When suffering is good for you

Suffering is a key theme of all religious traditions. They tend to treat suffering as something inevitable, but not intrinsic. That is, we all suffer, but only because something has gone wrong in us, the world, or reality itself.

Christianity and Buddhism (and everything in between) attest that true peace and contentment cannot be found in worldly things, or in the satisfaction of our desires.  From a religious point of view, we are all suffering whether we realise it or not. The first step is to realise it.

But it is possible, with sufficient wealth and self-delusion, to distract ourselves from suffering. We can run headlong into distractions – career, relationships, experiences, whatever will feed our pride and fill us with the promise of self-sufficiency.

We can let suffering feel like our opponent in the private drama of achieving success, personal validation, vindication, of finally making it. We can attribute our suffering to not being busy enough, or rich enough, on not having enough holidays, not having the right friends, not having the right distractions.

But these efforts will only intensify our suffering in the long-run. They will turn us into the kind of person who doesn’t know how to suffer, or more importantly, doesn’t know how to let go of the roots of suffering.

Because the roots of suffering lie in our false sense of autonomy, our desire to be in control. At the deepest level of our being there is no “me” to exercise this control, there is no interior agent behind our choices and decisions. Our efforts to feel in control are vain in light of the actual causes and determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The mind is very powerful.

It creates an impression of our reality – both the external and internal components. It also makes decisions in accordance with the reality it creates.

But the mind makes these decisions automatically. It weighs the evidence, arrives at a judgment, and thus the decision is made.

It does not require there to be a further arbiter of these decisions, yet we nonetheless have the strong impression that there is a “me” who guides these judgments and makes these decisions.

This is the crux of the problem: the mind creates all our impressions, yet we have an impression of a self, a “me”, who controls the mind. This means that the mind feels bound and controlled by the very impressions it has created.

The mind treats this impression of a self as if it is an actual self. It treats it with care. Like a spoiled child it caters to its whims. It factors this impression of a self into its decision-making so that its decisions are consistent with the illusion of this self being in control.

It creates a center where none exists, and then acts as though that center is vulnerable yet powerful, in control yet susceptible to losing control.

This is the delusion of self that the mind suffers – a delusion the mind itself has created. This is likewise the sin of pride, the root of all sin that seeks to make us the authors of our own glory.

As Isaiah wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

But what makes pride so difficult to be rid of, and enlightenment so hard to achieve, is that this delusion of a self persists even when we seek to let go of it.

That is why Christianity invokes grace so strongly – the free gift of holiness and redemption that comes from God in spite of our own efforts. If it came via our efforts it would only increase our pride.

Likewise, the point of enlightenment in Buddhism is that there is no enlightenment once the delusion of an agent, a self who is in control, is erased.

But the mind does exist. And there is, in essence, no difference between the deluded mind and the enlightened mind. It’s the same mind all along.

That’s why suffering can be a gift, when it encourages the mind to stop investing in the false impression of a self. Suffering is, after all, something that makes sense only in the context of a self who suffers, desires, strives and fails.

On knowing what you’re doing

I seem to be one of those people who needs to understand fully what he’s doing and why, before he can commit real energy to it.

Some people seem to be content with just leaping into an exercise or practice. Maybe they work it out as they go along, or maybe they already have a better “feel” for how it’s supposed to work.

Whatever the reason, I crave a systematic and deep understanding of the things I do.

The things I don’t understand have proven to be challenging. Martial arts are the best example: I’ve been doing it for 17 years, but I still don’t have a clear understanding of how it is supposed to work.

That’s like driving without a destination in mind, but still hoping to get somewhere specific!

Bear in mind that my idea of having a clear understanding of how something works is to perfectly control all the relevant variables to their necessary degrees. That is, I don’t require useless knowledge of how things work, I just need to know enough to calibrate my own actions and controls.

I’ve applied this approach to posture and biomechanics over the past year, and it’s achieved good results. Learning how the shoulder girdle is supposed to function, how the ribs, pelvis, and spine should align, when the glutes and hamstrings are supposed to activate…I wish I’d learned it all years ago.

There’s still more to do, but it’s obviously been worthwhile. The only challenge is that every body is unique to some degree, and so it takes time to work out precisely what is going wrong. Plus, posture is a function of the whole body. It won’t be completely right until it’s completely right.

Meditation is another good example.

I’ve tried different forms over the years and none of them have been worth continuing. The problem is that I don’t understand in sufficient detail how they are supposed to function, what the benefits are supposed to be, and how it relates to my internal landscape.

The first book I read on meditation was really about awareness generally. It was called ‘Awareness’ in fact, by a Jesuit priest from India named Anthony de Mello.

De Mello’s work came under criticism at one stage by then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. He (correctly, in my view) warned against the syncretist implications of de Mello’s work, and other inferences that conflicted with Catholic teaching.

My criticism of ‘Awareness’ was that it promised too much, too vaguely. Perhaps it was okay as an introductory text, but like many self-help books it implied that simply being aware is a panacea that leads to spiritual enlightenment.

Everyone is different, at least to some degree. And mindfulness, awareness, trying to be more conscious, are not panaceae.

Nonetheless, there is obviously a role for being more conscious of one’s thoughts and impressions. For me, that role is becoming more evident and necessary, as I begin to notice how my mood and my motives are steered by very subtle thoughts and fears.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we form a self-image from childhood that dictates — like a character in a novel — how we live the rest of our lives. But that self-image is typically false. We don’t know who we are, we simply live according to habits and beliefs developed at an early age.

