Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Value of Discomfort

     When Christianity first came to America it took root in a condition of strength and vitality; the first Christians in this country were in a sense rebels against society because they considered a spiritual life, or at least a religious life, to be more important than the relative comforts of worldly conformity. But as Buddhism comes to America a few hundred years later it displays a radically different orientation. Instead of the culture being modified to fit the spiritual system, as was done by the early Puritans with Christianity, and the medieval Burmese with Theravada Buddhism, nowadays the spiritual system is being modified to fit a spiritually destitute culture. Consequently, two of the outstanding characteristics of modern American Theravada Buddhism are materialism and lukewarmness. I'm really not trying to complain here, but these outstanding characteristics do seem to fit the case. It is true that there are many sincere seekers in the West; but many do not know where to seek or what it is that they are seeking, and so they follow along with the majority...who also do not know. As a general rule, especially in spiritual matters, the majority is always wrong.
     When I refer to materialism I don't mean chasing after money; I mean taking for granted the assumption that whenever Scientific Realism disagrees with Dharma, or simply can't explain it, Science is right. Miracles don't happen, karma is a metaphor, and Nirvana, if it exists at all, is simply a psychological attitude. Buddhism upon arriving in the West has in some ways degenerated into little more than a kind of secular self-help system used to relieve stress and enhance the quality of worldly existence. Certainly, these are absolutely not bad or wrong in themselves, but when the primary, fundamental purpose of Dharma, full enlightenment in this very life, is downplayed, ignored, or even rejected by Buddhist communities, then something fishy is going on. (Sometimes I am haunted by nightmarish images of American Buddhist magazine articles like "How Intensive Insight Meditation Can Enhance Your Sex Life" and "The Satipatthana Diet: Improve Your Mindfulness and Take Off Pounds Fast!")
     Buddhism, originally a tough, radical yogic system, has been liberally watered down and converted into something social, easy, and comfortable. It is true that Asian culture has done something similar, but it was without obscuring the radical ideals of austerity and renunciation. Most, or at least many, American Theravada Buddhists, as far as I can tell at present, listen to Dharma talks or go to retreats largely because they want to feel good about themselves (in contrast to most Burmese Buddhists who do such things mainly to earn "merit," and may be indifferent to the actual content of the talk or retreat). They want to be told, or to tell themselves, that they are moving in the right direction, even though they might actually be moving sideways and making little if any significant progress. Americans tend to prefer feel-good Dharma talks and feel-good retreats. Discomfort, for various reasons, is avoided.
     This is of course radically different from the instructions reportedly given by Gotama Buddha to his most serious disciples. People intent on Waking Up were advised to follow a Middle Way by renouncing the world; by wandering homeless; by sleeping under trees, in haystacks, in caves, or under the open sky; by owning no money; by silently begging for their food in the streets; by patiently enduring heat and cold, hunger and thirst, sickness, pain, and enmity; by contemplating death and decomposing corpses; etc. This was the Middle Way between luxury and self-torture---which of course is way into the Very Unacceptable range to all but a very tiny minority of modern Westerners. Some allowance should be made for the fact that we have not been brought up in an intensely spiritual culture and have been living in a state of relative luxury and self-indulgence for most or all of our lives; but to reject the value of accepting discomfort is rather much, almost tantamount to rejecting significant spiritual growth.
     A certain amount of discomfort, cultivated or accidental, seems to be instrumental in the awakening process of almost everybody. Without discomfort, and a close, hard look at that discomfort, we settle into a rut of habit and continue doing what keeps us unenlightened. It is an instinct in the human animal that we rely upon a habitual way of going about life; and so long as it keeps us going, even though it might be unpleasant and stressful, it is good enough, and we deeply resist changing it. But if things get bad enough that the system starts to break down and our habitual way no longer works, or if we look deeply into our minds and clearly see the unhappiness and "stuckness" lurking in there, then we are much more likely to let go of this accumulation of half-baked, unexamined mental habits and to accept something much better. 
     One major obstacle to this in the West is the myth that our happiness and unhappiness are mainly dependent upon external circumstance---the idea that wealth causes happiness and material poverty causes misery, for example. (Some of the happiest people I have ever known live well below the poverty level by American standards, and do not even own a cell phone, much less a car.) Another obstacle is the idea that discomfort is synonymous with unhappiness, and that we should avoid it whenever possible. Doing what is difficult makes us stronger, and involves some discomfort; thus avoiding what makes us feel uncomfortable results in spiritual flabbiness.
