April 14, 2004

Is that all there is?

I was reading the spring issue of Tricycle today, and I was thinking about Buddhism and suffering in general and why I stopped meditating a few months ago. At that time, I realized that I was meditating to achieve some kind of peace or happiness, and that was not what I wanted. Whatever meaning I will be able to find in my life will come from its ups and downs as much as any small piece of peace I might manage to find. I stopped meditating because the very struggle to get through the large and small pains of existence has always been, for me, a source of meaning, and it is also what makes the times of not struggling peaceful. Is suffering always bad? Might not there be something to gain from suffering? Cannot suffering give meaning to one�s life? According to the German phenomenologist Max Scheler, the East and the West have two very different approaches to suffering. In the West, we attempt to eliminate all of the external causes of suffering. We have technologies that keep us in relative comfort. We have high-speed means of transportation and communication to ease the suffering of being far away from those whom we love. There are so many drugs on the market in the US that the idea that someone has a pain or ache for which there is nothing he or she can get a prescription has become unsettling. We can make bombs that can annihilate our enemies in minutes. In the East, (and Scheler is really talking about Buddhism in general, and through bad translations at that) the attempts to eliminate suffering are aimed at internal causes of suffering. Rather than getting rid of distance through technological means, the East aims at getting rid of the attachment to being near one�s loved ones that causes the suffering at their absence. Rather than taking twelve pills a day, the Eastern ethos might advise one to be less attached to one�s bodily comfort. And why bomb your enemies if they can�t hurt you? What these approaches have in common is that they both seek to eliminate the sources of suffering. During my year and a half as a Buddhist, I always thought that the Four Noble Truths were missing a premise, namely, the premise which states that suffering is bad and should always be avoided. I have read that the undesirable nature of suffering is self-evident. But I don�t think it is self-evident to reflective people who can find meaning in their suffering. Scheler is writing from a Catholic perspective, and what is crucial to his view on suffering is that there are objective values of which we are intuitively aware. These values are hierachical, i.e., some values are higher than other values, such as life being a higher value that usefulness and spirit (Geist) being a higher value than life. Taken separately from any Christian perspective, or even a necessarily theistic approach, one can understand Scheler�s notion of sacrifice, of disvaluing something for the sake of a higher value. From a Schelerian perspective, there are values for which one might be willing to sacrifice even one�s very life, and you don�t have to believe in Jesus to understand that. Coming back to suffering, of what use can suffering be? Sticking to our previous examples, being far away from a lover can help one to experience higher values than those which would otherwise be likely to be experienced. One cannot have sex or even have fun taking a walk with a lover from afar, but one may experience the more �spiritual� aspects of real love thereby. Perhaps one who is suffering physically can experience a more profound spirituality as a result of the out-pouring of love and warmth from one�s family. Having enemies can make us better people, sometimes, than having dead enemies or enemies who don�t really bother us all that much. Suffering can open up our experience to higher values and can, as such, certainly give meaning to our lives. Before we seek to eliminate suffering, perhaps we should ask what meaning can be had from such suffering and whether or not there are higher values to be experienced by finding this meaning in our suffering. Of course, this is all dependent on there being something else, something beyond the physical, the visible, that which is readily experienced. No one can convince us that there is something else. William James says that we can feel it; there is too much order and harmony to really suspect that it�s all an accident, according to him. This is not the place to get into religious convictions regarding the metaphysics of the universe. For someone who thinks that this is all there is, perhaps there is no meaning in suffering, since such suffering is all there is. But wouldn�t such a total life of suffering be meaningful also, if that were all there is? If there is nothing else but the physical/visible; and one suffers; and there is no meaning to suffering; one�s life would then be meaningless. And, well, I can�t give any �reasons� why, but I just can�t accept that.


Anonymous said...


The view & theses of Scheler you present here (I've not read him, myself. Something I noticed quite a while ago was that the people presenting weighty philosophical reputations and tracts tended to be those least competetent to do so.) say pretty strongly to me that he needs to spend a little more time Observing before having another go at Opining. But as you said, he's working from texts rather than the culture, a subset of texts at that, and a translated version of that subset at that.

But on a more positive note, re:
> "Is suffering always bad? Might not there be something to gain from suffering? Cannot suffering give meaning to one’s life?"

