Wednesday, January 30, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- suffering

Suffering is an important concept in Buddhism, but one that took me a long time to understand. Maybe I still don't understand it very well.

At first reading, it seems so entirely different than the Christian understanding of suffering. In my Evangelical childhood, I was taught to see suffering as a means to an end. The New Testament epistle of James says quite bluntly: "Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (ie, when you suffer), knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and endurances produces perfect results, that you may be full and complete, lacking in nothing."

In Christianity, Suffering is the refiner's fire. You pass through problems and "tribulations" so that the trivial and unimportant is burned away, and you become a better Christian, a better person. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, more or less.

The not-so-subtle undercurrent (for me, back in the day) was: the more I suffer, the more deserving I will be of God's love; and even this: the more I suffer, the more God loves me. It leads to a sort of "Bring It On" mentality among some of us. Oh, yeah, I'm suffering, but it's making me into a better person. I think you find this attitude particularly among Christians of Northern European descent. :-)

So when I first started studying Buddhism and ran across the idea that "All is suffering" (a summary of the First Noble Truth), and that the point of Buddhism is to escape suffering, it made no sense to me. Why would you want to escape suffering? Suffering is part of life. Suffering is what helps you grow up. If you run from suffering, you miss out on life, you are a baby.

I struggled with this misunderstanding for a long time. I spent the whole time I was reading the Dalai Lama's book on happiness arguing with him. (Arrogant, much?)

I've come to think it's mainly a problem in translation, though. There is no way in English to differentiate between what His Holiness is talking about and the kind of suffering I was thinking about. The word suffering is used to mean something different, and it was a bit of a stretch for my WASP brain.

Finally one day last spring I GOT it. I was drying my hair, and feeling irritated that it was already time to get a haircut again. You get a haircut; it's too short for a week; then it's just right for a couple of weeks; then it's getting too long; then it's already time for a hair cut again.

And like the proverbial lightbulb going on, I thought, "Oh! that's it!" Nothing like the small mundane things to help you see larger truths. The Buddhist idea of suffering is more about the endless cycle, the daily grind, the unending work of getting through life. You get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, clean up, go to bed, then the next day you do it all over again. It's all about the cycle, the endless cycle.

It's a classic East/West difference. I was trained to think of suffering as a linear thing, something that happens along the way that is a means to an end, a process that gets you to a goal-- the goal of being a better Christian. Your life is going along just fine, then some big problem hits, and you have to get through it. Then things go back to normal (usually). Getting through the time of suffering helps you grow.

The Buddhist idea is about endless reiterations of the same things, the kinds of things my WASP brain would have considered background, white noise. In Christianity, suffering is big stuff--persecution, illness, losing your job. In Buddhism, suffering is just the grind, the stuff you have to do over and over to get through the day.

Like laundry. Laundry never ends. There is always more laundry to do at our house. Or cooking. Someone is always hungry at our house. Or batteries. Here are the rechargeable batteries I have: cell phone, iPod, camera, laptop. You charge them up, use them for a few hours or days, then they have to be recharged again. It's an endless cycle, and it's a pain in the ass.

But once I got that figured out, it seems that the attitude that you have toward suffering in both traditions is pretty similar. You don't run from it, you don't avoid it, you dive in. But where Christianity emphasizes endurance, getting through it, Buddhism emphasizes staying open, not shutting down, while you are in the midst of suffering.

Pema Chodron says you try to stay soft, instead of closing up like a clenched fist. You let yourself experience your suffering fully. You grow up. What I had interpreted in Buddhism as wanting to run away from suffering is actually not attaching importance to suffering, not letting yourself get caught up in thinking that the daily soap opera of our lives is important.

Disclaimer: As always, my understanding of Buddhism is anything but expert. More experienced insights welcome.


thinking about Buddhism

I'm going to be posting about Buddhism for the next few days. That's the plan, anyway. Buddhism has become very important to me as a source of wisdom, and as a counterpoint to the way I was raised. I love the way it stretches my mind, makes me think about things from a new angle. But for reasons I'm not sure I can really explain, I'm not at all interested in becoming Buddhist. Maybe I'll write more about that at some point.

