The Buddha teaches that human life itself is an experience of suffering. In Buddhist philosophy, the illnesses of the human condition, suffering (or duhkha), is thought of as a general state of inner human experience in which we sense that something about our life is simply, 'unsatisfactory'. Those of us living with the aftermath of psychological trauma, know all to well this sense of living a personally unsatisfactory life. The Buddha teaches that there are three forms that duhkha represents in the experience of distress in human living.
First, there is the suffering we experience as physical pain. We all know what this pain is. When we suffer a physical injury, the brain signals the body with a response to the wound. The pain we feel serves an understandable purpose: to rest the wound. Over time, as the injury heals, the pain signalling slowly subsides and we eventually return to living without the constant reminder that an injury to our body has taken place.
Emotional pain, the pain we feel as a result of our trauma, is another form of duhkha described by the Buddha. This second type of duhkha, is the emotional suffering we experience that is brought about (in the Buddha's teaching) by any situation of change. The Buddha says that all things in life are impermanent and if we resist this impermanence, we will suffer emotionally in the body and in the mind. This includes even the feelings directly related to this form of suffering, including the actual emotional distress itself.
This idea also includes our happy or blissful feelings and the Buddha also teaches that the actual reality of impermanence, of all experience, applies to all humans universally in life. This concept too, is an easily accepted description for a cause of suffering in the human experience.
The third form that duhkha takes in the Buddha's teaching is produced with our insistence that we are independent beings, unconnected to one another and to all that is. The 'I' we believe we are, does not stand alone in the Buddha's understanding. All things and all human beings, including what we might think about in terms of our being a separate and independent 'self' is not truth in the Buddha's understanding.
The truth, according to the Buddha, is that we are, in fact, interdependent. He further suggests that we must learn to accept this interdependence in order to achieve any end to the suffering we experience in our human experience of living and being in the world.
Western society, very much promotes this idea of individualized separateness from our fellow man. We live in North America very individual lives that dictate to us a form of human competition. We all individually seem to be on a solo, separated quest towards some unseen subjective prize.
In seeking the achievement of grasping hold of this symbolic trophy, whatever that trophy may be, we seem to need this competition to demonstrate our worth to our fellow man. We've learned in our culture to proudly state that it is for this reason, the personal achievement of whatever subjectively represents for us the individual prize, that our separate self matters, somehow, in terms of us being and feeling alive.
We suffer in living this competitive life. We suffer too, when we feel, as we do in our experience of trauma, that PTSD in our lives is a symbol of failure in our society. This is the stigma we live with in our illness, an internal sense of failure reinforced in the attitudes towards mental illness from the society in which we live.
For example, we see evidence of this angst in the homeless people now seemingly filling the streets of our inner cities. Many in this population, suffer with mental illness and addiction, caused by the emptiness that our society has imposed upon their souls. These lives, broken and torn apart, are the direct result of individual humans, traumatized in unimaginable ways, forced, as assumed failures, into our inner streets of ultimate despair.
In a society bent on individual competition, as we live in North America with the ultimate trophies being money, fame, status and power, we end up with these outcomes in people's lives. Outcomes where people are judged as winners or losers in the game of western life.
A second example of the human competition we experience in North America, stands out in business. Concepts of capitalism have driven us, it seems, further and further apart from any sense of collective harmony. There is competition in capitalist business. The largest companies with the greatest mass of wealth and resources are the ones we deem most precious to us, in terms of societal achievement.
The problems we are now experiencing globally, with environmental destruction of the planet we call home, stands as evidence enough to determine that all people in our society, individually and collectively, are suffering tremendously. Global warming of our climate, the ultimate symptom of this suffering, is proving itself to stem from the individual human activity we engage in practicing corporate competition. Denying our interdependence with one another, with the earth, with the universe and all that is, might well be destroying us individually, collectively and is demonstrating environmental evidence that we are killing the very planet we call home.
Add traumatic experience to this already somewhat sick way of life, and we experience the pain of western living, beyond any magnitude that we can explain. Many in our western culture, thrive in feeling the power and wealth when these prizes are actually won. When these trophies are not achievable? We suffer. We seem to need, as well, to dominate anyone we feel is a failure and we judge, the homeless for instance, through very cloudy eyes, now lacking any sense of compassion that interdependent living might well bring.
Will we learn to accept the Buddha's advice? Will we choose a new way of life in western society? Will we learn to abandon this concept of individualized and corporate success based on prizes of wealth, status and power as the ultimate measure of our individual worth? Will we come to learn the value of interdependence and draft for ourselves a new way of life?
It would seem, we must.
Suffering can end and the Buddha's teaching to us the truth, that all life is interdependent, could make all the difference. In healing our experiences of trauma, we learn to resist our sense of individualized failure and pain. By coming together in our experience and sharing a collective sense of hope, we can engage in an individual and collective healing.
By moving away from the isolation of individualism and by forming collective human tribes, compassionately engaged in healing, we can find mutual understanding and support. For it is in this interdependent sharing that we can move out of our individual modes of simply wanting to survive, into a common, more collective goal, of helping one another to truly be . . . . alive.
Please accept this challenge, coming into our Easter Season. Reflet upon this diagnosis of suffering as defined by the teachings of the Buddha. Next month, we will discuss the suffering of the the Christ, as means to perhaps understanding, even more fully, our experience of suffering through our personal healing of trauma.