from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 8 June 2014

joy & sorrow

In Buddhist thought, much of our suffering comes from our reaction to perceived suffering. In other words, we make pain worse than it need be.

It's easy to find physical analogies here: if I fall from a horse, my pain and possible injury is likely to be worse if I tense myself through fear of the pain. If I tense against the acupuncturist's needles, I'll suffer more, albeit briefly, than if I relax and allow my muscles and the surface of my skin to soften. I know both these things from experience.

Similarly, we make our reaction to emotional suffering worse through two things: one is by resisting the uncomfortable emotion; the second is by feeding on the old habitual mental loop that says 'I've been here before, and this is going to hurt'.

I'm not meaning, by what I'm saying, to diminish pain, physical or emotional. Nor am I meaning to suggest in any way that we take a 'laissez-faire' attitude to the very real problems of cruelty, injustice, barbaric acts in the world. Suffering is real, is actual.

What I'm saying is that we don't have to overload ourselves with our habituated emotional reaction to it in addition to the immediate experience and/or useful response. (I have written elsewhere on this blog, no doubt a few times, about the important distinction between response, which is skilful and proactive, and reaction, which is instinctual, and although undoubtedly a necessary trigger for our awareness of something awry and a catalyst for positive action, is in itself usually futile and ineffective.)

We can explore this further. One difficulty is that we identify our self with our emotions. We make them central to who we are, and therefore cannot get a perspective on our pain, and so it takes us over.

If, though, instead, our emotional responses to the world are seen as just one aspect of the full and glorious experience of being alive, and we can sit whole at the hub of the wheel as the 'Wise Observer' (one of the things that meditation teaches us), it's possible to witness the whirling of transience around us, and fully experience our lives whilst still maintaining an awareness that we are more than our emotional reactions to circumstances.

Buddhism also tells us that much of our suffering comes from either attachment (which morphs so easily into addiction), or aversion. We crave that which makes us feel good, and push away that which makes us feel bad.

Psychology, though, reminds us that that which we push away, don't acknowledge, or resist and repress we will tend to keep meeting, 'out there'.  That which we crave will govern us.

In other words, somehow we have to accept that in this world of flux and shift which we meet in our humanness as pairs of opposites, both joy and sorrow will come upon us – as they should; that's how we're tempered, and tenderised, how we mature.

And we also need, as I responded to a comment below the last post, to have our hearts broken, over and over again – that's how the world can live in us.

As Kahlil Gibran reminds us, the deeper we allow sorrow to carve into our being, the more joy we can contain. Our task is to reconcile ourselves to this 'both/and' picture, without resorting to the Western 'either/or': to find a way to resolve the opposites within, to walk the Middle Way.

Author Lindsay Clarke, an expert in both alchemy and the Grail legends, said once that in our time, the role of the 'neutral angels' in the old stories of the 'War in Heaven' is crucial: how we can hold together in ourselves the eternally-conflicting pairs of opposites in creative tension so that they are related but we are not torn apart in the struggle.
We need to inhabit the creative tension of living with paradox and uncertainty. That way, we can embrace the dark and light both as being necessary to each other; we can make this world into our dance floor, and offer our own passionate equanimity to the world.


  1. A thoughtful and interesting post, which I very much enjoyed reading. That 'tension between opposites' is something I have thought much on, and your comments about 'the neutral angels' gave me a new insight into the 'War in Heaven' myth. Thank you so much: I do enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Thank you, Maureen! Nice feedback x


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