Dramatic Enchantments

Tuesday August 29, 2006


What a weekend! I arrived back from my Buddhism and the Contemporary course on Friday evening, with a pile of e-mail to sort through and with a broken-down hard-drive to deal with. The course was wonderful – five days of fascinating and fertile discussions in a truly beautiful setting, and I’ll be writing more about it over the coming days as I have a notebook crammed full with notes and thoughts and ideas.

But, first of all, the hard-drive. I called the computer guy on Saturday, and he came round with my computer, installed with a spanking new hard-drive, but with bad news on the old drive: he had not managed to salvage anything. My last full backup was from six weeks ago, my last backup of my PhD from the end of July, so my complete rewrite of chapter two (with which I was extremely pleased) was entirely lost. This was not the news I wanted to come home to.

What was interesting, however, was my response. When it had sunk in that I would have to entirely rewrite chapter two once again, I was distraught. I banged my fist on the desk. I cried out to the gods at their injustice. I moaned and wailed. I did all of this for ten minutes, and it was pretty exciting, all things considered. But then I thought to myself: wait a minute! Why are you doing this? Why are you playing out this little drama? Is it really necessary?

And because I knew that the answer to the final question was an unequivocal “no”, I stopped.

I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative and drama recently. These were topics that came up repeatedly throughout the week, and ones about which I may write more in a few days time. To think in terms of drama and the enchantments of drama is, I suspect, an interesting way of thinking about how we cause misery for ourselves. Of course things go wrong, things break down, and when they go wrong and break down it is painful. But what the Buddha called dukkha is something separate from this. This is made clear – as was pointed out during the week – in the Stone Sliver Sutta in which the Buddha, walking barefoot through India, pierces his foot with a sliver of stone.

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha at the Maddakucchi Deer Reserve. Now at that time his foot had been pierced by a stone sliver. Excruciating were the bodily feelings that developed within him — painful, fierce, sharp, wracking, repellent, disagreeable — but he endured them mindful, alert, & unperturbed. Having had his outer robe folded in four and laid out, he lay down on his right side in the lion’s posture, with one foot placed on top of the other, mindful & alert.

The freedom from dukkha, then, is not the freedom from pain: the pains of the stone sliver were excruciating. It is a freedom from everything that we add to this experience of pain. And this process of adding to the experience seems, as often as not, to be entangled with the dramatic narratives we tell ourselves about the pain we experience when the world does not conform to our exacting specifications.

What is striking in situations such as these we become become genuinely enchanted by the drama of which we are a part. And becoming enchanted, we start to play along, hammering our fists on our desks, cursing the gods and so forth. To be sure, it is exciting. But it is neither very dignified nor very useful.

So this is what I’ve been thinking about: dropping the drama. I’ve been paying closer attention to the stories that I am telling myself, and how these stories not only themselves add discomfort to discomfort but cause me to act in ways that add further discomfort still. And I have been noticing how, in dropping the drama, life is made easier. Not a life free of discomfort. But the possibility of a life in which, if there are pain and discomfort, then this pain and this discomfort are uncomplicated by dukkha.

I’ll write more about the week in a few days’ time. But for now, it’s back to chapter two… See you all soon.

# · Tom

Hmm. I hadn’t heard that definition of dukkha before.

I had recently read, over at Danny Fisher, that dukkha translates literally as ‘bad axel hole’—meaning that your cart is going to give you a bumpy ride.

Sooooo. Maybe when we are BEING axel-holes we create dukkha and suffering.

This is a bit of a shame. I enjoy banging my head against the wall every once in a while.

I have to say that I had always thought that the mishaps and major misfortunes that I experience were dukkha, themselves, hitting me like hailstones falling out of the sky, and that what I brought to it all was just the icing on the dukkha cake.

I am curious to know if we should interpret your Buddha story as Buddha being stoical, or does he actually not suffer? If I were in fierce, wracking pain it would have to be an act for me not to appear to be perturbed.

# · Dave

Sounds right to me, Will. Pain usually occurs for a reason; not to feel pain would put us at risk of much greater injuries or premature death.

Sorry to hear about your loss of all that work, though. That just blows no matter how you look at it.

# · Gareth

...yup, don’t know why we love that drama so much, but we do

(I suspect because I am the leading man in the drama)

I’ve heard Dukkha translated as unease, or discomfort – and sometimes simply as a longing for something that is permanent.

Glad you had a good week Will, and I’m curious to see what you write next.

All the best

# · Will

Thanks once again for the comments. T

om, I’d go with the unperturbability in the face of pain view, rather than the absence of pain view, as this seems more biologically and psychologically credible. It is pain, but I no longer take it personally. That’s tall order enough for me.

Thanks for your words of consolation, Dave. And Gareth, I think you are mistaken. I was sure that I was the leading man in the drama, not you… ;-)


# · Michelle

It’s nice to know this blog is up and running. Yes, dukkha is a major practice and it sounds like we all get to do it over and over again! I appreciate the reminder.

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