Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: The Problem
Caught under the Ever-Turning Wheel of Grasping and Aversion
Many of us
in the course of living our everyday lives endure terrible suffering: grief or anxiety or depression or physical pain that won't go away. I think of this kind of suffering as "mundane" anguish, affliction rendered bearable only because it's part of our everyday lives, like drawing breath or doing the dishes. If we ever got relief from it, we would suddenly apprehend how dreadful it actually is. Depression and anxiety can be so overwhelming that they are as crippling as a disease or an injury. When we are chronically depressed or anxious, we become so trapped in the habit of thinking terrifying or destructive thoughts that we simply cannot function with a clear mind. Our own feelings are no longer our touchstone for reality.
Others of us may have contracted a physically debilitating disease or been injured in such a way that our lives and those of our family have been changed forever. It doesn't even take a specific loss to experience mundane anguish. We humans suffer just because everything changes all the time. Having once achieved some goal, we can't rest on our laurels. All of life's circumstances are dynamic,
ever evolving into something else. We clutch at security in vain.
myself have had rheumatoid arthritis, a very painful and crippling condition,
for twenty years, and the stress of the disease—the fear of the future and the despair at what has been lost already—is often worse than the physical pain that I am suffering at any particular moment. When the disease first struck me,
I was forced to stay in bed. I lost forty pounds. I couldn't dress myself, hold the phone receiver, or get up from the toilet unassisted. I was completely overcome by unremitting pain, fatigue, and despair. In four months of deterioration, I lost everything that meant anything to me: reliance on a strong, young body; my achievements and the sense of self-worth they brought me; my pleasure in being a sexually attractive woman; my identity as a mother;
and my ability to do the required practices and sustain myself in the community in which I lived as a student of Zen meditation. I became isolated from everyone I knew by my pain and fear and ultimately even by the consuming effort
I had to make to do any little thing—like get up from a chair, pick up a cup of tea.
How do we live through unbearable situations like a catastrophic disease without being destroyed? How do we deal with the mundane anguish of our everyday lives?
How do we continue to live under crushing stress? And even further, how do we not just get through these things but have rich, full, and worthwhile lives that we actually want to live—under any circumstances?
It might at first seem easiest to ignore mundane anguish, but if this attitude hardens into a way of life, then chronic anxiety, loss of sleep, or physical symptoms may appear and force us to face the fact that something has to change.
This may mean that if so much of our lives involves stress and pain and suffering, we have to actually face and acknowledge our suffering in order to live our lives fully. We may need to become familiar with the thoughts and feelings that define our suffering to us, notice how we as individuals perceive our own suffering and the suffering of those around us, and catch the exact moment when we decide it's too much and automatically tune out. If we don't acknowledge our pain, we usually don't feel our pleasure strongly, either. Life takes on a zombielike tenor.
One of the saddest stories a client ever told me came from an elderly woman who sought my help in dealing with her arthritis. With her husband, she had worked long and hard for some years in order to afford their dream vacation, a cruise to the Caribbean islands. She and her husband had never allowed themselves any pleasures in their ordinary lives because they were saving everything for their vacation of a lifetime. When they finally had enough money to take their month-long trip, they were beside themselves with excitement. The time that they had been looking forward to for so long had at last arrived. After they returned, I asked my client how the trip had gone. Shaking her head, she replied:
It was disappointing. We were given an itinerary at the beginning, listing all the activities, mealtimes, and stops we would make. It seemed so exciting at first.
We did everything, ate all the meals, and stopped at all the different islands to shop and sightsee. But we were always looking at the itinerary to see what was coming next. Somehow that seemed more exciting than what we were doing now.
What happened was that we were always looking forward to the next event.
Finally, the trip was over, and it was like it never happened.
She and her husband had spent so many years ignoring the life that was under their noses and available to them, looking forward to a life that was to come someday, that when someday arrived, they couldn't rise out of their habit pattern to meet it. They had been focused on the future for so long, they couldn't refocus on the present. It receded like the rest of their lives into habit and routine. Her plaintive story brought tears to the eyes of listeners when she told it again later at a meditation retreat. And hopefully, it struck fear into everybody's heart. Because if we continually choose to blank out our feelings about our mundane suffering and always keep our eyes on the future,
how different are our lives from those of this woman and her husband?
What is it that you must have in order to live a rich, fulfilling life, relatively free of dead or "numbed-out" spots? I don't think you have to have the perfect body, buffed up from the gym, or the Right Man/Woman waiting for you at night, freedom from economic pressures, extensive training in spiritual disciplines, or even a meaningful job—thank God—to be deeply involved in your life. You don't even have to change the circumstances of your life to enrich it vastly. I think you can engage your life and sink your roots deeply into every situation in the midst of high stress, terrible pain and suffering, physical disability, or paralyzing anxiety.
You only need to break the bad mental habit of living your life on automatic pilot and cultivate the necessary skills to actually be present enough to live the moments of your life, however miserable or boring your life situations might seem when you compare them to your fantasies. You need to learn how to be alive for all of your life, to be present as much as you can, not to pick and choose the moments that you think are worthwhile to be alive and then be numb for the rest. Because just as a muscle gets weak from disuse, so your ability to be present in your life fades if you don't practice it. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out in an early meditation manual called "The Miracle of Being Awake":
There are two ways to wash the dishes: the first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. If we wash them only to get them out of the way with an eye to the cup of tea after, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. We will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future,
incapable of actually living one minute of life.
Our intelligence and dignity themselves are developed by our being alive for everything, including the mundane anguish of our lives. Just our awareness of our sensations, of our experience, with no object or idea in mind, is the practice of not preferring any particular state of mind. Intimacy with our activity and the objects around us connects us deeply to our lives. This connection—to the earth, our bodies, our sense impressions, our creative energies, our feelings, other people—is the only way I know of to alleviate suffering. To me, our awareness of these things without preference is a meditation that synchronizes body and mind. This synchronization, the experience of deep integrity, of being all of a piece, is a very deep healing.
It is unconventional to value such a subtle experience. It is not encouraged in our culture. We're much more apt to strive to feel special, uniquely talented,
particularly loved. It's extraordinary to be willing to live an ordinary life,
to be fully alive for the laundry, to be present for the dishes. We overlook these everyday connections to our lives, waiting for the Big Event.