Skillfully

Buddhists call questions that lead towards ending suffering “skillful.” Methods that lead to an end of suffering are “skillful means.”  Mark Drew just sent in a comment on MIsery’s Shadow that very skillfully expresses the themes I have been trying to emphasize in recent posts and exchanges.

Pain is reflexive – you touch a hot plate and it hurts, you react.  Suffering is a condition caused by some issue of pain either mental or physical.  My shop worn metaphor of the oncoming bus is the world at eye level – all the intellectualizing, denial etc. does not alter the root experiential reality of pain and suffering – the bus hits you and your body will suffer for it and react at some level.  The issue of dealing, coping or preempting basic cause and effect may be quite intricate depending on the individual.  Mind control may be appropriate if one wishes to fire walk or melt snow in one’s underwear – but cause and effect remain as the basic issue no matter the method of coping, thwarting or even understanding .  When the bus hits, one may wish to call a Christian Scientist Reader, a doctor, a yogi or just ignore it completely- but the game is the same when the bus has hit.  Pain & suffering comes and goes as it wills. The bus too comes and goes unbidden, the bell tolls for all – often I think that sometimes we think too much. Possibly suffering may be just trying to understand too hard.  Does knowing the source of the arrow ever defer the result of the wound?  We all burn.

This above may be too harsh – Job wants to know why – sometimes, “why” can help to cope but it doesn’t really cure the boils.  Often the only answer is “because”.

This series of posts and exchanges started when I questioned the skillfulness, the helpfulness, of the adage: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”  There may be times when this saying can be used skillfully to point someone away from adding to their suffering.  As a universal statement, however, it tends to blame the victim.

In the Salla Sutta, the Buddha did make me aware of what I was doing to myself when grieving over Laura’s death.  And what I could do about it—just pull the arrow out.

As the fire in a burning house is extinguished with water, so a wise, discriminating, learned and sensible man should quickly drive away the sorrow that arises, as the wind (blows off) a piece of cotton. He who seeks happiness should withdraw the arrow: his own lamentations, longings and grief.

In this sutta, the Buddha focuses on opting out of grief, not on blaming or some theoretical analysis of the sources of grief and sorrow.  He provides skillful means for freeing oneself from the pain of grief—just pull the arrow out.

I have mentioned the Salla Sutta in two previous posts which describe incidents in which I was suddenly hit by the bus, or as Joan Didion calls the experience “the vortex effect.”  The first time was when I burst into tears at the breakfast table upon seeing a picture of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in Spring Lake, NJ.  The second time the dust of grief was blown off the cotton cloth by the music of Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata.

Didion spends a whole chapter on the “vortex effect” in The Year of Magical Thinking (2007, 107-121)  She describes it as being “sideswiped,” trapped, “abruptly blinded by tears.”  She came to realize that the “vortex effect” happened “by going back … to places permeated with associations she was trying to avoid.”  Like Didion I did not choose to go back to Spring Lake with Laura, nor to listen to the Tempest Sonata.  I did not opt into the “vortex effect,” but I could opt out, as she did.

Telling someone just to pull the arrow out or just stop sticking it in is frequently not very skillful.

In a number of posts I have described how my late wife’s brain cancer caused her to become impaired when it came to using words expressively, to speak and to write, a condition called “aphasia.”  I have also described how aphasia became the enemy in her campaign to restore her verbal capacities as a lawyer and former college professor.  One might claim that she caused her suffering over her aphasia by her absolute, unyielding resistance to aphasia.  One might claim that she caused her own suffering by her fear that her colleagues at work might learn of her impairment.

Even though I started turning to Buddhist scriptures during this period, I knew Laura well enough not to try to give her the advice that resisting pain leads to suffering.  “Resisting is suffering, and a waste of energy, big-time.”  (Rosenberg 2011)  Elaine Scarry may or may not be right that someone in the moment of pain cannot express that pain in words.  But that overwhelming moment of not! also means that the tormented cannot hear what others are saying to her.  As we saw with Charlotte Delbo’s “madness,” that overpowering of all faculties, especially mental, means that the tormented cannot listen to what others are saying.  In the now of not! the tormented can only attend to not!

I could pick other examples of people who suffer from chronic debilitating diseases and argue that their pain and suffering does not arise from their resistance to these conditions.  Laura’s case, however, gives an example of resistance and suffering closer to what Bayda is talking about and to his own “immune system disease in which my muscles attack themselves.”  I believe Bayda when he talks about his own experience, but in Laura’s case, I do not agree that telling Laura “resistance is where [her] suffering” began would have helped.

Bayda himself questions whether phrases such as “Be one with the pain” or “There is no self’ (and therefore no one to suffer)” are either comforting or helpful.  I do not find that his alternative “our pain and our suffering are truly our path, our teacher” works any better. (Bayda 2002)  Sometimes, as Mark says, we think too much.  Definitely we can talk too much.  Sometimes the most skillful thing we can do is just to be with the person alone in pain.  After all that’s what “consolation” means, (cum-sola) “with the one alone.”

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