A conversation with a friend yesterday had me thinking about Buddhist teaching, most notable the first noble truth, which is most often translated as “Life is suffering” which, let’s face it, doesn’t seem to be the most encouraging opening salvo for a philosophical tenet. In truth, it’s something of a mistranslation, as the Pali word dukkha has much more subtlety and nuance than mere suffering.
Without getting too deeply into Buddhist belief, dukkha can be divided into three basic categories: the physical and mental pain of old age, illness and death; the vexation when faced with impermanence and change; and the kind of existential distress of being human, of being alive. When describing these to my friend, she was struck with what she perceived to be the inherent pessimism in codifying suffering.
But to me it feels ultimately optimistic, because when we acknowledge and name our sufferings, we’re better able to coexist with them, to integrate them in our understanding of life, and to establish a kind of detente with them. We suffer when we are reactive to our suffering, and we suffer when we try to run away from it.
When I think of the first category of dukkha, the physical and mental pain of our corporeal fragility, I’m reminded of a minor surfing accident (yep, I grew up in Hawaii) during my early teens, causing injury to a lumbar vertebra, which then became the source of sciatic pain that I’ve experience, on and off, to this day. Chronic pain, even the manageable kind, is not simply physically wearing; it permanently inhabits the spaces of our consciousness and tugs down on one’s sense of vitality. It can be exhausting. And early on in my life, I was faced with the prospect of the lifelong energy-sap of chronic pain.
I don’t think it was any actual wisdom that led me to almost immediately accept that this particular physical pain would become part of my experience of life; I think it was more that there were things I wanted to do, and the only way to do them was to move on (after I recovered as much as I could from the original injury) from the idea of the permanence of this physical pain. As I look back now on young me, I realize that I didn’t have the imprint of decades of experiencing my own pain, or observing the pain of others, so I didn’t have a basis of true understanding or comparison. Or more succinctly, the neuroplasticity of my inexperienced young brain allowed it to say “Oh, OK, this is how it is now”, and to move on.
Kids seem (and actually are) a lot more adaptable than adults; a huge part of that, of course, is that when we’re young we’re still constructing our sense of reality and the world through our developing perceptions. It takes experience to understand the repercussion of actions (e.g. the hand on the hot stove), and when the aggregate experiences are few, we have less precedent to refer to. We’re not bogged down by our own expectations. We adults could learn A LOT from this. I’m still grateful for the unexpected wisdom of my youth, of my ability to let go of any expectations of how my body was supposed to feel, and to accept it for what it was.
It’s only as we gather life experience that we start to feel distress at the thought of change, the second category of suffering. On one hand, I’ve often looked forward to certain change; starting a new and exciting job, moving here to San Francisco to be near my brother, feeling my endurance improving during marathon training. Positive change, of course, is easy to accept. Negative change – not so much!
Last year, right before Covid, I sold my mom’s house, the one I grew up in, and moved her into a condo. The prospect of letting go of my childhood home was fraught with attachment to a sense of familiarity and safety, and the fear of losing a tangible touchstone, a direct path to my youth. The thought of never again being in that house made me feel unmoored years before it was put on market. Losing that physical connection to my childhood, my youth, filled me with deep sadness, and dread.
Impermanence is the most fundamental characteristic of life, yet humans long for the comfort of an unchanging familiar. We cling to the idea of permanence as if we need those external anchors to stabilize our sense of ourselves. And my heart clung to the idea of that house.
What helped me, over the course of nearly six months and several visits to help mom pack, was to take videos of the house, the property, the neighborhood, the road I ran on almost daily for nearly a decade, all while talking about the thoughts and memories and feelings those places conjured. I still have hours of recordings on my phone, working through all of my internal expectations and emotions that made me cling so powerfully to this house, this object. And I discovered that the pain was not about the object itself, but all of those memories and feelings I attached to it. Letting go of the house felt like letting go of my past, which I realized of course was not true. And with that realization my feelings shifted, loosened. Changed.
That’s not to say it was easy when the movers packed the last box, and my mom and I got in her car to drive to her new home. But I felt, acutely, the impermanence of things – of external objects – and understood quite viscerally the fluidity of my own emotions. Just as much as things around us change, things within us change. Everything changes. Everything is changing. Always. And in that moment, as I drove up the driveway for the last time, I was present with change, with the movement of time, with the beautiful mutability of life.
Category three is a tough one, and I would be lying to say that I’ve even touched the surface of it, but here goes.
“The suffering of being alive” – the suffering of our humanness – is sometimes described as background suffering, suffering that is just there. It’s the fathomless unsatisfactoriness of mere existence, which in itself exists because of mere existence (try to wrap your head around that one!).
Covid and the effective shutting down of the world for many, many months forced me, as it did all of us, to face this “mere existence”. Stripped of everything that gave me a sense of self in the world – my work, my interactions, my travel, my socializing, my yoga classes, everything – I was faced with the prospect of just…being. And there is an inherent underlying dissatisfying nature to the conditions of the world we inhabit.
I think that we all have those points in life where we aren’t questioning any particular event or state; but rather, we look up to the sky with an existential “why?”. And I guess the best answer is simply (and ambiguously) “because”. And although I think it’s contingent on ourselves to define that “because” in some meaningful way, I think that, fundamentally, the “because” is simply our existence itself. I know that feels like a circular argument, but isn’t that really the nature of life?
A few night ago I watched a documentary on fungi (“Fantastic Fungi”, HIGHLY recommend). It was fascinating on so may levels – biological, psychological, medicinal, philosophical – but the biggest takeaway for me was the existence of the mycelium network that branches beneath the surface of the earth. It’s essentially an immense underground network of fungi filaments that connect plants together, almost like a kind of botanical internet that transports water and nutrients and chemicals to keep trees and plants alive and communicating with each other. Yes, communicating with each other. It’s kind of amazing and profound and too much for me to explain, so watch the doc.
Mycelium allow plants to share resources, to funnel nutrients to those in need, to send chemical signals warning of attack from insects. It runs between different species of plants; scientists believe that 92% of all plants on earth form a mycorrhizal relationship in the soil. It is everywhere. It connects everything.
Why do I bring up fungi?
On one level, I think it’s beautiful because it shows us the value of sharing resources, creating efficient ways to move them, and forming close, mutually supportive partnerships. But on a more profound level, it shows us that the natural world is quite literally all connected. Nothing is separate from anything else. It is a united entity.
And that is powerful. Because, as creatures on this planet, we’re part of that natural world as well, and if most of everything growing on the earth is somehow connected – well, by the transitive property (and more technically, by ingesting those things growing on earth), WE – we humans – are all somehow linked. We are literally – not is some ethereal philosophical way, but in a grounded, material way – all connected to each other.
When I question the “why” of mere existence – the challenge of simply being alive – I think of the mycelium. I think that we are never alone. I think that the filaments of all humankind are intertwined with mine. I think that whatever “it” is, we’re all in it together. And that helps me to be at peace with uncertainty, with pain, with impermanence. With suffering.