Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Tribal Native

     (This post was written last May, but I'm only now getting around to posting it.)
     An issue has been on my mind lately, and I would like to share it. It has mainly come up as a result of feedback to the effect that I am insensitive to pain, especially the pain of others. 
     It is true that by nature I am not very emotional. My heart is a cool one, and rather simple in its functioning as far as I can tell. I know I am capable of deep love, although my love tends to be more for nature than for people. I can gush with love and blessings when I see a snake, or baby chickens following their mother, or a dolphin swimming at sea; and I'm filled with a sense of wonder at, say, the courage of a night heron standing motionless, silent, and mysterious in a creek in a deep forest at dusk, or the utter fearlessness of some tiny insect blindly moving forwards, not knowing or caring that in all likelihood it will die a violent death, and soon. My longstanding lack of regard for my own species (except for a few friends and the occasional beautiful female) is something I've been working with in this life. When people come to me nowadays I make a real effort to be present with them – not to think about what I'd rather be doing, not to look at the clock, not to be thinking of what I'm going to say next while the other person is talking, and thus not really listening (this is a hard one sometimes), but to listen, and not just to the words but to the inflections, the tone of voice, the energy behind it and in it. When interacting with them, that interaction should be the most important aspect of my samsaric existence. It's not always easy, and my track record, if it were written down, probably wouldn't look so good.
     I must admit that when I'm with people I can't relate to very well and with whom I feel a little uncomfortable, I feel myself close off with a kind of palpable tension, which I must consciously relax in order to be more open with these people. It's not so much those who are unhappy, though, as people with whom I have little affinity, so that sharing their world with empathy feels foreign and unpleasant.
     But to say that I am insensitive to pain, I think, may be largely based on a misinterpretation of my behavior. Consider two people: one is a strong person who has been trained to endure pain, say a tribal native from a deep wilderness somewhere, and the other is not so tough, and inclined to express emotions of pain through weeping, lamentation, and so forth. The native may have been taught never to flinch, never to express the slightest pain or fear, even when essentially tortured; yet this does not mean that this person does not feel the pain. In fact, this person may experience the painful feelings even more intensely than the other. 
     One reason for this is that one of the main reasons why we cry out or scream or writhe when in great pain is to distract us from the feeling. Making noise helps to drown out the pain somewhat, so to speak, and by writhing we are giving ourselves something obvious to focus our attention on and distract us from this feeling we don't want to feel. This is not the only reason (I've occasionally wondered if an enlightened being would cry out or writhe if in great pain, and guess that he or she might), but I think it is a major one. I don't think this applies to just the shedding of tears, however; that happens spontaneously from an overflow of emotion, sometimes even from joy.
     So the native does nothing to distract his/her attention away from the pain, unless maybe he puts himself into a trance state (as even the Buddha is said to have done as he was dying, to help him endure the intense abdominal pains he was experiencing). He experiences it in raw form and somehow has learned to accept it, without struggling against it. But this doesn't mean that he doesn't feel it. It may mean, however, that he does have less patience for those who won't accept it, and do struggle against it. In some native cultures, a man who flinches when the ceremonial cuts are being made in his flesh is disgraced, and perhaps deprived of his status as a member of the tribe. 
     I suspect that is part of my trouble. I've trained as an ascetic for many years, living in environments that were very unpleasant, sometimes almost lethal. Then I meet people who are traumatized quite easily, or so it seems to me. A while back I met a person who told me that it took her years to recover from the stress of having extremely kind, wealthy, indulgent parents! She seems to be doing well now though.
     Also, I suppose that austerity is more a masculine path than otherwise, and also a path of the head more than of the heart. And it seems that in the West nowadays the Path of the Head (in Sanskrit, Jñāna Yoga) is undervalued and grossly misinterpreted. The Path of the Head does not culminate in nuclear bombs or hyperintellectual analysis, any more than the Path of the Heart culminates in murder (as maniacal hate comes from the heart, just as ruthless, cold intellect comes from the head). Just as the ultimate culmination of Heart is universal love and compassion, the ultimate culmination of Head is penetrating the illusion of Samsara and realizing the oneness and perfection which is always here. There is good heart and bad heart, even though heart is seen as predominantly good nowadays; and there is good head and bad head, even though the head is generally viewed as the bad guy. Again, hate, along with anger, greed, jealousy, contempt, etc., is bad heart, not head.
     So someone who emphasizes the masculine Path sees that suffering is not necessary, and that pain, when it arises, should be borne with some acceptance. Complete acceptance transmutes it into something beyond pain. Ultimately, all negative "stuff" is an illusion concealing Perfection. Ram Dass used to tell a story about how, when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan and was in a state of chaos with riots and all sorts of misery running rampant, he told his guru Maharajji that he wanted to go and help; and Maharajji looked at him with a wistful, almost sad look and said, "Don't you see that it's all perfect?" This is one approach, and a valid one.
     However, most people, especially when they are deeply suffering, aren't ready for this. They want a practitioner of Heart to sympathize with them, maybe even hold them and listen to them cry, rather than to be informed that their suffering is unnecessary and is an illusion anyway. Such information often does more harm than good. Thus the Path of the Head is often a path of solitude.
     The Path of the Heart emphasizes practice within the illusion, and does its best to help within the context of the illusion. It is the realm of virtue and sainthood, more than of wisdom and sagehood. In a way, each Path by itself is a way of perfection, but is not in balance. 
     So a balanced spiritual Path develops both, even though different practitioners will naturally have different orientations. Women, I suppose, are more likely to develop from heart to head, and men are more likely to develop in the opposite direction. But ultimately a really developed being will see that it's all an illusion, see that it's all perfect, yet nevertheless empathize with people who are stuck in their conditions, and are in pain. "It's all God, but still, I'm here to help you." 
     For many, many years I disdained the "lower" Path in favor of the sparkling, clear, icy summit of Jñāna. In Buddhism there are two primary emphases or approaches to enlightenment: as the cessation of suffering (heart), and as the cessation of ignorance and delusion (head); and I followed my macho father's dictum "A little pain never hurt anyone" and strove for the end of delusion. Striving for the end of pain seemed not nearly so important.
     But I have to realize that many people, especially in the West, are struggling just to maintain some kind of equilibrium in a messed-up, stressed-out, unhappy world. They just want some relief from their own unhappiness (much of which they are ashamed even to admit to anyone), and realizing Ultimate Truth would seem simply a pipe dream. When I see unhappy persons, sometimes I see them from a higher perspective than they are seeing themselves, and it feels almost like they are actors and actresses just pretending to be unhappy, and in a sense this is true. But they don't know that, because they're identified with the roles they're playing, and telling them doesn't work. (Contrariwise, for a heart-oriented person continually to admonish a head-oriented one to be more loving and compassionate tends to be equally futile.) 
     The thing is, I can feel other people's pain, and my own too of course, but, like the tribesman in New Guinea, I've been trained to accept it. (Having a small, cool heart helps in this though, I have to admit.) I usually don't writhe or cry out, so some people assume I'm just insensitive, but I think their opinion may be exaggerated. One of the greatest compliments I ever received from my sayadaw in Burma was when he told one of my supporters, "U Pañño can endure dukkha." 
     The trick is to meet others at their own level as well as we can, not forgetting other possible levels. Suffering is one of the best chances we get for breaking through old conditioning and coming closer to Truth, thus it may be invaluable for spiritual persons, but emphasizing this to those in pain is usually futile. The whole situation is a very poignant one, and I'm sorry it's so difficult. But we do the best we can.
     This whole issue of deep compassion as part of the Path to Enlightenment presents rather a dilemma, or even paradox, for a Theravada Buddhist: We are encouraged to find the way to the end of suffering, yet compassion results in our feeling the suffering of others, and universal compassion results in our feeling all the suffering in the universe. And we can't go around "fixing" everybody else's suffering. The trick seems to be to accept it wholeheartedly, without flinching, and using the wisdom of the head to transmute it into perfection—while still doing what we can to alleviate it.
     I don't know where to go from here with this theme, so I'll stop.
     The blessings of a fellow human are upon you. The blessings of numberless saints and higher beings are upon you. Just as we are always walking through an invisible sea of radio programs, TV shows, and cell phone conversations, with electromagnetic waves passing through us everywhere, even so we are always walking through a sea of blessings, grace, and love. And ultimately we're all perfect just the way we are. So even when we suffer, it's good to keep that in mind, if possible.