But I'm having a harder and harder time continuing to attend a Christian church. So. just thought I should put that out there. No conclusions to announce because I haven't reached any.

(as always, a work in progress)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I posted about dealing with fear-- fear of rejection from family, fear of bucking the system, fear of being seen as a troublemaker. This past weekend, I spent quite a bit of time with fear of a more visceral sort. I drove my daughter to Oregon to visit a school there. The drive over was ten hours of easy interstate driving-- a long day, but nothing exciting. The drive back was a different story. A severe winter storm swooped in as we were leaving. It was just rain in Salem, where we started, but by the time we had driven through Portland, it had turned into sleet, and then ice and snow. Three days and 24 hours of driving later, we finally got home about 8 last night. It was awful, white knuckle driving almost the entire way, sprinkled in with some even more terrifying moments.

There was plenty of time to think about fear, and how it feels, and what it does to you. Hours and hours of creeping along at speeds ranging from 2 mph to 45-- we didn't get up over 50 until the last few hours. From small things, like what if I don't make it back in time for this, this and this; to huge things, like What if I never see my spouse and son again? Now that I'm home and sitting in my nice warm house, fear becomes something interesting to think about. But I can still feel it; my stomach still knots up everytime I think about the hour and a half we spent on an overpass waiting for a tow truck to come and clear an accident that happened four cars in front of us. Most of us were friendly in spite of the tension, but tempers flared and a couple of different times people came storming up from further back in the line ready to give hell to anyone they could find. As if the poor woman whose car had spun out had done it on purpose. (there were no injuries, thank goodness, just her car which was probably totaled, another car with minor damage, and traffic backed up for miles, I'm sure.)

I'm so grateful to be home. But we're supposed to get 1-3" of snow tonight. Ah, the joys of winter.


Monday, January 21, 2008

The Index post

This used to be a blog about recovering from fundamentalism (Christian, in my case). I'm now some sort of mishmash of Christian/Buddhist/Agnostic, and if that sounds complicated, let me just say that you have no idea. Then it was a blog about going back to school in your forties, which I did so that I could finally finish my Master's in English. In fact, I was in my late forties. I turned fifty in grad school.

Now it is just a blog. At the moment it doesn't have a particular theme, although usually I post about books/literature, spirituality, religion, very rarely politics, and whatever else I can think of.

So for the most part you can find posts that are related to any of those topics by clicking on one of the labels over on the left. But for a long time I didn't know how to do labels, so I created this index post to help me find things--and maybe it will help you find things, too. The labels are over there on the right if you scroll down, way down. If you click on a label, to read them in chronological order, you have to scroll down to the bottom and read "up" (and sometimes you even have to click on "Older Posts" to get all the way back to the early ones).  I wish they'd fix that, but currently there's no way around it in Blogger.

The ones about going back to school when you are way too old for it are labeled back2school (applies to anyone going back to school as an older adult) or gradschool (about my specific experiences in English grad school).  The ones about faith and spirituality are labeled Groundwork, Lent, Easter, why I still go to church, gays and Christianity, etc. If you just want to hit the high points without reading all that mess, try the one on Abeyance, or click on the label for Easter.

If you're new to this blog and would like to read through only the ones involving fundamentalism, here is a partial list from back before I figured out how to use labels. Some of these are so old that I would probably word them differently now, but here they are. Note: this is my third blog (click here if you want an explanation of that), so the older posts have been moved over from my first blog. Confusing, I know.

part one of my history (11/04)
part four of my history (1/05)
(parts two and three were about my forays into New Age spirituality. If you're interested, let me know and I'll see if I can still find them.)
while reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" (08/04)
thoughts after taking a quiz (10/04)
why this is not a political blog (11/04)
concerning sin (4/05)
concerning agnosticism (5/05)
while reading "The Spiral Staircase" (04/06)
After listening to Julia Sweeney (12/06)

part 1 of trying to figure something out (01/07)
part 2 of trying to figure something out
I never really figured it out, but here are some ideas

don't know what to call this one
a technical aside (6/07)
inerrancy part 1 (6/5/07)- background
inerrancy part 2 (6/21/07)
inerrancy part 3 (7/9/07)
inerrancy follow-up (8/07)
after trying to read Blue Like Jazz
thoughts on faith
trip to a Christian music festival (there are a bunch of these in the last week of July07 and the beginning of Aug07, but the main ones are Creation 1 Creation 2 Creation 3
another (12/07)

