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Lions Roar : May 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 13 Editorial: The Pain Issue DEVELOPERS AT MICROSOFT give their major software projects codenames. Sometime in 2009, the next Windows operating system, codenamed “Vienna,” is supposed to be released. We sometimes give a working name to an issue of the Shambhala Sun that’s under development. But because we’re not working with a sophisticated team of branding professionals, it usually has something to do with the content. So we’ve had the Yoga issue, the Politics issue, and so on. Early on, and partly in jest, this one got dubbed the Pain issue because many of the articles—at least at first blush—address subjects we usually think of as “painful”: racism, poverty, fear, adversity. Pain, you might say, is Buddhism’s bread and but- ter. The first noble truth (Ladies and gentlemen, it’s all pain) is the philosophical cornerstone upon which the whole religion of Buddhism is built. And as Alice Walker correctly points out in this issue, many people come to Buddhism seeking a framework for and a method to work with pain—pain of a broken relationship, the loss of a loved one, fear of death, physical or mental ail- ments. People don’t often sit down to meditate—at least for the first time—without a compelling reason. So you might think that, over time, good Buddhists will necessarily become wise about suffering: knowl- edgeable, practiced at seeing and alleviating it, skilled at not perpetuating it. And some are. But even the best Buddhists experience pain. It’s traditionally said that ordinary people experience pain like the sensation of a feather on the palm, while bodhisattvas experience pain like the sensation of a feather on the heart. Perhaps that’s where this issue is “painful.” Perhaps, like me, you’ll be reminded again, that though you might mouth the words, you’re still some distance from accepting the fact you just don’t escape pain. Period. And to the extent that you don’t acknowledge and work with it in your own life, and address it in the lives of people in your community, nation, and globe, sadly, you seem to make it worse. The headline for Alice Walker’s powerful talk to the first-ever retreat for Buddhists of Color—Suffer- ing Too Insignificant for the Majority to See—has stuck with me. The phrase raises several difficult but still basic questions about pain: Is there any “insignificant” pain? Is there a threshold at which we will all agree, “This is pain”? Are there ever circumstances in which pain is truly invisible, or is it more often the case that I am, either innocently or deliberately, ignorant of it? Maybe you find this happening to you: To the ex- tent that things are going reasonably well in my life— I’m not in a state of constant joy, but at the same time, I’m not suffering overmuch—my aspirations and discipline wane, and gradually I’m not as avail- able to others. The shift is almost imperceptible at first (thoughts often preceded by “When I have time, I’ll...”), but gradually I arrive at a place where my awareness of and capacity to deal with my own and others pain is diminished. I start avoiding difficult people or pushing myself too hard. I create schemes aimed at increasing my own comfort. I rationalize other people’s pain. That is, when I see it. And when I realize (yet again) how fruitless the turning-away habit is, and what an utter waste of time—now that’s painful. It would be a disservice to call this the Pain issue without drawing attention to the intelligence, cour- age, and joy that are in the issue’s pain as well. This theme—particularly Traleg Kyabgon’s piece on mind- training, Pema Chödrön’s on being transformed by difficulty, and Susan Piver’s on becoming intimate with fear—points us in a direction that by convention we don’t often choose to go. We’re asked to pay attention to the details and quality of our pain. We’re asked to apply mental muscles we don’t often exercise to the subject of pain—rational dispassion, softened by a little kindness. We’ve been conditioned to think of pain as “bad.” But pain is a sort of good news, both because it’s a stimulus to growth (for evidence, browse through Phil Borges’ stunning portraits in “Local Heroes”) and because it’s shared by all of humanity. We don’t have to take it personally; everybody suffers. It would be easy to conclude that Buddhism has some sort of athletic, “no pain, no gain” philosophy behind it. But pain has to be placed in the context of what Zen labels “no gaining idea” and what Chögyam Trungpa called “journey without goal.” If you’re wor- ried about “you,” and eliminating your personal pain, you’ve missed the point. Relatively, yes, we can learn to be more skillful in working with the inevitable pain in our day-to-day lives. Ultimately, pain is the condition that binds us all. ♦