By Ty H. Phillips
I step outside and breathe in the cold March air.
I look down at the orange laces on my Aquaman Chuck Taylor’s, heave a sigh, and begin walking. This is my third 10 minute walk of the day. I take these as often as I can; typically after a meal or every hour I am free and able to. These walks are all I have right now. My health has taken a severe and unknown turn over the last six months, and has left me 60lbs lighter and unable to train weights or to do many seemingly normal things, like sit, for more than a few minutes.
I just finished re-reading the first few chapters of Thich Nhat Hanh’s (in my opinion) seminal work, The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching. It seems fortuitous as he mentions many things that we got wrong in regard to what the Buddha actually taught, especially in terms of suffering. It is common for many today to mention how the Buddha said everything has suffering in it and describe the three forms of suffering. Brother Thay, (Thich Nhat Hanh) noted that this is not part of the real teaching of the Buddha but a later aberration on his comments on the reality of suffering.
Robert Thurman has said that we didn’t need the Buddha to point out the reality of suffering, “any idiot could have done that.” The point the Buddha was making was that there was a way to freedom from that suffering. Running around pointing out that everything is suffering is not one of those ways. Nor is trying to see suffering in everything.
A quote of the Buddha that I have used many times in my own writing was his comment that, “I teach suffering and freedom from suffering.” The point being that he teaches joy, nirvana, and peace…the freedom from what we cling to so much, such as our own suffering. As I walk, I realize that I cling—desperately so—to my own suffering.
My life has profoundly changed and I won’t lie, it’s been extremely painful. I struggle to breathe, I struggle to eat, I struggle to do the simplest of things without having hours of discomfort following them. For me, life was suffering. The hell I was so terrified of as a child and young adult, was a living reality for me in the here and now. I was not living, I was watching life go by. Doctor after doctor, test after test, medical bill after medical bill and six months into this, I am no closer to having an answer as to what is happening to me. I am falling through the reality of groundlessness and flailing wildly for something to latch on to. I am in other words, clutching on to my suffering in order to find freedom from it. I am doing the very thing the Buddha said causes suffering. I was skipping right over the most important part, freedom from suffering.
My issue circles not around the fact that I am ill, though I am, but the fact that I am not allowing myself to be within the moments I have. The walks I am still able to take, my children’s laughter that I am oblivious to while I am lying there, tense and afraid, the moments when the sun peeks out behind giant snow clouds and the world around me becomes blindingly bright and vibrant.
I have been so wrapped up in my inability to know what is going wrong with me that I have lost countless moments of being alive and able to experience joy. I have missed fully the point of the Buddha’s teaching.
There is no guarantee that I will make it through tonight or tomorrow or the week after that and if that is the case, will those around me remember how I continued to be present with them, engaged, open, and loving, or how I closed down, broke down, and died miserable and afraid? What message will I be leaving behind, God forbid I die soon?
As a culture, we Westerners tend to always want to know the hidden teachings, the super secret doctrines. We typically end up missing the shore because we become obsessed with the raft. We tend to skip right over The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. We think it’s too easy, too obvious, too normal for us. There has to be something else, some deeper meaning, some gnostic approach that will give us something extra and yet, when faced with the harsh realities of our lives, we (or at least I) become feeble, broken, completely missing the point that was being made.
It’s right in front of us, so obvious, so still and soft and all we have to do is slow down and see it.
I teach suffering and the freedom from it and here is how.
Editor: Dana Gornall