Living to Learn

DyingToKnowWhy bother?

Anyone who has ever been seriously depressed has confronted a question like this. What does life offer in exchange for all the pain, disappointment, betrayal, and loss? Why endure such suffering?

Every spiritual tradition attempts to provide answers. Some say we suffer because of humanity’s sinfulness. Others say we are here to serve fellow beings. Buddhism takes a different tack, and unveils the causes of suffering: craving, aversion, and delusion.

Some of these responses strike me as more useful than others, but they all can be helpful.

While I reject the notion of original sin, it is also true that some of my ordeals have echoed earlier harmful behaviors. For instance, I’m well aware of having inflicted harm through inattention and overconfidence as a young physician; in middle-age I suffered a number of distressing medical outcomes due to the same hubris in a new generation of doctors. I don’t know if the cosmos (or perhaps my own unconscious mind) was balancing the scales, but it felt that way.

And there is no doubt that helping others dissolves narrow self-concern, and so goes a long way toward making life feel meaningful.

Likewise, looking at the causes of suffering spurs healing. We learn how our desires are recipes for suffering, since they can never be permanently satisfied. If we manage to win the romantic partner, home, or career of our dreams, our enjoyment is shadowed by the knowledge that all such gains are temporary. Our yearning to feel loved and admired founders on the shoals of those who don’t like us. Buddhism encourages us to release attachment to relationships, possessions, occupations, and acclaim. We needn’t eschew companionship, shelter, and involvement, but we recognize the transience of all such comforts, and we do our best to allow circumstances to ebb and flow in a spirit of compassion rather than clinging.

That sounds good in theory, but it’s a challenge to achieve in practice. When we lose a loved one, or suffer serious illness, or make a huge and public mistake, or face financial ruin, we feel pain. We may do our best to remain unattached, but some intrusion of suffering seems inevitable. If we try to live in such an ‘evolved’ state that we feel no sting, it usually becomes clear (to others if not ourselves) that we are using so-called spirituality to deny a hurtful reality.

In other words, the spiritual paths help, but we still face the question that heads this post: Why bother? What follows is an answer that strikes me as promising.

Yesterday I viewed the movie, Dying to Know, which chronicles the relationship between Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass). In the 1960’s, these men achieved an unusual kind of fame by promoting psychoactive substances as gateways to higher consciousness. Alpert, of course, followed his psychedelic experiences with serious personal work and became a profound teacher. But both men influenced the course of history. Both wrote landmark books.

What does this have to do with the question of suffering? Well, I walked out of the movie struggling with my habitual tendency to compare myself with others. Why does my life unfold in obscurity, even though I believe myself capable of good ideas?

I wasn’t responding only to my lack of fame, but also to social isolation. I compared the way both men enjoyed the support of many loved ones as they aged and became infirm with the way I expect aloneness in my final years.

These days, I have enough awareness to recognize when my mind is behaving immaturely. So rather than continuing in a self-criticizing, shaming mode, or comparing my imagined future with selectively edited film clips of the past, I looked at what was driving my discontent.

I realized that within our families, friendships, and culture, we condition one another to believe that what is good is what feels good. Relationships, fame, success, etc., lead to feelings of belonging, respect, accomplishment, and so on. These are positive feelings that we (naturally) view positively. Their opposites (isolation, disrepute, failure, and the like) feel equally negative.

Although spiritual paths change the focus from narrow self-concerns to larger universal ones, they often reinforce our tendency to seek better feelings. After all, the root motivation for spiritual growth is very often a hope for relief from negative mental states. We pray and confess our sins to feel less guilty. We help others to feel less purposeless. We meditate to feel less distressed.

The problem with using comfort (whether material or spiritual) as the measure of life’s value is that life is so often uncomfortable. We confess our sins but continue to endure tinges of remorse. We help others but feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems. We meditate, but suffering intrudes.

If comfort is such a poor metric, what could be better?

A realization hit home with new clarity last night: a more reliable approach is to focus not on how we feel, but on what we learn. There is no situation, no matter how harrowing, that can’t be mined for gems of insight. If we move through time with the intention of learning as much as possible (rather than feeling as good as possible), we gradually string together enough jewels of experience that we begin to understand and appreciate Life in deeper ways. Leary and Alpert/Ram Dass both sounded much wiser in old age than they had in youth–and isn’t that usually the case?

Because of its transience, human life inevitably leads to loss. But it just as inevitably provides opportunities for growth. If we focus on the growth rather than the decay, we find that any life, no matter how agonizing, chaotic, or obscure, is rich with potential.

Why bother? If we honor what is learned rather than what is gained, and value wisdom over pleasure, we move through pain, tumult, and isolation with gratitude. After all, they are guiding us toward our most mature, embracing natures.