Requiem: How Mary Oliver Taught Me to Stop Suffering

I’d like to say a being a Buddhist is different from being in other religions when it comes to things like peer pressure, social expectations and judgement, but it’s not. As long as Buddhism is practiced by human beings, those strings are going to be the stitches on the hem of every maroon robe and environmentally friendly garment we wear.

 

By Kellie Schorr

There is a way to stop suffering.

It looks odd by itself, doesn’t it?  It’s usually slotted tight in 3rd place of the Four Noble Truths—like the “middle child” of Buddhism’s defining teaching. We all agree on the First Noble Truth, that all life has suffering—dukkha—a restless dissatisfaction that robs our happiness.

Teachers spend gallons of time re-translating the Second Noble Truth—that we suffer because we …(cling, desire, attach, delude ourselves…). Then the Third Noble Truth goes by in a blip. Most teachers don’t even pause for a breath—thereisawaytostopsuffering—in their rush to the Fourth—the Eightfold Noble Path.

It’s amazing we don’t spend more time on number three considering it is the very pronouncement that our liberation is possible.

All life has suffering, but there is a way out! Blasting past the Third Noble Truth is like shouting fire in a theater, forgetting to tell people there are exits, and going into a long lecture about the right ways you can deal with fire. The Third Noble Truth should be a holiday, right up there with Vesak and Losar, Way Out Day, or Liberation Day or something. Instead we mow over the top of it, and start talking about the path.

My relationship with the Third Noble Truth has indeed lessened my suffering and given me a happiness that carries my through days both sunny and sorrowful. I didn’t learn about its message from a Buddhist teacher, book, or meditation retreat. A poet taught me.

Mary Oliver, a Poet Laureate and renown wordsmith of nature, made a career showing us detailed observations of the world around her. It was her celebration of the ordinary, never lingering far from the specter of death, that showed me how to live with joy and liberation.

“Wild Geese”

I’d like to say a being a Buddhist is different from being in other religions when it comes to things like peer pressure, social expectations and judgement, but it’s not. As long as Buddhism is practiced by human beings, those strings are going to be the stitches on the hem of every maroon robe and environmentally friendly garment we wear. Western culture has this fantasy of Buddhism where everyone is always smiling, calm, vegetarian and perfect. None of that is true.

“You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver advises in the beginning of her poem, “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Sensual and sensible, these lines are a distinct manifestation of the Third Noble Truth. There is a way to be free from suffering and you do not have to be perfect to do it. What you have to do, to begin with, is to be exactly who you are, find that deep basic goodness in your own nature and love what you love. It certainly takes the pressure off to know I don’t have to say all the right lines at the right times in order to have a practice.

Upstream

After I was liberated from the expectations of perfection, I found myself in a pool of people who react to the Buddhist happy path myth with an extreme, often humorously nihilistic sense of expression. “I’m the Buddhist who says, ‘F&^$’” has become my tagline for the phenomena of dharma rebels working so hard to prove they are real, thoughty, edgy, and quite possibly spiritually dangerous, even though their main practice involves sitting around breathing.

They like to talk about emptiness, nothingness, Milarepa, and endless “if…then…” ideas that have little to do with mindfully driving to work or skillfully dealing with a neighbor whose music is too loud.

There’s a part of their saucy, confident IDGAF demeanor I admire, but the constant projection and sharp focus on deconstructing every minute thing and theory often distracts me and makes me question what this is actually about. Am I finding liberation by noting my F-ing coffee doesn’t F-ing taste right because it’s just a concept but, like Milarepa, I have to drink three F-ing towers of it to get to a good one?

In Upstream, a book of essays about poetry and life, Mary Oliver speaks of the importance of walking in nature, learning the names and habits of flora and fauna, but never sacrificing functionality or enjoyment for a recording of details.

She writes:

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

I don’t have to know it all or drag my psyche through endless ruminations on how everything means nothing so why bother. I simply need to pay attention, and the devotion to dharma, to liberation, has begun.

“When Death Comes”

Though “The Summer Day” (“Tell me what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”) is her height, “When Death Comes” is Mary Oliver at her most clear, and poignant. It’s not a question of “if” death is coming, but when. Throughout her long career in word work, she never strayed from the understanding that impermanence is the reality of all things and it’s best we know that.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

For all its talk of death, it doesn’t take much to see this is a work about life. I first read this poem about 25 years ago, and since then I have kept that “bride married to amazement” in my heart as a way of looking at things—new relationships, lost friends, success, cancer, life, death—with eyes of curiosity instead of fear and gratitude instead of expectation. When I do that, I am reminded of the most important message Mary Oliver, or anyone, can tell us:

There is a way to be free from suffering.

 

“Wild Geese” – 1986 Dream Work Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA)

Upstream: Selected Essays, 2016 Penguin (New York, NY)

“The Summer Day” 1990, House of Light, Beacon Press (Boston, MA)

“When Death Comes” – 1992 New and Selected Poems [volume one] Beacon Press (Boston, MA).

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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