by creating a traumatic experience around it or using it to control people.
I highly doubt that there is a group of General Authorities somewhere sitting in a room plotting ways to control people for the fun of it. It’s true that strict obedience leads to more stable tithing dollars, but I think the heavy-handed approach to the (valid) concepts of humility and accountability are left-overs from the pioneer days when conformity and unity was a matter of survival.
I’ve spent a lot of time in “Intentional Communities” (Co-op houses and subdivisions.) People talk about what we’ve lost in terms of our ability to work closely and share and compromise now that it is easy for a person to live independently in our culture. But, I don’t know… conformity and uniformity may be a survival necessity, but there are down sides to that too. I think we gain and loose something with every new expression of culture. It’s interesting to notice.