This week’s chapter of Matthieu Ricard’s Book, Happpiness: A Guide to Cultivating Life’s Most Important Skill, was entitled “The Alchemy of Suffering.”
He begins with the tale of an ancient Persian king who asks his wise friend to write him a history of man and the world. His friend returns years later with 60 volumes, “too much!” cries the busy king. So, some years later the wise friend returns with fewer volumes, still too much, and years later he has it condensed to still fewer until finally the friend returns, only to find the king on his deathbed. The king, still desirous of the knowledge asks his friend to simply tell him the history of men, to which his friend simply whispers, “they suffer, Majesty.” (p.60)
The moral? Don’t be surprised to find yourself reeling a bit, or even a lot, now and then. And don’t, from my experience at least, expect spiritual practices to reduce suffering – only to change how you deal with it. Do not turn away from suffering, Ricard teaches us, become intimate with it. Yet turn away we do, in too many ways to count. Our suffering is always in the present, it is the present seen through the veil of the ego. Avoiding the present, we avoid suffering, but we also miss the opportunity to see through the veil, to see the present as the ever-beautiful, unfolding matrix of creation that it is.
Of course, there is also a danger in wrongly living in the present, covered last time. For instance, I just took from my desk drawer a little chunk of Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate and opened one of those containers of Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter. That definitely brought me ‘to the moment,’ hehehe… But (as I laugh at myself) not in a very lastingly satisfying way! (I know that enough of both and I’ll be feeling pretty lousy). There’s nothing wrong with pleasure such as this, the problem is thinking that it will lead to happiness.
So how do we rediscover the present in a meaningful way? In a sense, we do it by ‘pulling together’ the past and future, bringing them before us in our hands, so to speak, and smiling as they dissolve into the reality of now.
These last couple months have been insane (I can’t think of a better word) for me, and in (mostly) amazingly positive ways. And the upcoming months only appear to promise more of the same. I feel at times like a small boat on stormy seas, one moment listing starboard – into memories, hopes, and dreams once long lost, the next moment leaning far port – flashes years, decades into the future, my children, my wife’s face. The amazing moments arise when all of that, still fresh in my mind, is held gently in a moment’s harbor.
It has been difficult, though, managing the energies unleashed. Memories blow me over with nostalgia one minute, sadness, and then gratitude the next. Hopes and plans too bring excitement, yet sometimes worry too.
Tonight’s reading ends with tong-len, the ‘giving-receiving’ practice of Tibetan Buddhism. (how to by Pema Chodron, and another) Tonight, my ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ was with myself. Sounds selfish perhaps, but all of Buddhism that I know says that you must care for yourself, be strong yourself, have faith yourself, be in touch with the divine spark yourself… in order to transmit care, strength, and the rest on to others. That said, every bit of each of these must be passed along to others if they are to be of any benefit to you.
In the practice I allowed all of the ups and downs, pasts and futures to freely flow. The intensity was nearly overwhelming, I simply held on tightly to the breath, my anchor, as emotions arose and fell away. In meditation time moves so slowly too; the mind actually begins to acknowledge thought by thought; estimated to run at the rate of 65 per finger-snap, a rate far too fast for the ordinary mind to keep up with, much as a we cannot see the individual frames of a movie at the theater. But I sat, I held firm, and after a long, long, long while (about 20 minutes… hehe) the storm broke, calm fell upon me like a sweet English fog and yet I saw in all directions: peace, the present.