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Lions Roar : September 2018
WHEN I BEGAN STUDYING DHARMA, I was depressed by the emphasis on suffering. I was a healthy young man—a cyclist, runner, and rock climber—and mainly I wanted to experience the world’s joys. Wasn’t all this talk about suffering morbid, a cultural holdover from a time before mod- ern medicine and agriculture and transportation? Then I caught a nasty flu and developed pneumonia. I was acutely sick for weeks and chronically ill for months. My body weakened to a frightening extent and any confidence I’d had in my physical capabilities collapsed. I couldn’t clear my lungs, barely had the strength to walk around, and descended into profound anxiety punctuated by nightmares in which I strug- gled, and failed, to crawl out of a deep sand pit. The uncon- scious isn’t necessarily subtle, I learned. Eventually I recovered, but over time I developed a host of other bizarre afflictions. There was a year of vertigo when I could barely leave my bed. Later, I began having attacks of acute abdominal pain that sent me to the ER three or four times a year, where the doctors were invariably baffled. After a decade of this, I was finally admitted for exploratory surgery; they determined I’d been having appendicitis attacks all along. Somehow, I’d recovered each time instead of dying—the only case like it my gastroenterologist had ever seen. Migraine clusters came and went. There were several sur- geries in addition to the appendectomy. One summer I got a drug-resistant bacterial infection that required six weeks of intravenous antibiotics. At grad school in Tucson I became severely ill with valley fever, a systemic fungal infection endemic to the Southwest, after which I never fully regained my stamina. This is only a partial list, but overall it was like squeezing a balloon; solving one problem just allowed another to emerge. I began to feel that “I” was my mind, and my body had become my enemy. My emotions ranged from rage at the litany of infir- mity to relief that once again I’d survived. Death became a frequent visitor, as well. My teacher, Chagdud Rinpoche, died, then my mother, my father, my brother. In-laws died, friends died, sangha brothers and sisters died. Suffice it to say that now, three decades after I first received teachings, I’ve acquired a somewhat better understanding of suffering and impermanence. I’d thought Rinpoche was being morbid when he taught about suffering, but he was just tell- ing us how things are. Now my sense is that suffering, gross or subtle, is simply the ground on which we build our precarious lives. And if I accept it on that level, through some alchemy I can’t yet articulate, it stops feeling like suffering at all, at least as we usually use the term. This is not to say we imagine it; it’s just that suffering and not-suffering begin, somehow, to become indistinguishable. I’d always thought accepting the premise of suffering as the substrate of existence would deaden my pleasure in the world, but paradoxically, the opposite has occurred. What used to be unremarkable experiences—cool morning air, my wife’s touch, easing into the soft embrace of sleep—have, to me, become sources of wonderment. Given what I’ve lived through and what I know lies ahead, I find this encouraging, and quite a relief. CARY GRONER is the author of the novel Exiles and a journalist who covers healthcare, science, environmental issues, and more. The Wonder Years Getting older, getting sick—when CARY GRONER accepts the truth of suffering, he discovers the wonders of his ordinary world. LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 64