A small work that speaks directly and powerfully to your comment is "The Situation is Hopeless But Not Serious: The Pursuit of Unhappiness" by Paul Watzlawick. I can not recommend this book too highly, to almost anyone.
It's the best and most sharply observed work of anthropology I've come across.

Specifically, Paul lays out rather droll proof that for 99% of humans, the fastest way to destroy them is to make them happy and rich. Like most genuinely perceptive people, he does so with a minimum of pomp and words: you should breeze through the book in an afternoon, and with some hearty laughs take something with you that I think speaks insightfully to your question and will continue to do so for the rest of your life.


Pragmatik said...

Scheler indeed does work from observation, as that is one of the key elements of his phenomenological method. While he mis-understands a lot about Buddhism in general (he mistakenly thinks that it is ascetic, which it most certainly is not), the point that he wants to make for the purpose of expressing his views on suffering about Eastern ways of dealing with suffering is not entirely inaccurate (that it tries to rid one of suffering from within). Scheler is suspicious of the idea that we should do whatever we can to do away with suffering, whether it comes from the East or the West. He thinks that there is some value to be found in some suffering and that avoiding, preventing or eradicating suffering altogether is a mistake. (On the other hand, actually seeking suffering is masochism.) Scheler believes in values that are higher than values of life (which is where he breaks most strongly with Nietzsche, aside from his Christianity), so there will be some things which are more important than bodily comfort, maybe even more important than life itself. I'm not a Christian, but I think there are "greater goods" or higher values than life that can be understood outside of a Christian context. Felt, at least. At least for me.

Anonymous said...


I'm with you on this one John - I know nothing about philosophy and my comments are from the perspective of my own therapeutic journey and some systemic insights. Suffering can only exist because it is in relationship with that which is not suffering (be that happiness, contentment or some other phrase) i.e. it obtains a meaning precisely because it is "other"... and because we can choose whether to allow suffering and indeed happiness to be a learning experience as distinct from something that is managed and put away...so much of what passes for contentment and happiness (in my humble opinion) is an attempt to run away from the learning you describe..it's only in the learning that we can be aware, it's only in awareness that we recognise our choices.

Anonymous said...

The discovery that getting rid of suffering is not what it's all about, is one of the great lessons on the Buddhist path and not a reason to stop!
I have never met a Buddhist teacher who claimed they didn't suffer any more. The point is not to not suffer any more and live in some kind of permanent bliss, it is to be free of suffering and pleasure in a different sense, e.g. detatching ourselves from our worrying about our suffering (oh I'm ill - I wish it would stop - I won't be able to work - how long is this going to go on - what's wrong with me -- oh Mother!) or about the possibility of losing the pleasure we have this moment, breaking free from the "What if?" and "If only..." thoughts that plague our lives. (Breakign free repeatedly, because those thoughts will come back and back and bak).
Ultimately it's about just letting whatever happens happen, and just dealing with the things we can deal with.
Pema Chodron is particularly clear on this point, I think in all her books.
Practicing meditation helps me to observe how I'm functioning in this regard outside of formal meditation. If I don't practice for a while, that ability starts to fade.
Buddhism is alos about discovering how we deceive ourselves, how we build up one fantasy after another. So when you discover you've been fooling yourself, that's not a reason to stop.

Pragmatik said...

I never said that I stopped practicing Buddhism because I didn't want to suffer and then thought Buddhism didn't "work" because I still suffered or that Buddhists don't suffer or that the point of meditation is not to keep one from dwelling on or becoming too attached to one's suffering or suffering in general. While my meditational or experiential understanding is lacking (as most Buddhists would admit, I'm sure), I understand it's points enough to know that it's not about bliss and never suffering. I know that no Buddhist really expects to get rid of all their suffering.

What I said was that I don't see the point in trying to cease suffering or in trying to cease being attached to suffering -- for me. The idea that suffering is bad and to be avoided does not come to me to be a self-evident truth. Call me masochistic, but my suffering gives as much -- if not more -- meaning to my life than peace or joy.

I don't want a peaceful life. I want a meaningful one. And being too quick to attempt to dull or get rid of or become detached from my own suffering (i.e., my own experience) levels my life to a flatness I just plainly don't want.

Buddhism is wonderful. But, like any philosophy or religion, it's not for everyone. Buddhists have a proud tradition of not proselytizing by force or manipulation or by telling people that they're deluding themselves.