What’s YOUR problem?! :-)


Beware of Whinging PomsA recent survey discovered that people in the UK “feel fully fit and well only 61 days of the year”. Some Australian commentators apparently reacted to this report as typical of the “whinging Poms”, but the fact is that other studies show that this level of health worry is just about normal throughout the Western world (including the land of giant deadly insects and combative kangaroos).

And these are not the seriously ill or dying people who are in hospital, say, but people who are out and about. Based on this survey, people claim to be suffering 304 days a year from colds, backaches, bitten tongues, cricked necks, headaches, heartburn, old sporting injuries, ear infections – you name it, and we’ve got it.

Our bodies are pain machines. Sometimes I see people on the jogging trail outside my window in Liverpool run past with an incredible spring in their step, smoothly and effortlessly, and I like it; but this level of fitness and health seems to be the exception. Sometimes the body cooperates, sometimes you just feel you have to lug it around with you — you know that thought when running, I’m sure it is not just me, “Please, can I stop now?!” Most of us have aches, pains, and a lack of energy a lot of the time. Have you ever met anyone who can say that they always feel comfortable in their bodies? I sometimes marvel at how well the body functions at all, given that it is made of meat, bones, skin, fat, and a bunch of weird organs squashed really tightly together. (I used to think there was loads of space inside me, between, eg, my kidneys and my heart, but that was before I went to the Body Worlds exhibition about 15 years ago – quite the wake-up call.) discover the mysteries

I work at editing and project-managing medical magazines, which daily reveals to me bizarre symptoms it is apparently possible for humans to get, some of them exceedingly awful. I try not to look at my Dorland’s medical dictionary too much – a fat tome full of all the things that can go dreadfully wrong, many in body parts I’ve never heard of! This week I was editing a dermatology article on a rare autoimmune blistering disease affecting the subepidermis called bullous pemphigoid, and musing how I had never met anyone with this, which is perhaps just as well as it sounds really nasty. But then today I just happened to visit a poorly bed-ridden friend of my parents who has been itching like crazy for months… her husband said no one has ever heard of what she’s got, so I said “try me”, and guess what. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer unexpectedness of having things go horribly wrong in layers of skin you never even knew you had (and your painful condition possessing a daft, no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it name like bullous pemphigoid) strikes me as a tad, oh I don’t know, unreasonable …?

Buddha pointed out that greater or lesser suffering is normal in a contaminated body (that arises from ignorance and delusions, and the karma created by these). The 4 “great rivers” of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death, and we’re constantly being tossed around in their cruel waters. And this is not even taking into account the mental pain and agitation we feel every day as a result of our uncontrolled, oversensitive minds!

The point of looking at this physical and mental suffering head on is to decide we don’t want any of it anymore and to ask the question, “What can we do about it?”

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

The seventh Dalai Lama, who lived in 18th century Tibet, said:

Whoever I behold, of high position or low, ordained or lay, male or female, they differ only in appearance, dress, behavior and status. In essence they are all equal. They all experience problems in their lives.

Buddha identified 7 categories of suffering for every human in what he called “samsara“: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to encounter what we do not like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

Our problems are neither unusual nor special, but part of a monotonous pattern.

If I were to ask you: “Have you had any problems today?”, I’m almost prepared to bet that you’ll say yes. If you don’t mind, could you recall today’s problem for a moment…

Does this problem fall into any of the 7 categories described by Buddha – does it have anything to do with sickness, say? Or ageing? Or failing to satisfy your desires? Or losing something you liked?

Or is your problem in a category all of its own? Such as “bullous pemphigoid” perhaps? Nope, even bullous pemphigoid is part of sickness. complaint

Again, I’m prepared to bet that any problem you care to name can be placed in one or more of these 7 categories.

Normally we labor intensively to solve one problem at a time – thinking “If only I didn’t have this splitting headache, I’d be so happy! Look at all those lucky people without headaches, they must be sooo happy!” (Are they?) Or “There is no way I can relax with all these money problems — I have to have more money so I can finally stop worrying!” (Would you?)

It’s not that we don’t try to fix our problems and experience temporary reliefs. However, there is wisdom in recognizing that just trying to solve one external problem at a time is an endless process because as soon as one problem is solved another arises to take its place, like waves in an ocean. Even on a relatively good day we may get rid of our headache, only to find that someone at work says something annoying; then we deal with that problem, only to find ourselves stuck in traffic on the way home; and then we get home eventually, only to find that the Internet is down and we can’t go surfing. We may earn some more money for our family, which is a relief for a while, until the next big problem such as a major teenage rebellion comes along to occupy our thoughts. We may take a medication that fixes our itchiness for a while, but then our liver starts to play up from the toxicity. There is literally no end to problems in samsara. There is also no end to worries while we have a mind to worry. This is not even factoring in the really BIG wave-like sufferings of life, such as bereavement, terrorist attacks, and collapsing buildings, which can literally knock us flat.

