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The Human condition, Our Two Realities, Suffering, Struggle and our Hidden Wholeness
Life is suffering.
Yes, human life, the human condition, is characterized by suffering. But, the Buddha did not just leave us with this first Nobel Truth. He went on to espouse three other Noble Truths: 2. That suffering has its causes 3. What those causes are and 4.How we might be liberated from suffering.
St Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Christian mystic, had this to say to a friend before she died:
I leave you my faith in the presence of God, of the God who is all Love dwelling in our souls. I confide to you: it is this intimacy with Him ‘within’ that has been the beautiful sun illuminating my life, making it already an anticipated Heaven: it is what sustains me today in my suffering.
Rumi, a Sufi mystic said this:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Thomas Merton, a modern day Catholic writer and mystic, wrote about our ‘hidden wholeness’ and the ‘hidden ground of love’ that is found within each of us and in all of life:
There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious unity and integrity is wisdom
All of these people and many others understood and experienced the nature of our human condition as involving two realities – the reality of our psychological, emotional and physical woundedness, fragmentation and incompleteness and the reality of our wholeness, our completeness and our limitlessness.
Buddhism teaches that our experience as human beings exists within these two realities – our Relative or Subjective Reality and our Absolute or Fundamental Reality. We might understand these as the Ego-occupied reality and the Ego-free reality.
The Christian equivalent of the Ego-free reality might be referred to as God or Love. In more secular terms, we might think of it as the Unbounded Field of Consciousness or Infinite Intelligence.
Buddhism talks of Relative reality in terms of moments of consciousness, each moment being preceded by a previous moment of consciousness. Psychologically, you can see this borne out in our lived experience. One thought or feeling, leads to a similar or associated thought or feeling.
In this sense, Relative reality or Ego-occupied reality is conditional and caused by each moment of consciousness preceding a given moment. It is within this reality that we have such beliefs and values as:
There is no such thing as a free lunch (Conditional – you can’t get something for nothing)
You must earn your living (Conditional – If you want to live, you must work for and deserve it)
If you love me, then you will do this for me (Conditional – You must demonstrate your love for me in this way)
If you work hard and achieve this, you’ll be rewarded (Conditional – If you wish to be rewarded with things you want, you must do this)
Happiness is our reward when we work hard, earn enough, have a great partner …(Conditional – Happiness comes from external things which we must acquire)
We accept these and many more beliefs and values as ‘normal’ and necessary for our survival in this world.
On the other hand, Buddhism also talks about our Ultimate or Fundamental reality which is unconditional and uncaused. It is also described as our original or Buddha nature. Within this reality, are some of these truths:
Our nature is limitless
We are naturally peaceful and joyous
Happiness, peace and joy arise naturally from within us
Within the Christian framework, this Ultimate or Fundamental reality is the nature of God/Love that is considered our true nature and that in-dwells in us. It is our ‘hidden wholeness’
Life, then, is about coming to terms with and embracing these two aspects of reality – the Conditioned and Caused, Relative or Subjective Reality which is finite and Ego-occupied and the Unconditioned and Uncaused, Ultimate or Fundamental Reality which is Ego-free and Infinite
The Ego-occupied Reality is the basis for our personality and its body-based expression in the world. It is primarily through our body and our personality that we engage with the physical world and with one another. You can therefore see why it is necessary to ensure that this Ego-occupied reality is maintained in a healthy and functional state. It is when it isn’t that we experience all forms of dis-ease – physical, mental and emotional.
The principle of Negativity and Positivity
If we understand that each moment within our Ego-occupied reality is caused by the previous moment so that each thought is preceded by a similar or related thought and will give rise to a similar or related thought and feeling, then we will understand why it is important to be aware of our thoughts and the impact they can have on us.
In the most basic terms, unpleasant or negative thoughts give rise to other unpleasant or negative thoughts and feelings resulting in a negative or pessimistic attitude. Likewise, pleasant or positive thoughts give rise to other pleasant and positive thoughts and feelings resulting in a positive or optimistic attitude. It is a simple principle of life within the realm of our Subjective or Relative Ego-occupied Reality.
This is such a fundamental principle that it is astounding that a core part of our school curricular is not dedicated to it. We seem more willing to talk about more complex things such as Anger management or Body Image and so on and whilst these discussions and interventions are important and may implicitly incorporate this fundamental principle, there is little evidence of it being simply and explicitly stated and discussed. After all, it applies to every thought and feeling that we have, not just a cluster of thoughts and feelings around particular issues such as Anger Management or Body Image.
Let me say it again:
It applies to EVERY thought and feeling we have. There are no exceptions.
Why wait to recognize, understand and learn to work with it only when we have hit a major issue or problem area in life? In contrast, don’t we learn the basics of language and mathematics by learning the alphabet and the numbers and how they are used to represent words and quantities? We don’t wait for a problem about rising unemployment, for instance, to learn these basics so that we can describe it linguistically and mathematically in order to address it, do we? We are already well equipped with an understanding of the basic principles of how words and numbers work long before we need to apply them to complex problems.
Once we have grasped this most fundamental of life principles, we can then begin to take very seriously the following facts:
You cannot have a positive/optimistic disposition or attitude if you are thinking mainly negative/pessimistic thoughts. Likewise, you cannot have a negative/pessimistic disposition or attitude if you are thinking mainly positive/optimistic thoughts. This is an essential fact that we seem to think we know and understand but really show very little respect for.
