Religions teach us to blame ourselves for our suffering in a number of ways. It is true that part of healing is taking responsibility for our own actions. And it is true that we can make pain and suffering worse by what we do. Neither of these truths, however, constitute the whole picture, nor do shame and guilt help to heal. In fact, feeling guilty only binds us more firmly to our own ego and perpetuates the cycle of clinging and grasping. If we are taught that all pain and suffering is our fault, one way or another, then we become more prone to seeking what we have done wrong than to opening to the pain and suffering and letting go.
The path to self-flagellation can start with reasonable observations like C.S. Lewis’ criticism of his own grief.
Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. Lewis (1961) 9-10
Since C.S. Lewis is a Christian apologist (using neither term pejoratively), let me cite two recent examples from Buddhist writers.
I have already discussed the dualism and reductionism in Ezra Bayda’s claim that our fears are “imaginary.” Both in that case and in what I am about to say, I approach Bayda’s views with respect, not so much to argue that he is wrong as to clarify my own thinking.
Some years earlier, he wrote that “We suffer because we marry our instinctive aversion to pain to the deep-seated belief that life should be free from pain.” Bayda (2002)
We turn pain into suffering, Bayda writes, when we go from believing “that life should be free from pain” to making negative judgments, such as “Why is this happening to me?” “I can’t bear this.” Then we start to believe in these negative judgments, making pain into the enemy. “When we make pain the enemy, we solidify it. This resistance is where our suffering begins.”
I think that Bayda’s caution against turning pain into the enemy is on target. Seeking out how we cause our own pain and suffering is another form of turning pain into the enemy. That’s why I caution against universal statements such as “This resistance is where our suffering begins.” Does all suffering start with resistance?
In another recent Tricycle article, Larry Rosenberg (2011) espouses a view similar to Ezra Bayda’s, in this case concerning the discomfort of temperature that is too hot or too cold. He tells the story of a Zen master who responds to a student’s question on how to meditate when it’s too hot or to cold.
[T]he Zen master says, ‘Kill hot, kill cold,’ [meaning] to kill the concept ‘hot,’ kill the concept ‘cold.’ The temperature is just what it is. … ‘When it’s hot, the Buddha just sweats. When it’s cold, the Buddha just shivers.’ ‘Well, how is that wisdom? I sweat and I shiver.’ He answers, ‘You missed the word “just.”‘ What this teaching is saying is, no one denies that you’re hot and that you’re sweating. You just don’t have to turn it into torment by adding anything to it. When it’s cold, you can see the mind making more of it by resisting it. Resisting is suffering, and a waste of energy, big-time.
Both Bayda and Rosenberg have been very helpful to me when I have been dealing with my own grief and with intense bodily pain. I raise questions here. I do not claim that they are wrong. But I do wonder why they go beyond their practical advice to answering questions such as “Do we cause our own suffering?” or “Is all suffering just in the mind?” These are what the Buddha would call “unskillful questions” that get us nowhere.