     Most of us can hardly be expected to wander around homeless and contemplate rotting corpses, but there are plenty of opportunities in the lives of almost all of us to experience sufficient discomfort to nudge us out of our ruts. In fact just about all of us encounter unpleasant situations many times a day. Usually we put the blame on the situation for its unpleasantness and fail to benefit from it, but any unhappiness we experience is caused by our resistance to the situation, not by the situation itself. Consequently a careful examination of arising resistance and unhappiness---anger, impatience, fear, disgust, regret, boredom, etc.---can illuminate life-long habits and help us to become free of them. If we avoid these situations whenever possible we have little opportunity to observe our semiconscious and unskillful reactions to them. We also have little opportunity to learn our spiritual limitations, as it is only when things go wrong, when we are "triggered," that we can know how wise or otherwise we are, or someone else is. Living so much in the fast lane that one is overwhelmed by turmoil and distraction is not going to work, but hiding out in a hermitage surrounded by a 20-foot-high stone wall wouldn't work for most people either. A new kind of Middle Way may be appropriate for modern Westerners, and whatever Way it is, it will probably involve some simplifying and slowing down, and also a fair amount of voluntary discomfort.
     Voluntary acceptance of discomfort for the sake of spiritual development---feeling comfortable with discomfort---is the essence of ascetic practice. If one can learn to be happy even when one has an empty belly, a stomachache, three hours of sleep, two dozen mosquito bites, wet clothes on, little or no money, no friends to hang out with or offer encouragement, and no fun to be had, then one can be happy pretty much always. 
     Also, simply not doing what we want to do, i.e. self-restraint, is uncomfortable; so breaking bad habits (and ultimately all habits are obstacles to enlightenment) is a very useful ascetic practice as well as a skillful renunciation of "the world." 
     One of the very best ways of experiencing unpleasantness in a way conducive to Awakening is through spiritual friendships. It is significant that in at least one famous Buddhist text (the Upaddha Sutta of the Saṁyutta Nikāya) the Buddha declares that having a good spiritual friend is the whole of the Holy Life. (It may seem odd that someone who has been a hermit for most of his adult life is giving this advice, but even so…) If two or more people are sincerely intent upon Waking Up they may give each other feedback which is unpleasant but invaluable. It is of course not pleasant to be told that one is being smug, or proud, or greedy, or insensitive, but it may be what we most need to hear in order to see ourselves objectively, as others see us. Nowadays in America it seems to be the fashion to be "nice" and polite and avoid saying anything that may ruffle anyone's feathers, but this sort of approach is not very helpful in spirituality. Often what bothers us most is what we are most in need of hearing; we don't want to change, or to see that change would be most suitable for us. That is why it bothers us. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be seekers of Truth usually are seeking evidence in support of what we already believe, or additions or refinements to it, and are more inclined to make minor adjustments than seriously to investigate whether the whole attitude is in sore need of an overhaul. Consideration of critical feedback is one of the best ways of seeing the truth about ourselves and seeing our limitations, where we are stuck.
     The trick is that it should be loving feedback. Anything one does or says with positive mental states is positive ("good karma"), and anything one does or says with negative mental states is negative ("bad karma"). Indignant or angry complaining, for example, lowers the vibration of the interaction, plus it is a handy rule of thumb that the more upset person is usually the one seeing the situation less clearly. It is better to wait until the feedback can be given calmly; but if it can't, then it is the responsibility of the recipient of that feedback to remain calm and prevent the interaction from escalating into a messy argument. If the recipient feels that the criticism or advice is unfounded, he/she may ask for the other's reasons instead of closing off or immediately retorting in self-defense. Sometimes differences in thinking or verbal expression can obscure real wisdom in another's feedback. 
     Often if people love each other they may hesitate to give important feedback for fear of hurting the other's feelings. But if both people are intent on spiritual development, which of course is an ideal situation, then it is almost always better to speak up, even if it really does hurt the other's feelings to some degree. As I said before, this kind of discomfort can lead to real cultivation of wisdom; and the relationship will likely be stronger, more conscious, more respectful, and more loving afterward if the people involved really are sincere about wanting to Wake Up as soon as possible. In loving relationships like this, which admittedly are rather rare, one can make faster spiritual progress than if one were living alone in a cave. Of course two people interacting in such a way need not be biological mates; they may be fellow members of a spiritual community, or even recluses living as brothers or sisters in caves next door to each other. But from a really spiritual point of view, from the point of view of seekers wanting to Wake Up in this world, a relationship like this would be the most valid reason for being physical mates. 
     One more important point to consider for those wishing to be in such a relationship: Love is acceptance. One should accept and respect another person before, while, and after giving potentially unpleasant feedback. It helps to keep the vibration of the interaction uplifted, and thus more likely to have a positive outcome, plus one of the greatest blessings there is in this world is for someone to know you well, knowing all your limitations and shortcomings, and to love and accept you with all their heart anyway. If everyone had someone like that in their life, the world would wake up a lot quicker. Yet we have to show who we really are before another can love and accept who we really are. So be yourself; it's the one thing in this entire universe that you are guaranteed to be able to do absolutely perfectly.