Renunciation

According to Buddhism, we have to wake up to problems every day in life after life – many of them far more hideous than those we face now. The wave-like sufferings of samsara’s ocean can never stop rolling in; samsara has to stop first.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Temporary liberation from a particular suffering is not good enough.”

Never a day goes by when we don’t want to be rid of our problems — big or small they fill our minds. As someone on Facebook posted the other day:

“I want more problems today!” said nobody ever.

We rarely if ever wake up and think, “Hey, bring it on! I want loads of things to worry about today!” If you think about it, this means that we actually want permanent freedom from problems.

giving ourselves permission to be happyFor this, it is not enough to tinker about with the various symptoms as they arise; we need to work to overcome the actual causes of all our problems, which lie within our mental continuum in the form of delusions and negative karma. Only then can we experience permanent liberation from every type of suffering, called in Buddhism “liberation” or “nirvana”.

Having studied and understood this, if we develop a wish for actual, permanent liberation from physical and mental suffering, we have “renunciation”. This is described in the scriptures as a “light and happy mind”. Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself. With less attachment and aversion — kept at bay by our renunciation — our daily moods are happier. With this uplifting wish front and foremost, everything we think or do will take us in the direction of liberation – we will be working our way out of samsara even as we take a headache pill, lie ill in bed, cart the kids to school, sip our latte, or strive to drum up business on the Internet.

Bodhichitta

We can also know that everyone equally experiences these problems. Ask a room of people, “Did anyone have a problem today?” and the chances are that pretty much everyone will say “Oh, yes!” Whatever problem we are having, we can guarantee that everyone else also has to experience it sooner or later. We are all in this together. And, as Jim Morrison of The Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.” This understanding can lead to compassion and then “bodhichitta” and, with this empathetic, empowering, meaningful wish front and foremost, everything we do will be taking us in the direction of enlightenment.

Comments

  1. Lotusblossom888 says:

    bring it on lol
    you posts have me in stitches!
    i actually put that on my teachers christmas card lol
    2013 bring it on lol
    walk your talk the middle way don’t be a whinging pom today lol
    i love your posts namaste Luna x

  2. So true how we just keep trying to solve one problem after another, not just my own but each of my kids also. I picture my self in front of this huge dam and its springing leaks, each leak is plugged with my hands my feet, even my face is smashed up against one, but the whole dam of aging sickness and death is going to burst.
    Its been interesting to watch my mind think that if I could just get past this situation with this teen, then get this one settled over here, then this, and this, move this, change that.
    There is a relief that comes in knowing you can’t fix most of the surface things. This weekend at the US spring festival it was very clear. I need to become an actual rescuer!

  3. Venerable Lady says:

    We really need the wisdom mind of renunciation to get us out of this perpetual mess. It’s the doorway we have been searching for forever. No wonder it is a happy and postive mind when it arises firmly through receiving correct teachings ..we’ve finally made the right diagnosis, got the right prescription and the actual medicine tastes like nectar!

    This teaching made me smile. I once got wrongly diagnosed with an unpronounceable illness which got reduced to 3 ominous letters so ‘bullous pemphigoid’ brings back some memories of that time. Medical dictionaries are very powerful teachers and you think Doctors have had a great laugh making up names for painful conditions.

    Thanks, Luna.Enjoyed reading and contemplating this so much xxx

  4. A while back was “Love the one you’re with” and now generating bodhichitta with The Doors. Far out!

  5. Patrícia says:

    Hi, Luna,

    I´m from Brazil, and my teacher, Gen Geden gave me the tip to see your blog and it´s been very good to read your comments, they´ve been helpfull to some classes here in Brazil. Dedicate your work, so Dharma can flies all over the world.

    Thank you!

    Patrícia

  6. Hi Luna,
    My day, a Sunday, spent at work for thirteen hours has been surreal. I work at an elderly peoples’ home specialising in dementia. We have had some management problems, specifically; our last manager legged it, as did the previous one, leaving us floundering with no real direction. The whole infrastructure and work force suffers from bad communication problems. We have clients who have been admitted but not assessed properly; some who have turned out to be quite psychotic and extremely aggressive. I spent the day doing one-to-one with one poor individual stopping her from getting into fights with other clients. Then, at the end of the shift, I had the nurse in charge ask me why I did not include what someone was doing at 2000 hours on a daily record sheet that we are told to hand over to her at 1900 hours. I had to point out that I am not clairvoyant! It is all tragically comical but a good test of my practice of patience and cherishing others. So in the end I can rejoice! I am home now for two days’ off duty!

