suffering and happiness

for the next while i am reading thich nhat hanh’s __no mud, no lotus: the art of transforming suffering__ in a long-distance conversation with a dear friend. we have decided to read small sections every morning and communicate how it is setting our daily intention, or what gives us pause, or what will be something to think on today, etc. i might sometimes expound on what i’m thinking and feeling here. 

light and dark

“you cannot have light without darkness”
“darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

confused yet? i am.

growing up among different denominations, learning about different religions, and entering the clergy all provide multifaceted thoughts on light and dark, on good and evil, on suffering and happiness. while reading the first two sections this morning my mind had to pass through a few crowds of belief:

1) the “god didn’t bring me this far to leave me” theology. in my understanding, to ascribe to this belief necessitates belief (or at least entertaining of the belief) that god has given you this suffering. and if you stay in it long enough you will find happiness or fulfillment when god is ready for you to have it. (if god is ready for you to have it.)
this is harmful. personally, considering a deity (that when creating called all and everything Good) that would hand out suffering to humanity and the earth like a mystical grab-bag is beyond my understanding. there is such deep and great suffering within each of us all over the world. and many suffer at the hands of dictators, through the terrors of war and violence, at the hands of partners and loved ones, and through chemical imbalances and misfiring in the brain that we call mental-illness.
to consider that my friends in karamoja (uganda) have been chosen to suffer drought and famine is too much. not only can i not stomach it, i cannot tell them that god brought them specifically to a place of pain and hunger because god wants them to be happy.

2) the “if you are suffering you must have brought this on yourself–“you clearly haven’t prayed enough” theology. many find the evidence for following this theology in job-when job’s friends ask him questions of “well, what did you DO to deserve losing your home, cattle and entire family?” by my best reading, this theological stance puts all of the pressure on creation to behave exactly right, no matter what, or it is your own fault you are in pain.

this is harmful. considering this theological stance paints god as a cartoon magician-villain lurking in dark alley-ways and slinking along the side of a building just waiting for someone to mess up. but to think that someone suffering from depression or deep anxiety somehow brought that upon themselves? how cruel. to blame a child who has suffered abuse of any form that they brought it upon themselves by their behavior? unthinkable.
i do not deny that our actions have consequences, of course. but acknowledging cause and effect does not affirm that ‘if you just believe” or “if you just pray more” or “if you just pray more honestly” is a healthy theological stance.
having passed through those grasping crowds of theological understanding i can read thay’s words through the delicate lens of:

3) suffering and happiness are inextricably bound.

this understanding is remarkably close to the previous two points–which is why it is so easy for each of them to pull on my consciousness, and pull at my shoestrings trying to win me to one theological stand point or another. but my theological stance here is somewhere near the middle–not entertaining the other stances mentioned as my base, but knowing that they are close enough to this center that they are heard.
the writers of that great theological play “avenue q” address a related concept of the closeness of suffering and happiness in addressing love and hate (in a romantic relationship):

note: i’m not advocating partner-violence, nor is this necessarily sound relationship advice. also, its racist. 

“love, and hate–are like two brothers that go on a date. where one of them goes, the other one follows…”

this is really what i’m getting at here. perhaps suffering and happiness are like two brothers that go on a date. (only less creepy.) they are bound together in partnership.

what a fine balance between the first two theological stances and this third one! as we humans try to make sense of the world around us we like to add qualifiers and rules to aid our understanding. this is not wrong or inherently bad, but rather quintessentially human. the difficulty is to rest somewhere in the middle while asking questions and seeking understanding and not becoming legalistic or militant in our reasoning. to rest in the middle and acknowledge all the questions and perhaps a gray-at-best understanding can be a difficult place to be–but being able to rest in this liminal space of knowing and unknowing opens up a world of wonder and depth.

flowers and clouds

in this space of depth, and of wonder that we can see clouds in flowers.