A hard look at oneself may be uncomfortably intense


  1. Great post. I always associate insight into the first noble truth to be dependent on a perception of actual discomfort.. ie, one needs to first identify that the world is uncomfortable in order to value the means of removing that discomfort. But I often hear westerners downplaying the importance of suffering in order to make the religion more appealing: "Well, The Buddha only said Birth, Illness and Death are suffering-- it's not ALL suffering" or "Buddhism is often portrayed as too pessmisitic, 'dukkha' can be translated as 'unsatisfactoriness'" and so on.

  2. This is right on and my favorite blog posting yet! So important, and pretty high stakes to do well. So much is involved; a willingness to change when change is appropriate, an ability to overhaul one's values and ideas if needed, and to be ever mindful of one's positive and negative mental states while in the company of another (or others). This is a lot to ask someone on a "bad" day.

    Love is acceptance. If we could all do that well, the world really would be a better place. There are certain challenges I see. For example how does one maintain a spiritual relationship of any nature when "unacceptable behavior" occurs again and again? Are boundaries and limited contact necessary? This happens in friendships and relationships of all natures.

    It takes a lot of bravery to show what someone is really made of, "mistakes" and "dark sides" and all. Yet it is in these moments the other can truly help and support the other in change. It is rare indeed! Uncomfortableness is absolutely a fast motivator to evolve only if one IS WILLING TO BE WITH IT. In the West especially there are many distractions, and quite frankly not many of us even know how to do it. Thank you for these truthful and wise observations!

    1. How does one maintain a spiritual relationship when "unacceptable behavior" occurs again and again? Well, whose unacceptable behavior are you referring to, the other person's or your own? If we get upset at someone else's behavior, it is because that person is showing us some issue in our mind that we haven't worked out yet, showing where we are still stuck. Even if someone slaps you, for example, the slapping is their doing, but the reaction to the slap, to the physical pain, etc. is 100% YOUR own doing. It is manifesting a way in which you are not yet enlightened, and can be invaluable if enlightenment is what you really want.

      On the other hand, if another's behavior seems so unpleasant that we can't cope with it and it consistently just brings us down, then it may be best simply to bless the other person and walk away, regardless of whose "fault" it is. There is little to be gained from staying stuck in a chronically dysfunctional relationship. As you said, Love is Acceptance, and a relationship without real acceptance is no real relationship at all.

      I hope you find such a loving spiritual relationship, because I know full well that you are worthy of it.