Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

Acceptance and Resistance, part 2

Our thoughts can make trouble for us.

One day LoraKim told me my shirt was wrinkled. So I took it off and started ironing it. All the time I was thinking, “I wore it yesterday, and then I hung it up. I didn’t sleep in it, I didn’t throw it in a heap somewhere. What business does it have being wrinkled? Shirts shouldn’t get wrinkled just from being worn one day.” The iron was steaming, and I was fuming. It’s an inanimate shirt, and I was shoulding all over it. That’s the kind of thought I’m talking about. I was making myself unhappy when I could have relaxed into enjoying the experience of ironing. There’s a certain delight one can take in the swath of smooth warm cloth the iron makes. But I was having none of that on that day.

Accepting reality just as it is – not believing those judgmental thoughts that pop up about it – is the path to enjoying life. By learning to not identify with those thoughts that come along, by not taking them personally, we can simply find the thought interesting. Oh, there’s that annoyed thought, or Now I'm having a depressed thought. What used to be the nightmare is now just interesting – or possibly even funny.
“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” (George Orwell)
Acceptance is crucial for our well-being. And acceptance, as I said, does not mean resignation or complacency – but perhaps the question arises, how does it not imply that? How is it possible to have both acceptance and resistance – resistance to injustice, unfairness, needless cruelty?

There are various approaches to answering that question. Buddhism seems particularly promising since it puts such emphasis on acceptance. "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." The Buddha did not say that – not in so many words -- though people like me, giving dharma talks, often say that. What makes pain into suffering – at least, if it’s a relatively mild sort of pain – is that we don’t want it. “I don’t want this – I want this to stop,” – that’s suffering. But when we accept that the pain is there, when we just pay attention to it – focus on investigating the sensations – it doesn’t bother us. The Buddha did say something similar in the Sallatha Sutra:
“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.”
The thought that life isn’t what we want it to be leads us to work long hours to buy more products which inevitably fail to satisfy. In the process of many repetitions of this cycle, we internalize the idea that the best life has to offer is continual grasping after more and more, that whoever dies with the most toys wins, that there is no escape from the misery.

The single-minded devotion to producing and consuming held up to us as happiness, leaves us with loneliness and alienation. Acceptance opens up the possibility of enjoyment. Without acceptance, there can be no equanimity, no peace – only a shifting kaleidoscope of anger, resentment, sadness, and fear.

I started a Buddhist practice including daily meditation almost 15 years ago. There’s a way to handle that anger, that resentment, that hurt, that isn’t repression, and isn’t indulgence either. It’s a practice of bringing the light of awareness on what is. It might seem like a very private, personal, even selfish pursuit – make yourself happy and never mind the rest of the world. This is where acceptance might look like resignation or complacency in the face of the world’s troubles, injustices, and cruelties.

It’s true that Buddhism has a reputation of being socially disengaged rather than engaged. In this regard, Buddhism and Christianity parallel. As movements, both Buddhism and Christianity include strands of engagement with the world, and strands of withdrawal into private salvation.

Private salvation is popular. In Christianity this often plays out as: get saved, accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and then you are assured to going to heaven. The rest of the world may be damned, but that doesn't matter. You are getting to heaven.

There's the story of a young child at a fairly conservative, and Southern, Christian church who heard the preacher proclaim, "accept Jesus Christ as yo lord and master and yo will ha-ave uh-ternal li-ife." The child thought the preacher said "a turtle life." Take refuge in the father, son, and holy ghost and have a turtle life. Which does have a certain appeal. A turtle life affords a hard protective shell, refuge behind which allows indifference to the world. In the last 2000 years, many strains of Christianity have, essentially, promised a turtle life, with salvation as a protective shell for the individual alone.

To be the sure, the message also spoke of Christian love to one another. Christian love, however, has too often been taken to mean being nice to one's own family, circle of friends, and maybe, like the good Samaritan, the occasional stranger by the road. Christian love has too rarely been taken to mean opposing the structures of oppression that are cruelly breaking and prematurely ending the lives of more than a third of the world's population.

Yet Christianity also has a socially engaged version. Buddhism, too, has a privatistic version -- and also a socially engaged version.

Next: Socially engaged Buddhism

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Acceptance and Resistance"
See also:
Part 1: Creating the Better, Accepting the Real
Part 3: What Will Save Us

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