Look at all the negativity that we see, read and hear in the media on a daily basis. Do we seriously expect to be immune to it? Whether we are aware of it or not, it impacts on us. There are a lot more people who live in fear and anxiety today than ever before.
And what about all that negative, judgmental self-talk we mindlessly do in our heads, some of which we speak out to others? This too keeps a cycle of negativity, pessimism and discontent running ceaselessly in the background/subconscious.
The cause of our negative or positive thoughts
What causes our negative and positive thoughts? Life experiences and the feedback we give and receive to them and which gets embedded in our brain and body as habits. These take the form of habits of negative or disempowering thoughts and feelings and habits of body reactions, which over time, can express as observable symptoms such as rage, mental illness including depression and a whole range of physical symptoms such as nausea, muscular aches and pains, heart disease, tumours and cancers.
On the other hand, habits of positive or empowering thoughts and feelings can express themselves as states of peace and calm regardless of what is happening in our immediate or wider environment, the ability to accept disappointments and setbacks without blaming self or others and focusing instead on useful ways to move forward, a sense of optimism and enthusiasm about life in general and an ability to not be attached to outcomes while pursuing goals.
Understanding that the nature of human existence is characterized by suffering gives us the ability to live with greater peace, joy and freedom. In a paradoxical way,
It is only by accepting suffering that we can overcome or reduce its impact on us.
Once we get this, even if only to some small degree, we will have grasped one of the most important principles of life which Buddha enunciated as his first Noble Truth:
There is suffering.
So much of our suffering is the result of not having grasped and refusing to grasp this essential truth. The Ego, once it starts expressing itself in early childhood, maintains the claim that suffering is an aberration, that it is evil and that it is to be avoided at all cost, even to the extreme of taking one’s life. We therefore spend much of our lives struggling to escape the human condition in order to relocate ourselves in an idealized and illusionary world that the Ego has constructed which we might call Heaven or Paradise.
The real problem for us here is NOT that we experience suffering or that there is suffering or that there is a state of no-suffering but that we are invested in struggle and struggle is debilitating, disempowering and alienating.
The nature of Struggle
Struggling involves tussling, fighting, trying to escape from something. Biologically and Psychologically, it induces the state of stress. Psychologically, it also induces the state of conflict since we are not at peace with ‘what is’. We are therefore in a constant battle with ‘what is’ and what we think ‘should be’. That state of conflict gives rise to commonly experienced feelings and states of anger, fear, powerlessness, distrust, guilt, shame and depression.
Consider then, the possibility of not struggling, of accepting or meeting whatever is happening without struggling. Simply meeting it. Not fearing it, judging it, suppressing or denying or running away from it and not blaming yourself or another for it.
What happens when we do this? Well, in the absence of struggle, no stress is induced and the psychological, neurological, biochemical and physiological effects of our feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, panic, guilt, shame and so on do not arise and therefore do not have a chance to get a foothold in our mind, brain and body.
The result? The natural state of peace, joy, boundless possibility and freedom arise from that Ego-free, natural, unconditioned, uncaused, Absolute Reality within us which we might call God, Love, Infinite Intelligence, Buddha nature or our ‘hidden wholeness’. This is perhaps most simply captured in the counsel:
Let go and let God.
So, just a quick summary of what we’ve said so far:
3 Key Points to remember:
- Accept that human life is characterized by suffering in all its forms
- Instead of struggling to free ourselves from suffering, we can meet our suffering and reduce its occurrence and intensity by simply meeting it without judgment or aversion, without blame or accusation and without being defensive
- Our true nature, which is the nature of God/Love/Buddha only reveals itself in the absence of struggle
Surrender and Struggle
Before I finish, AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) teaches the principle of Surrender. Surrender is about ending the struggle, about recognizing the debilitating effects of struggling and the equally debilitating effects of trying to escape suffering which is what drives people into the addictive behaviours of substance abuse.
Surrender is also the recognition that there is a different reality at work besides the Subjective or Relative Ego-occupied reality – the Ultimate reality of the In-dwelling God/Love or the ‘hidden wholeness’ or the Ego-free, Buddha nature of boundless peace and joy.
So Surrender allows for this other reality, this Ultimate and True Reality to reveal itself which it can only do when we end the struggle.
The Ego is finite in its knowledge and understandings because everything it knows it has learned. The infinite nature of God/Love/hidden wholeness cannot possibly be contained within the limited paradigm of the Ego. Surrender, which is the end of struggle, is therefore also the recognition and the acceptance that the Ego cannot end our suffering as it is the very cause of it.
The solution to our Suffering
And yet, as long as we are human, we are subject to the realities of Ego and of Love/God. The solution then in relation to our suffering is two-fold:
- To observe and understand how the Ego works, to treat it, not as an enemy, but more as a misguided, unaware (or ignorant, as Buddhism describes it) friend.
- To allow for the revelation and experience of our hidden wholeness, our true nature, our God/Love/Buddha nature through our suffering
As long as we live in this physical world (which is the expression of our dual realities) – the Ego-occupied, finite reality and the Ego-free, infinite reality, we will be subject to both the influences of the Ego and the Ego-less. That is the nature of the human condition by which we are both drawn into suffering and liberated from it.
WORKING WITH LUCY
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