Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
– Buddhist proverb
Last night, my friend Jane and I went to the first author event of the Berkeley Arts & Letters’ Writers, Ideas, Conversations Fall 2013 series at the beautiful and historic Hillside Club (2286 Cedar Street, Berkeley, 94709, 510.848.3227). Mark Epstein, MD, psychiatrist, author, and lecturer on the value of Buddhist meditation for psychotherapy, read sections from his latest book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, and took questions from the audience. The event was a sell-out, and I wondered how many who crowded into the big auditorium came out of curiosity and to learn how they can embrace not only the traumas of their everyday life but the big traumas that many of us hope to somehow “get through.”
I confess that my understanding of Buddhism is severely restricted to the proverbs that I’ve come across or people have shared with me. I know of enlightenment and the state of nirvana. I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in high school, although now I feel the need to dig up my old copy and reread it, knowing that through wisdom gained from my life’s experiences I’d understand and appreciate the novel more. My limited understanding of Buddhism, however, did not take away from appreciating Epstein’s talk.
I found it immensely interesting that Epstein merges Western psychology and Buddhism, a sort of checks and balance, if you will. The genesis of his most recent book was in trying to figure out the Western world’s attachment theory versus the Buddhist idea of nonattachment. The idea of trauma became the “unifying notion” in understanding the two. In Buddhism, in order to unattach, you have to be in touch with who you are, and that includes both light and dark, joy and sadness. Trauma, Epstein says, is part of our definition of human being. Acknowledging suffering is huge. “The way out is most definitely through,” he said.
Epstein related two stories that resonated with me, filled me with wonder and appreciation. He told the story of a Thai Buddhist teacher who was explaining the idea of nonattachment. He held up a glass and talked about its utility, its beautiful tone when pinged, and the beautiful way it reflected light. The glass, however, is also at risk of being broken. But to the Thai Buddhist, “the glass is already broken, therefore every minute is always precious.” Accepting that notion of impermanence allows you to be more open to accepting trauma. It also allows for attunement of and appreciation for the here and now precisely because nothing lasts.
The second story is a famous Buddhist story, although it was new to me. Kisa Gotami was a mother whose infant son had died. Clutching him to her chest, she could not get over her loss and feared she was losing her mind. She went to the village, begging for a doctor who could give her medicine to bring her son back to life. An old man led her to Buddha, who told her to bring back mustard seeds from a home where no one has died. She went from house to house in vain. In her inquiries, however, she learned about the losses of each villager, she heard their stories. She came to understand that it wasn’t karma that created her fate. She didn’t do anything wrong to have been stricken with so much heartache. She learned from the villagers that there is no permanence in anyone or anything. By the time she returned to Buddha, she was already transformed and ready to accept the truth, which, of course, he led her to.
Following that line of thought, Epstein talked about how trauma therapists teach that “pain is not pathology.” It’s possible, he says, to change how to meet pain. “It’s not what’s happening inside of you, but how you relate to it [pain],” he said. We have a bit of control over how we relate to things. A light went on for me. I remembered the Buddhist proverb that I came across several months ago and embraced, and shared with my kids a number of times: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I guess what I may have been looking for in the reading last night was Epstein showing us how to meet pain, how to relate to it so that we find our way “through it.” I look forward to reading Epstein’s book and finding my answers there.