Not knowing who we are is a challenge, because we cannot simply replace our flawed self-image with a new and improved one.

But we can pay attention to when our self-image steers us. We can notice the occasions when our past dictates our present behaviour.

This seems to occur through the influence of subtle, momentary thoughts and impressions that invoke our flawed self-image. If we pay attention, we can notice these subtle influences and decide not to follow them.

If we don’t pay attention, we will follow them out of habit, largely unconscious of them, but feeling their negative effect.

The answer therefore is a disciplined, consistent effort to be conscious of these subtle influences.

Now, this sounds very much like ‘mindfulness’, which various people and popular culture have urged us all to enthusiastically embrace.

But the difference for me is that I have a precise purpose, I understand the direction. I know what I’m looking for, and what the outcome will be.

That’s the difference understanding makes. I’m not flailing around on popular recommendation, seeking to do this thing called mindfulness. Instead I’ve recognised that to make further progress I need to pay very close, very consistent attention to a specific set of influences in my mind.

On not knowing who you are

As children we accept at face-value the actions and reactions of those around us, those closest to us.

What does “at face-value” mean in this context?

It means we don’t consider the hidden motives, considerations, fears, and desires that might be influencing other people’s behaviour.

It’s no surprise that children don’t try to peer inside other people’s minds. Many adults don’t even try, and even trained psychologists can get it wrong, or be ineffectual.

Besides, we tend to assume that other people are like us on the inside. Young children are quite straightforward — for a child, face value is the only value.

The problem with this ‘face-value’ approach is that most adults are not straightforward. So, children are raised in an environment full of disparity.

There’s a disparity of information between the child who takes everything at face-value, and the adult who knows that life is complicated and long and everything has a backstory.

There’s a disparity of power, where the child is dependent on the adult for its very survival.

There’s a disparity of psychological formation, where the events and relationships the child experiences will inform its future with greater impact than the already mostly-formed adult.

In this disparate environment the child makes a serious mistake — it accepts the actions, reactions, and treatment of others as a true and honest reflection of their own existence, nature, and qualities.

We know ourselves primarily through our relationships, but children lack the experience and insight to understand that those relationships are imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed sources of knowledge.

It’s like trying to work out what your face looks like without a proper mirror to help you. So you look at whatever reflective surfaces you can find.

Other people can be very imperfect, very limited reflective surfaces. From them we try to piece together a self-image. But if we don’t know that these reflections are so imperfect, the self-image we infer from them will be horribly distorted.

Children who grow up with abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are often said to be damaged by their up-bringing, and in a sense that is true. But it’s important to also recognise the nature of that damage.

A significant portion of the damage is contained in a distorted self-image, inferred from a face-value perspective of their formative relationships.

Why is this damaging?

Because if the people closest to you — the ones who know you best — treat you badly, then the face-value explanation is that you don’t deserve any better than this bad treatment.

If the people closest to you betray, humiliate, threaten, or harm you, then either there’s something wrong with them, or there’s something wrong with you.

The truth is that there’s something wrong with them, but children lack the knowledge and experience to understand this. They take the other option by default, thinking that they must somehow deserve, or even inspire such awful treatment.

Imagine how awful that must be: to feel that the people who know you, the people you depend on, the only ones you can depend on, react with displeasure, anger, envy, ridicule, neglect, or a hundred other foul responses to you; and to have no other way to explain it than to conclude that these must be honest, authentic responses to who you really are.

The truth though, is that children do not inspire such responses from healthy, happy, sane people. Generation after generation act out their own damaged formation on their children, and the dysfunction is passed down like a curse, like original sin.

The fact is that most of us don’t really know who we are, because our self-image is inferred from our relationships with others, with the childhood assumption that the feedback we receive from others is honest and authentic.

It’s not.

People don’t really know you. And if your self-image is formed from their flawed and selfish responses to you, then you don’t really know yourself either.

Granted, there are moments of real knowledge and real insight and authentic relationship, but that doesn’t mean the whole can be taken at face-value, especially where there is abuse, neglect, and the kind of dysfunction we might only recognise as mature adults.

I think this is where the desire to know our real self, our inner self comes from. It’s a desire to break from the conventions and continuity that has shaped our false self.

Whether we intend it or not, this desire seems to lead to the deeper self-reflection of the mystics, sages, and saints. The people who have realised the falseness of their conditioned, inauthentic self-image and gone looking for whatever truth lies beneath it.

Incidentally, this is why orthodox Christianity teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin, kept immune from it. So pervasive is the effect of our inherited dysfunction that it required divine intervention to preserve a single human from it.

In this context, it implies Mary’s relationship with God preserved her from a psychological formation corrupted in untold ways by the defects of her own parents. Original sin is more than just bad parental modelling, but the two are intimately related in light of our relationship with God.

These ideas — inherited dysfunction, a false self, a true self, an unfulfilled relationship with God — put into context the need to be “born again” in the model of Christ. In that sense, the symbolism of the incarnation — God born as a child in the humility of a stable — represents the divine born in us.

We hear of being “born again in Christ” so much from a particular brand of Protestant culture, but the mystical tradition speaks of Christ being born in us. As Angelus Silesius, a Franciscan mystic and poet wrote:

“Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me.”