Thursday, February 9, 2012

God is suffering (the grace/mercy of God)

This is part of a series reflecting on God-talk and Buddhist terminology. It is an opening to dialogue, not a final word on the subject.

Suffering. It's something that, if we were to be honest, we would list our relationship with as "complicated". You hear or read that humans want to avoid suffering, and yet if that were true, then why do we seem to spend so much time seeking it out or creating the conditions necessary for it to thrive?

In some sense, our egos may actually want suffering. They want the challenge and the conflict in which suffering is one side of a dichotomy which also involves some notion of pleasure. A kind of pleasure that can be captured, contained and curated. A pleasure that can be extended forever. Which is why the ego spends so much time rewriting memories and imagining an ideal future.

It isn't the case that cherishing memories or anticipating the future is somehow wrong or destructive, it is rather the issue of how and why this happens. In any case, the ego also needs suffering to justify its own over-blown sense of importance as the problem solver. If suffering ends, then the effort to solve the problem of suffering ends.

Another tangle in the topic of suffering is just what it entails. Does it include pain and discomfort? How do misery and despair fit in?

To clarify my use of the term discomfort, consider that pain is a sensation while discomfort is a perception. If you smack someone, pain and touch receptors will report the event to the brain. That is sensation. Your brain will filter and add context to this information using your memory and emotional systems (which are deeply intertwined) and your current conscious perspective. If the result is an unfavorable reaction, we say that the sensation hurts.

Yet it is true that people may enjoy some of these same sensations, whether it comes from kinky sexual practices or extra spicy food. Yes, part of what makes that extra hot dish taste that way are the nociceptors, or pain-detecting receptors, in your mouth.

When there is a discontinuity or incongruity between our perceptions, memories, notions, and expectations this is also reported as a sensation which goes through a process of interpretation. It can also receive an unfavorable reaction, being experienced as disappointment, anxiety, dread or some similar feeling. And it can also be received in other ways, as intrigue, fascination, or curiosity, for example.

Yet we use the words pain and discomfort interchangeably. The sense of the terms diffuse into one another. Pain becomes a synonym for discomfort and a root of its manifestations, which we refer to collectively as suffering. These manifestations become embedded in our identity. They can include phenomena such as 
such misery and despair, which themselves are dispositions toward new experiences. Shaped by a narrative woven by the mind through the medium of our neural architecture, misery becomes our story and despair its backdrop.

It can be tricky, then, to try to disentangle pain and discomfort and suffering. Pain is useful information, and the discomfort it causes as it enters our consciousness mind can be useful as well. Pain and the experience of discomfort can be a beneficial form of discrimination telling us something potentially important and harmful is happening. This can be as simple as the cliched example of yanking your hand away from a hot stove to the sense that ones life is pointless.

In the latter example, this kind of depression can be a warning that our perception of who we are and who we ought to be are badly out of alignment, either with each other or with our own profound sense of ourselves. Such feelings can arise when the expectations and demands of others (which we absorb and impose upon ourselves as part of what is sometimes referred to as the super-ego), demands about our social identity, the aspirations associated with such a status, and the path we are supposed to follow to achieve these goals, no longer fit us or are no longer possible.

The tragedy comes when people so over-identify with this social identity that the only way they can imagine escaping it is to physically die. This tragedy can result in suicide or it can result in a living hell filled with substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or psychosis. Even if one avoids these outcomes, the pain persists. It persists because there is still something the mind is perceiving as out of joint or damaged. Suffering can result from a failure to learn from that pain.

Buddhism and Christianity both place suffering in the center of their teachings and practices. Christianity suggests that dying to one's old life and being reborn into a new identity in God is the path to overcome suffering. The false or lesser self, similar to the ego referred to in Buddhism, is trapped in a limited and limiting view of itself. God represents the boundless nature of life and the depth of reality, so rebirth in God can be compared in a limited way to the awakening of the ego-bound individual to their Buddha-nature.

In both religions, the causes of suffering, including pain, discomfort, and the mental and emotional frameworks in which people trap their minds (or souls) can and indeed must be used as guideposts to liberation. The way out isn't to keep running away from what these sensations and experiences are trying to tell us.  Nor, as those who only sort-of get the idea here, is the proper strategy to try to generate more of these delusional self-harming beliefs and the actions they spawn (i.e. sin) for the sake of salvation. As St. Paul would say, "God forbid!"

The path marked by the things we fear might lead us to places we are certain we would rather not go. The talk of purification of the mind or soul by learning from pain and discomfort definitely sounds off-putting. We don't want to find God or the pure mind in things we have deemed to be unpleasant, repulsive, or otherwise offensive. The teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is found in people and situations we try to avoid, or that a lotus has its roots and in the mud and muck, sound nice. Bits of rubble turned to gold? Great image. Just as long as I don't have to go there.

Again, for the sort-of get it crowd, learning from pain can be distorted into the idea that ones needs to go out and cause pain for oneself as a means of atoning for whatever they presume is the cause of their problems, rather than examining the pain and discomfort underlying their problems or recognizing that problems are the stories (accurate or inaccurate) they have created to explain their pain and discomfort.

Nevertheless, a common theme in Christianity is that we can learn to use even painful experiences for growth and to move away from the lesser self to an identity grounded in God, and this process of finding God even in the midst of suffering has been referred to as the grace or mercy of God. The former term implies that this form of revelation isn't earned or purchased but free for anyone seeking it, and the latter expresses the relief and gratitude experienced in the finding of it.

While Buddhism may not typically refer to such insights as gifts or acts of mercy from God or some other placeholder for the source of all being, it is the case that these kind of thinking is used generically to express gratitude for the phenomena--the people and events--which strengthen ones practice. Consider for example the idea that everything in life is a teacher, and our enemies are actually the best kind of teacher (and the most generous) because the bring destructive karma upon themselves in order to give us a chance to cultivate patience, compassion, loving-kindness, etc.

Which brings up the other twist. It isn't just facing our own demons as the places that hurt (and sometimes thrill) us for our own enlightenment. By expanding our awareness and getting beyond our self-focused fantasies, we find that our own fate is bound up with the fate of everything and everyone around us. 

This idea of finding our true nature, our liberation, our salvation, by diving into the turbulent sea of problems, fears, and delusions shared by others in order to extract them from their own suffering is part of the Christian virtue of charity as well as the Bodhisattva ideal of Buddhism. In the midst of the swells and crashing foam of a collective storm of greed, anger and ignorance, we become the grace and mercy of God for each other.

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