21 March 2007

When Awareness is too much to bear

There's an image from near the beginning of the Tibetan Book of the Dead as translated by Chögyam Trungpa that has stayed with me. In the bardo we are confronted with Reality in it's pure form, but it is too intense and we flinch away, and then we are presented with Reality in a slightly less straightforward, but still pure, form, but it also is too intense and we flinch. We keep chunking down until we find a level of Reality we can deal with. In every moment Reality is staring us in the face but often it's too intense and we have to look away. And so we are bound to Samsara. It seems that all of us can only bear a little Reality at a time.

I love the phrase consensual reality! Most of the time it just means 'the level of reality which most of the community, or the collective, can handle over a sustained period of time'. What is meant, I'm sure, is not the mob, not the unthinking riot that can spontaneously break about amongst groups, but the more everyday conspiracy that we generally do tacitly consent to. This can be interesting for Buddhists because we are interested in consensus and we are interested in Reality. Buddhist practices aim to raise our level of awareness and to get us to consent to a higher level of reality. So we often don't consent to consensual reality, and that can be a interesting position to be in as anti-war protesters in Sri Lanka found last year when they were attacked by a mob of hardline pro-war bhikkhus! (which must be the acme of Buddhist oxymorons)

It's hard when one is depressed, to put on a good show as a Buddhist. If we hang around with other Buddhists a lot, and I do, then we can get these subtle hints, and sometimes not so subtle, that it is not OK that we are suffering quite so much and quite so publicly. Almost like we're letting the side down somehow. Everyone suffers of course, but some people suffering much more acutely, and witnessing this can make us very uncomfortable. Buddhists are meant to be happy, yeah?

Sometimes when ordinary reality is too much to bear things can escalate way off the scale and you end up in a realm of intense mental suffering, the Hell Realms. This is not an unfamiliar experience for me, and I know a number of people who when confronted with reality have, for instance, tried to take their own lives, or to harm themselves in any number of ways. Remember that everyone is flinching from reality all the time. If we flinch away from an experience that is incredibly painful then we are not behaving in a way that is different to our fellow humans.

The difference is merely one of the strength of the reaction. The more painful the experience the more we flinch, and that can take us into the Hell Realms. It's also important to remember that this is not a punishment. Not facing Reality is in itself painful. But for some reality is so painful that they will attempt suicide, or cut themselves, or numb themselves with strong drugs, or whatever. Sometimes the pain spills over into unskilful behaviour - anger, shouting, attacking - frequently the sufferer blames and punishes themselves which just makes things worse.

Now some people will immediately be able to relate to this - they will have their own experience of harming themselves in some drastic way in order to avoid experiencing reality. But the majority will not get what I am saying. You feel confused by extreme responses to suffering, you feel uncomfortable, you feel threatened, you feel afraid. Try this (with caution): imagine that you are a small, defenceless child, and that someone larger, or a group of people, is physically attacking you. How long does the attack last? Are you badly hurt, or just terrified? Was it a stranger, or someone you know and love? Were there witnesses and how did they respond: with kindness, with mockery, did they join in? Now imagine it all over again. And again. Do this at several times a day for several years. Imagine that you have almost perfect recall of the violent events so that the memories of being attacked and abused are, after decades even, capable of propelling your body into a fight or flight response - your heart races, your muscles tense, your breathing is shallow! Would you be willing to try this thought experiment? How far would you take it and what effect would it have on your mind? Would you chose to do it? Would you be able to? For some people, some times there isn't really a choice - those are our memories, that is our experience.

Sangharakshita points out that in the Tibetan Wheel of Life the Buddha who appears in the Hell Realms offers the beings there Amrita which has a double connotation. Amrita means "deathless" so it stands for the goal. Sometimes when you at rock bottom there is nothing to do but go for refuge. Amrita is also like ambrosia though, like a soothing balm. And this is something that beings in Hell need: they need to be soothed and cooled, they need a little relief. This may seem like a contradiction but sometimes what people who are suffering need is a little distraction. When you suffer intensely it is all too easy to be caught up in that, to feel like all there is is suffering. A little soothing distraction can create enough space around the hurt, enough perspective to allow a more creative response. It is said that the human realm is so special because it is only from there that Awakening is possible. Sometimes a little relief allows a being in Hell to approach a more human state from where anything is possible.

I don't think there's any way around the fact that we need to cultivate awareness, that we need to pay attention to what is going on. But compassion dictates that we allow for human weakness in ourselves and others, that we allow for flinching away from pain. Each person is the best judge of how much pain they can stand, and we need to let them make that decision for themselves. And maybe stand by with amrita.

image - detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgement.
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