Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Is Suffering Necessary?

Is suffering necessary for spiritual growth? It's a point of much discussion, especially among the more modern seekers who are trying to define a spiritual path both apart from and yet informed by the traditions that have preceded them. Everyone agrees that suffering happens to everyone. Most agree that something can be done to alleviate, perhaps eliminate suffering from the individual human life. (Many people, following the Buddha's lead, actually define the spiritual path as the quest to eliminate human suffering.) But the question of whether suffering is essential to the process of spiritual illumination . . . well, that's a toss-up.

Plenty of spiritual disciplines have consciously employed suffering to spiritual ends. Fasts, vigils, sackcloth and ashes, pilgrimages, sacrifices, mortification of the flesh . . . yes, lots of people think that enduring suffering can be a spiritual practice. But that whole approach is usually layered in pre-modern religious traditions that may seem at best quaint, and at worst masochistic and barbaric. Few modern seekers are going to break out the flails any time soon.

So what's the essential truth that we should take from the traditions that glorify suffering? The Buddha identified desire as the root of suffering -- it's our craving for pleasure and (more importantly here) our aversion to pain that leads to our constant suffering and discontent. By consciously embracing suffering, the seeker overcomes the automatic aversion and (in theory, at least) learns to be detached and equanimous in the face of pain.

There is another, more psychological take on the suffering, one employed by ancient Zen masters and "crazy wisdom" teachers and Marine drill seargeants. They seek to put students in a position of perpetual stress, so that the suffering will drive them inexorably to a change of being. Such teachers see suffering as an essential part of the process, because only intense suffering will force the student to release their old ways of thinking and surrender to a new perspective. Eckhart Tolle described his own spiritual awakening as being the result of intense psychological suffering, and he generally sees suffering as part of the process of any awakening.

This is, of course, bad news to everyone who would prefer not to suffer. Boot camp is hard. And it also calls for careful discernment -- just because suffering can be transformative, does not mean that it always is transformative. Some suffering may just be plain old ordinary sucks-to-be-you suffering, with no other eternal benefit, and ought to be avoided. So how do you know the difference?



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