Why are you hurting yourself?

“Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that?”
– Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

I’ve put a lot of effort into my practice at times. It’s arguable how much that helped; there’s a concept of right and wrong effort, you know, and paradoxically also an idea in my head that if you keep pushing a door marked ‘pull’ for long enough, you’ll get exhausted and finally let it swing open. But throw a lot of energy into it I did. Even now my habit is to give 110% effort or nothing into things, really, so that when I practice my mind spontaneously tries to grab every sensation, pray with huge ardour.

And often, it hurts. Sitting on a meditation cushion for twelve hours a day hurts. Being on retreat away from your partner or just the dog hurts. And it continues to find more insidious and damning forms even as I make progress: the memory of some amazing experience is the knowledge that you’re not experiencing it now, and missing something that feels so good hurts. Once you start to awaken, your own bad behaviour hurts. Not being enlightened, and knowing in your bones it is possible in your lifetime, hurts. So badly, at times.

Suffering is, I’m afraid, inevitable in this gig. I don’t know anyone who has a completely nice practice. Sometimes I wonder whether it mainly matters in how dignified a fashion you can face sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, as the Buddha lists it. There is certainly something transformative when I have a humble attitude towards suffering, and that points to a different way of looking at it, that of non-attachment.

I’m not saying ‘don’t care’ and I’m not saying ‘detach from pain’ and I’m not saying ‘rise above it’. I’m saying, sometimes it’s possible to be bittersweetly graceful towards suffering. For all there are approaches that say ‘just watch, be equanimous, forget the self’, it is very possible for that to fall to disassociation and apathy. Even getting out of the way of your own Buddha Nature to let it shine out is not non-effort. The self does not have to be despised. It can be acknowledged, as the thing that is here and now.

Whatever is acknowledged, therefore, deserves to be cared for. It took me quite a long time to turn around the loving-kindness practices I did for others and realise that this entity here deserved exactly the same treatment. I have a friend who asked me how he could do metta for himself when he was flawed. I pointed out the contradiction in terms: he was asking how could he show unconditional love to himself when he didn’t feel he deserved it?

It’s (as usual) rather paradoxical, because as soon as I look at myself and say ‘I, too, deserve to be safe, well and happy’, I am in some way making those qualities I see as ‘I’ an object: this vulnerable body, this restless mind, these feelings which can be hurt. I am an interested party, a well wisher. There is something worthwhile, in fact, in saying: actually, yes, these things make me up. They may be transient, but so is everything else.

So if you look at it that way, then yes: you are a person exactly as others are. And if you are anything like me, you have no problem wishing those others complete well-being, awakening in their own lifetime. You will wish that their practice be easy, that their sufferings be minimal, that they accept their flaws, that they see the bright side. The contradiction is obvious, if you are judging yourself in different ways.

I think I have an underlying sense that we pay for things as if God is a moral bean counter, or that karma is a simple balance. On the contrary, Muslims call Allah ‘the compassionate, the merciful’. Not ‘sometimes compassionate’ or ‘merciful once you’ve been punished sufficiently’: the merciful. Mercy itself. Similarly, the Buddha basically said: ‘Good luck trying to work out your karma. It’s too complicated, and you’ll go insane trying to’. If you’re not able to untie how to put things right, then the only choice is to completely accept it and then try harder.

So, questions arise: How much suffering before you ‘deserve’ enlightenment? How much work amounts to utter awakening? How can you stuff enough effort into the infinite to match its demands? How soon should you wake up that it is an epic enough journey for you? How do you hope to magically become infinitely deserving of complete peace? If someone awakened with no effort at all, would they have cheated?

How bad do you have to feel before your mistakes can be put aside in the cause of doing better next time? How exactly does this pain improve a situation? How much recompense could you give to a person you’ve wronged? Who will decide when the cosmic scales have balanced? Is it even possible? How flipping ridiculous is my line of thought seeming right now?

The answer to these sort of questions is, if you’re pessimistic: never. You’ll never feel you’ve done enough. The answer if you’re more positive, and a bit more gutsy is: when your ego is satisfied, which it never will be, so time to ditch that relationship. It’s just pride.

Trump a bizarre form of unassailable pride – I am so special that nothing can fill this gap in my soul – with a hopeful sense of humility. I am as broken as any, and as worthy of grace. There is absolutely no situation in which there is no joy when you look at it like that. It’s a hell of a practice, cutting straight to the point in a way that never even occurred to me for years, to say: no, this is at heart a silly game, compassion bent out of shape. I give myself permission to be unconditionally happy.

Noticing that it doesn’t seem 100% possible, and all the resistance that comes up, is the legwork. Sorry, no free lunches 😉

Practice suggestions

  • Resolve to allow yourself to be happy for a whole day.
  • Ask yourself throughout the day: Am I ready to awaken yet? Delve into the answers.
  • Look up a forgiveness meditation. Recall a situation that still makes you cringe. Apply.