The weather is changing.
Do you remember the line from Mary Poppins?
Winds in the east, mist coming in, / Like something is brewing’, and about to begin.
Thanksgiving in the Las Vegas Valley is usually a mild time. The tradition for most is to barbecue because temperatures are usually in the 60s and 70s. My first year here, in fact, it was about 80-degrees and sunny. This feels not like anything that’s “happened before,” though. A cold front has moved in and the winds have begun to pick-up. It is always windy here, so when we get a wind advisory, we know there’s something special going on. Temperatures will drop to the 40s, and there might be up to 24-inches of snow falling in the mountains this week. This is all to say, after a week of being sick and while looking forward to a healthier holiday, the weather seems to be having its little fun with me. Instead of preparing for outdoor adventures, long walks, and a la carte dining, I’m cozied-up inside, candles lit, heat turned on, and donned in fuzzy socks and a puffy sweater.
I’ll spend my time with music, maybe, working on the guitar that so troubles me. It’s a terribly humbling thing, trying to teach one’s self how to play music. I can’t think of anything much more maddening, in fact, except perhaps trying to teach one’s self a new language, when there’s no one to practice it with. The guitar. It still feels awkward in my hands. I don’t know how to sit, how to handle its sleek neck. I haven’t played enough to callous these fingers, yet, and that troubles me. I feel like a failure, though nothing makes me happier than spending time with music. Perhaps not even spending time with books. And this reminds me of a line from one of my favorite songs:
The end of paralysis, I was a statuette
Now I’m drunk as hell on a piano bench
And when I press the keys it all gets reversed
The sound of loneliness makes me happier.
I’ve always been “an emo kid,” comfortable in sadness and loneliness. It’s something I imagined I’d outgrow, eventually, but the truth is, that hasn’t happened. I approach age forty strikingly different from who I’ve ever been, but like those winds in the east, “The threads of [life] unraveling undone . . . I feel what’s to happen all happened before.” As much as I’ve changed, grown, progressed, developed, or whatever word best fits the occasion of growing up, aging, getting older, well–as much as all of that has happened, I remain the same. Comfortable in sadness. Lonely, with all the complications this brings, but not lamenting the fact.
I wonder sometimes if it’s this disposition that brought me to Buddhism. The core philosophy of Buddhism is that one must, in a way, go beyond acknowledging that life is suffering, but to embrace that truth. To eagerly accept that suffering. It was, I’ll admit, a very strange concept for me to understand at first, and I might not be getting it entirely right just yet either. But yes, I think it’s a good thing that my first reaction to the idea that I should be happy to suffer was something along the lines of, “what the fuck?”
Of course, I was getting it a bit wrong. Buddhism doesn’t want us to glory in suffering, or to live as if suffering is all there is, all that matters. Instead, as I understand it anyway, the reason Buddhism places such an emphasis on the power of suffering is that it, more than anything else, connects us to who we are, deep in our being, and to the suchness of others. To understand suffering is to understand people, even at their most complicated and least available. To understand that life is suffering is to know, beyond platitudes, that we are all in this together. That we all experience pain, sometimes a pain that, in loneliness, heartbreak, loss, brings us to our knees and makes us question absolutely everything we’ve ever felt, known, or believed.
Kurt Vonnegut is probably my favorite writer. The sadness in him, expressed through humor, is the deepest humanity I’ve known in another being. He writes,
Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.
I think he is getting at this suchness of life. The idea that adversity can make us either hard or tender. To choose tenderness is what allows us to reach out and to reach within. Without it, we go hard and cold, we become incapable of absorbing warmth, and if we cannot contain warmth, we cannot express it.
Pema Chodron describes this another way. She writes that,
Bodhisattvas practice ‘in the middle of the fire.’ This means they enter into the suffering of the world; it also means they stay steady with the fire of their own painful emotions. They neither act them out nor repress them. They are willing to stay ‘on the dot’ and explore an emotion’s ungraspable qualities and fluid energies–and to let that experience link them to the pain and courage of others.
The pain and the courage. What is one without the other? What is light without darkness?
For so long, I thought that my way of being in the world was something to be ashamed of. Call it depression, melancholy, or saturnine. Many adjectives have been used, by myself and others, to explain the way I look at the world and the way I’ve acted in it. How liberating, how freeing, to turn the darkness on its head and see it as a beautiful softness. To accept my comfort with suffering, my tendency toward the sad, my hypersensitivity to the unfair, the unjust, and all the pain the recognition of these brings me, and to connect it with the pain and the courage of others.
O Me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
How many ways are there of being in the world? How many of them good?
Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!
Except for the perfect awakened heart
There is nothing able to withstand
The great and overwhelming strength of evil. (Shantideva 1.6)
To suffer and see suffering; to know pain and want nothing but to save others from it. This is one way.