“if you look deeply into a flower, you see that a flower is made only of nonflower elements. in that flower there is a cloud. of course we know a cloud isn’t a flower, but without a cloud, a flower can’t be. if there’s no cloud, there’s no rain, and no flower can grow.”

it takes some mental work, intentional stillness and mindfulness to hold two things lightly in two hands:

first- that “a flower is made of only nonflower elements” (clouds/rain, sunshine, earth, minerals). “a flower can’t be by herself alone. a flower can only inter-be with everything else.”
and
second- that “if you don’t have mud, a lotus won’t manifest.”

it takes holding onto these things lightly–not grasping or clutching–to avoid the perils of the first two theological stances listed above. the voices of those two stances are quite loud (they are in the culture of the church in the united states, and in many ways latent in american culture) and vie for correctness and our ascribing to them. acknowledging their existence and choosing to hold flowers as clouds in one palm and no mud, no lotus lightly in the other palm the sharp edges of the two stances crystallize into a third way:

recognizing that suffering is going to happen.

acknowledging the mud of suffering and where i am standing in it.
(am i at the edge of the mud? the center? is it up to my ankles? knees? chest?)
practicing seeing clouds in flowers, especially when the mud is not deep enough to cover my toes so that when it is quite high my mindfulness muscles remember  that somewhere there is a lotus.

but also not glorifying suffering. it is not a badge of honor to suffer–nor is someone’s suffering “better” than mine. what if rather than comparing suffering “you have suffered more than me” or “my suffering is greater than yours” we acknowledge that we all suffer, and that that suffering manifests in different ways. the depression and boredom found in the united states is not “silly” compared to the suffering that comes with drought and famine. this framework allows for your suffering to be Real while someone else’s suffering is also Real. no comparisons-just acknowledgement and then the seeking of the lotus.

it is a hard balance. at the same time i am saying that suffering of famine and suffering of depression and boredom are the same. but i am also saying that they are not–each is unique in its own way. but they are also connected–“a flower can’t be by herself alone. a flower can only inter-be with everything else.”

sometimes, to hold things lightly means to hold them with no concrete answer.
truth is often made of gossamer.

“we don’t have to create more”

there is enough suffering already. the universe does not need me to add to my own suffering, the suffering of any other person, nor to the earth herself.

what does it mean to not create more suffering within myself? to acknowledge that i have access to both suffering and happiness in my daily life? without reaching over into the second theological stance of not doing enough, i am considering what it means to choose happiness even in the midst of suffering. this is a harder task than to choose to stay in the suffering . (i do not mean that suffering is bad and that we should never acknowledge it or shun suffering as something to be avoided. but rather approaching with honesty and seeking to understand. i am not advocating for ignoring the suffering of those around the world nor of those in our communities, nor the suffering that resides in each of us. this is not a call to plaster a smile on when we need to grieve, or experience a dark night of the soul, or are in a time of depression. no white-wash, no fake happiness. this is different.)

also, what does it mean to not create more suffering for others? how would my interactions with people, animals and the planet shift if my focus was to not create more suffering? but to acknowledge the suffering of all–including my own–and to also acknowledge happiness. (i am reading happiness here as joy — for me, proof of the work and beauty of the holy spirit) as somehow connected to suffering. (but not because of it or necessarily in spite of it.)

for now i will let these ponderings continue to rest gently in my two palms, and in my mind, as i go about living. and will look for clouds in flowers, and try to tend the seeds of the lotus blossom in the mud of life. i will seek to understand the suffering of christ with the happiness of christ. and i will always return to rest in the Goodness of creation–” and god said, ‘it is good.'” for if god created all things Good, even mud must contain happiness.

afterthought: what is happiness, anyway? and who gets to decide?

intention: i will not create more suffering but will seek to create happiness in my own life and in the lives of others around me, for the earth and all in my care. what creates your happiness does not have to be what creates my happiness. i will listen to what makes you happy and honor that. i will listen to what makes me happy and honor that–even when standing in mud that does not smell very good.

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One thought on “suffering and happiness

  1. Pingback: truth and tomatoes. mud and jesus. | kiss the joy as it flies

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