Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Suffering as The Guru

Most people see suffering in a completely negative light. And this is not just on the physical level, but the spiritual level also. For example, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are usually interpreted as a way to end suffering. In other words, there are no positive aspects to suffering.

I have a different take: I think suffering is one of the best impetuses for growth and learning. Here's a song my husband Arthur wrote about the value of suffering—he calls suffering "the guru."

Stop signs and stoplights are red because human perception is keenly attuned to the color red; our blood is colored red and our physical survival depends upon us being aware when we've hurt ourselves. Physical pain exists, at least in part, to draw our attention to the fact that we are ill or injured. Most of us resist physical pain; we reach for pills to make it go away; we see pain as an enemy. But when you look at it from the perspective of “suffering is the guru” you see that pain is our ally, it draws our attention to a problem that needs fixing. The pain is the motivator for us to stop a behavior that's hurting us, to go to the doctor, etc.

Problems of the mind don't have an obvious physical symptom like a bleeding wound or the pain of a burn. But the sufferings of ego-identity—pride, embarrassment, anxiety, regret, remorse, depression—are the analogues of physical pain. The suffering is pointing towards the problem, in the same way a pain in my mouth points to a problem with my gums/teeth and sends me to the dentist. The depression or anxiety is our ally, our teacher, our guru, pointing our attention to a sore in our mind that is in need of healing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Cure the Neurosis, Find the Right Job For It

I’m a weaver, and I belong to a weaver’s group that meets monthly. We regularly joke about how weaving is a good occupation for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder because it requires attention to detail and the ability to spend hours at a stretch doing repetitive tasks. For example, I’ve just finished a piece that had 1296 threads: first I had to measure out 9-yard lengths of yarn 1296 times, then each of those threads had to be threaded through the loom twice. And this was before I could start to weave! Often people ask me how I have the patience to do this—for pleasure—and I reply that I love to weave and this is just part of the process. But I can also see how I have the kind of personality that permits this type of detail work.
At our last meeting one of the weavers said, “Don’t cure the neurosis, find the right job for it!” This struck me as a profound insight, particularly for our society that is anxious to cure every slight deviation from some concept of “normal” that we’ve established. I’d just amend it to say, “or the right lifestyle.”
Twenty-five years ago I taught art at a private grade school. There was a boy with ADHD in first grade. This was the first time I had encountered someone with the diagnosis. His teacher was very wise; she let the boy sit on the floor and play with blocks during lessons while all the other students had to sit at their desks. By doing this, he could listen and attend to what she was saying, but if he’d been forced to sit at his desk he’d have been incapable of paying attention. What impressed me most of all was that she’d managed to explain it to the other kids so they were all okay with the setup. I loved this boy and had a great relationship with him; he was quite perceptive and intelligent.
What I learned from this experience was that maybe it’s incorrect to say there is something wrong with many of the children with ADHD. Maybe there’s something wrong with our cultural norms. Maybe the way school is structured is just not right for some children, for example. This perception has just been strengthened as ADHD has become an epidemic. How could there be something wrong with that many of our children?
Last week the New York Times published an article by Richard A. Friedman, “A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.” Dr. Friedman is professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. His article suggests that my perception may be true.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The United States Needs a New Story

This morning, as the Republicans are celebrating nationwide victories, taking control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House, plus winning governor’s races in supposedly liberal states, I’m reminded of the widespread liberal delusion last year that the Republican Party was an almost-extinct dinosaur (see this blog post).
My impression is that the American people are deeply confused. They say they’re angry about a do-nothing Congress and then vote for the obstructionists. They say they hate government yet demand services when it’s in their interest—when a natural disaster hits a conservative part of the country there’s never a mention of refusing federal aid because it’s from that loathsome government.
The reason we’re confused is because we’ve lost any compelling story about who we are as a people. We used to have a thrilling story, one that made me proud to be an American when I was a child. We had thrown off a king and instituted a republic where we governed ourselves. We were the vanguard of human progress.
Of course there were plenty of issues with the original constitution: slavery and a limited electorate are the obvious examples. But as time went on and we continued on the path of democratization, we fixed those errors. We first expanded the electorate to all white men in the 1820s, ended slavery in 1865, women finally got the vote in 1920, and over the last fifty years we’ve been expanding civil rights.

But today we seem to be missing the awesomeness of what we have accomplished. We don’t understand the amazing advance in human social organization that democracy represents.  We are so spoiled by the relative ease of living and our deplorable lack of historical knowledge that we are unaware of not only the preciousness—and precariousness—of our democracy but the great struggles that were required to wrest control from tyrants. We take our democratic republic for granted. And that’s why we are in danger of losing it.