  1. DUKKHA DUKKHA DUKKHA! Oh so much dukkha in the world and in our self it is unbearable at times. But I wonder David if perhaps your own Dukkha is brought on by your unresolved issues with your father. Your repeated writings on how stoic and warrior like you want/try to be come off as over-compensating for perceived unmanliness compared to your tough old man. Perhaps your grasping unskillfully with women via the Internet and in the flesh masks deeper darker secrets than your ego can accept? No judgement here just drawing conclusions from your writings. So what's up? Manly man and you're an 11 on the scale of manliness? Or perhaps something entirely different? Curies minds, etc.

    1. Well, I really don't think so. I respect, admire, and honor my father, but I wouldn't want to trade places with him. He went through life like the proverbial bull in a china shop, and made a lot of unnecessary trouble for himself. I feel secure in my adequacy as a man. In the past if I compared my own toughness with someone else, it was the iron monks described and idealized in the suttas, patiently enduring heat, cold, sickness, hunger, thirst, danger, etc. etc. A monk is supposed to be an ascetic.

      And my fascination for the female form is pretty straightforward, and has been there since I was a toddler. Maybe before then even.

      I do have a certain respect for "machismo," which to a large degree, admittedly, is inherited from my father. I'm OK with that. It may *seem* like I'm overcompensating, as you put it, because "enlightened" American culture is pushing hard toward a more feminine orientation. I have no quarrel with a feminine orientation, mind you, so long as I am not required to conform to it. I really do feel pretty comfortable being who I am, and what discomfort there is I can accept with a fair amount of mindfulness and philosophical detachment, largely due to Buddhist training and my father's loving instruction.