January 2009 update: rather than creating a new index post for last year, I thought I'd just add on to this one. Here are the relevant posts from last year:

fear (1/08)
Buddhism- Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Bob (2/08)
The Problem of Wineskins (2/08)
religion/spirituality (2/08)
the infamous Easter posts (4/08) second one third and another follow-up
(infamous to me, anyway)
(it might be easier to read those if you just click on April 2008, but then you have to scroll down to the bottom and read up to get them in order)
a short one that's important to me (8/08)
Trust (8/08)
posts inspired by The Shack: first second third

Posts of interest from 2009:
why fundamentalism?  part 2
on a friend's birthday
two stories
interview with Bart Ehrman
What I think of as God
belief/unbelief  part 2  and the fear that goes with it

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

So, you may have noticed I haven't posted much in awhile. I could use the holidays as my excuse, and it wouldn't be a lie-- the holiday season always wears me out. But it's not the whole story. Over the last several months, I've come right up against the dark underbelly of having been raised fundamentalist, which is fear. It takes two forms-- one, the normal fear that people won't like you, your family will disown you, no one will want to be friends with you; the other, the fear of bucking the system, the fear of pitting your little voice against the wisdom of the group, which is a deeper, darker thing. In my experience, the hold that fundamentalism has over you is based on the subtle undermining of your own opinions at the same time you are groomed to see the beauty of supporting the group-- in other words, inimidation. In other words, bullying. It's difficult to tease out, because often, and certainly in my case, the people who are doing the intimidating and bullying are people who love you and only want the best for you-- it's just that their definition of "best" turned out to be pretty different than mine. And also, it is innocent on their part; my parents, extended family, and church didn't do anything "to" me that hadn't been done "to" them, that wasn't part of the culture in which they were/I was raised.

I run this blog anonymously for several reasons. The main one is that I really am a privacy freak, in my normal life as well as online. But another important reason is that I don't want my family to read this. They know I no longer consider myself a conservative Christian, but I've never been much more specific than that.

If they read this blog, I'm afraid of what would happen, honestly. It sounds silly, doesn't it? I mean, after all, they're not going to come after me with pitchforks. My family is not so fundamentalist that they would cast me out, as happens in many conservative faiths (I read "Leaving the Saints" by Martha Beck last month). They would be sure to point out to me the error of my ways, but they wouldn't disown me. There might be one or two more distant relations that would refuse to speak to me, but most would just disapprove. Pointedly. And they would pray for me, that I would see the light (by their definition, natch).

I hate that. I want them to see my point. I want to believe that if they started at the beginning and read through my reasoning, they would agree with me, or at least understand where I was going, and I could take my family with me on my journey. But I'm pretty sure that's not true. I'm pretty sure they would agree with certain points, but there would be a mental line in the sand beyond which they would not go. It makes me sad.

Oh, I'm babbling on again, and neglecting the main point which is that I've been dealing with this gut-level fear of speaking out, "speaking my own truth," as they say. I'd like to be able to say I'm done with it and now I'll be fine. But I don't think that's true. It will be an ongoing thing.

Monday, January 14, 2008

photos, for the first time

We had freezing fog here today, a not-uncommon weather event in our area. It usually dissipates not long after the sun comes up (one hesitates to say it "burns off" since the temperature didn't get above 25 degrees today), but today it hung around until noon. The amazing thing, though, is that it coats every stick, needle, and twig with frost. It's quite lovely. So I tromped out to the field next to our subdivision, the same one that will be the largest mall in the state in two years, to take some pictures to share with you, my gentle readers. Loyal but stupid dog in tow, happily rolling in every patch of yellow snow she could find.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Here are the books I read last year that were worth reading, in no particular order:

The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion
Great Expectations, Dickens
What Remains, Radziwill
Leaving the Saints, Beck
Beowulf, Heaney trans.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, Merton
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer
Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen
Wintersmith, Pratchett (young adult)
Jane Eyre, Bronte
Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield

An even dozen. Not bad.