Pain, Experience, Growth, Compassion

In Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn points out to us that the part of us that experiences pain is itself *not* in pain. This is true for both emotional and physical pain. Trying to find an awareness of this – if even for a moment – has been tremendously useful to me. I think this speaks into the topic of tinythinker’s recent posts. Liberation and enlightenment (to my thinking) are not ceasing to experience, not becoming numb, but letting pain or other experiences in our lives simply happen – not becoming a burden in our hearts and minds, but allowing us to grow instead.

What is the nature of liberation from suffering? For myself it didn’t take long for me to realize that freedom from suffering didn’t mean freedom from pain.

I’ve had plenty of unhappy things happen to me, frankly, running the gamut from (fairly “minor”) molestation (at 4), to emotional and verbal abuse. And I’ve certainly experienced a variety of other difficulties in terms of situation and circumstance. But that hardly makes me unusual, and my struggles and pains are nothing compared to, say, those in Darfur struggling for their lives, or the many children in sexual slavery around the world, struggling with captivity and abuse. My “sufferings” are meager, I know that. Nonetheless, some days they have a deep impact on my heart and mind. Mindfulness and loving-compassion help me refocus, though I’m sure that some of the stuff stuck in my head will take years to sort out. Gives me something to do on sleepless nights, I guess.

In any case, while I struggle with the aftereffects of some of these experiences, I’m not sorry I had a single one of them. Each experience I’ve had has been an opportunity for growth. I’ve done my best – at least since I became an adult and started my own life – to never shirk from an opportunity to grow. Everything I’ve experienced has added to who I am, and what I understand.

Every painful experience I have allows me the opportunity to understand another viewpoint. For instance, it is very easy for me to extend my compassion to people struggling with abuse, past or presence. What I have been struggling with lately (and this partially relates to my lack of serious posts, recently) is learning how to extend that mindful compassion beyond where that compassion is comfortable or easy. Tengu House had a post on this recently, wherein he (?) ponders how to extend that compassion to the folks that kidnap, harm and abuse. This is a difficult but essential question, I think.

Whether or not reincarnation is a reality, I think that there is no question that Wrong Action a person undertakes will lead their future suffering. Reincarnation makes this easier – a person’s wrongful act will be something they suffer with in the future. To my thinking, reincarnation means there’s no escape.

On the other hand, if you don’t believe in reincarnation the answers can be less straightforward, and extending compassion to a violent, “monstrous” person becomes a greater leap of faith. In this case it may be that you simply have to start by letting your “hands lead your heart.” Making a deliberate, conscious decision to always extend compassion moves us all towards the emptying of samsara, towards world peace, towards the end of suffering.

In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the Five Powers (see chapter 24, pp. 184-191): faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and insight. With these wonderful tools we can grow both our own Buddha nature, and also begin to see that we all have Buddha nature – villains and victims alike. When we choose to feel compassion for someone who has committed great harm we are mindfully applying what we have learned about compassion and loving-kindness, Buddha nature and co-arising. Compassion without hesitation frees our own mind from suffering and waters the seeds of our own Buddha nature.

The first of the four noble truths is that suffering exists. Unenlightened beings can cause suffering and frequently do. Shantideva made a really good point when he said: “It is natural for the immature to harm others. Getting angry with them is like resenting a fire for burning.” Perhaps one can view the Wrong Actions of human predators the same way one views the actions of a rabid grizzly bear. There is no point in being angry at the bear, and it isn’t very hard to have compassion for her/him. However, the bear must be dealt with for everyone’s safety and be at least imprisoned, if not put down. (Note – I am strongly opposed to the death penalty and do not mean to imply that killing is the best way to deal with human predators. In addition, I am a vegan, so of course I am highly interested in fair and compassionate treatment for all of our fellow creatures.)

Anger can be understood as a strong aversion to someone or something. Aversion is the opposite of attachment and is no more useful. Acting from anger is not acting in wisdom. By deliberately choosing compassion we do not poison ourselves, and we also help to break the cycles of violence and hatred that keep us from achieving the end of suffering for all beings. There is no point in me not forgiving former abusers. It may be hard, but forgiving them allows me to not identify myself with the past’s painful events. As Master Cheng Yen said: To be angry is to let others’ mistakes punish yourself. To forgive others is to be good to yourself.”

Flower (Lapsana apogonoides) image courtesy of jam34.