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.
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