  7. UK Rak-ma says:

    Hi Luna

    Thanks so much for your always illuminating posts. You really brought alive the analogy of the ocean of samsara – struck me how after so many years of ‘practice’ (well, hanging around Dharma Centres) I’ve still got the tendancy to be fixated on vainly stopping the waves rather than seeing the ocean as the problem.

    I was brought up on the coast, and I remember as a kid being fascinated by the sheer relentlessness of the waves rolling onto the beach – each wave coming in, the foam holding for a moment, then out again, coming in…thank you for reminding me. Then to tie it in, as you say, with the truth that the wave-like sufferings of samsara aren’t going to stop until samsara stops.

    I feel a meditation coming on ;) Thank you.

    Love

    Rak-ma x

  8. Alex Thirlwall says:

    Hi Luna,

    I said on Facebook:

    > “Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself”.
    > Correct, but difficult to achieve. You told me to do this once without telling me how.

    You said:

    > With renunciation :-) The bigger picture. Perspective.

    Can you explicate in more detail (but in the short paragraph style I know you like) how the bigger picture of the renunciation perspective allows us to let go of one heavy problem after another? Can you be more specific? I ask because I suffer from this problem a lot, as you already know.

    love Alex

    • Hi Alex, I think seeing our problems as part of a pattern and not unique enables us to develop the wish to let go of all of them, together with their causes, which is renunciation. If we then want to destroy our samsara by destroying our ignorance and other delusions, each problem can remind us of this motivation and inspire us to meditate on the solution (emptiness, or another virtuous mind). Its nature has changed from being a heavy, enemy-like problem to a teacher or motivator, and so we’re less likely to get weighed down by focusing on its specifics in an inappropriate way leading to aversion or depression. (None of this precludes taking practical steps as well to solve our external problems.)

      When problems seem too big, we can also try emergency triage meditation by turning our mind to wood, as explained by Shantideva, and then develop renunciation after that.

      Hope this helps a bit. Love, L x

      • oops! looks like our 2 replies crossed in the post :s (think I prefer yours!) Anyway, here’s my take on things:

      • Alex Thirlwall says:

        Thanks Luna,

        Develop the tools to handle the samsaric pattern, not the individual events .. becoming more systematic and identifying with the macro-context instead of the micro .. I follow you.

        What about encumberment from experiences in the past? Like, bad experiences or persistent attachment? Memories like these are unwanted plants grown from poisonous ground.

        At the moment I am trying to revisit the events that functioned as the basis of negative karma ripening and spin them constructively with the hope that the negativity will eventually die. Your wisdom of the macro-context can be applied retrospectively to this process – unwanted past events can be seen as part of the same systemic samsaric pattern. Gardening involves weeding as well as planting and fertilizing.

        A flower for you.

        • Nicely put, Alex! Yes, we can change the past. It isn’t real.

          • Alex Thirlwall says:

            “We can change the past. It isn’t real.”

            That is actually a very, very interesting proposition, but it must have boundaries or else we can invent any old past and end up in a world of denial and self-deception. Best to reframe the past in a positive light without denying events or burying bad experience .. the systemic framework of renunciation is ideally suited for this task, with it’s assumption of the negative but it’s prescription of nirvanic promise.

    • Hi Alex, not Luna’s reply, but a comment I had in my mind before I even read your question. So I’m going to add my twopenneth in here. (Hope that’s OK. I favour short sentences and ASCII art BTW ;~)

      “Renunciation is a light and happy mind bound for freedom” Nagarjuna (?) One of my favourite quotes :) Renunciation is a wisdom mind that realises it is the nature of samsara to be a state of suffering; just as it is in the nature of fire to burn. The bigger picture shows that as long as we are sentient beings, we will suffer. Problems of varying density are endless. Just mentally stepping back and seeing this is liberating, and stops us from getting so stuck. We don’t expect life to run smoothly (because we know it won’t), so when things do go wrong, it’s not such a problem for us. We are better equipped to maintain a light, peaceful mind that’s less likely to get stuck.

      Now over to Luna’s superior wisdom…

      • Alex Thirlwall says:

        Thanks Jas,

        See my reply to Luna above. I need to make renunciation a positive macro-context, to be applied to both present and past (and the future, but that’s another discussion).

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