This post is so timely in my life. This is another gift from Laura Garren, a student at Greenville Yoga. As I sat reading it, I got goosebumps up and down my arms. Her words about pain, suffering and mistakes should not be taken for granted. I hope you enjoy…
By Laura Garren
A dear, wise friend recently sent me a copy of Ram Dass’ Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying (2000), written after he survived a stroke. While his condition informs the book, it actually is about aging consciously. My friend, Joanie, knows that I am deeply interested in both conditions, so her gift was most appreciated and has been duly devoured and digested.
As I myself have aged, I have become increasingly interested in reading about the life journeys of other people, especially those who have undergone tragedy and still managed to thrive. The example that leaps first to mind is Viktor E. Frankl, who survived the horrors of the Nazi death camps and went on to develop an approach to psychotherapy that maintains “man’s primary motivation is his search for meaning,” which he describes in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959). Frankl’s theory of existentialism asserts that to live is to suffer, and the purpose of life is to find meaning in the suffering. This idea, of course, recalls Buddhism.
Frankl transcends his unimaginable pain and manages to give it meaning by transforming the experience into a way to help others. Similarly, Dass turns his pain into a positive message to share with others. As he recovers from his near-fatal stroke, he gradually accepts and embraces his condition in true Buddhist fashion, knowing that bemoaning it will not change it. Both men realize that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Both men refuse to continue suffering, and by sharing their journeys, demonstrate that suffering is, indeed, a choice.
Books like Frankl’s and Dass’ give the reader a gift of great value, full of insight and hope. However, not everyone wants this gift, because not everyone accepts that pain is inevitable. Some people seem to think they are entitled to always be happy, and when this delusion crumbles, as it always does, they feel betrayed. What they don’t realize is that we sometimes have to work, hard, for happiness, which means we have to explore our suffering, somehow find the meaning in it, and then let it go or turn it into something positive. Books like Frankl’s and Dass’ challenge us to do the work and give us guidance.
I love a good challenge. I love the idea that I can, as Frankl says, choose my own attitude in any given set of circumstances, and that “this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—makes life meaningful and purposeful.” I love the idea that I have some control over my life, if only in the way that I decide to react to circumstances. Dass also decides to reframe his situation, even before his stroke. He is unflinchingly honest as he describes his journey through and beyond middle age. He relays stories of how his vanity got him in trouble when he tried to act 25 at age 50; he admits that he struggled with the sagging, the balding, the weight gain, and all the other physical symptoms of aging. At one point, he has a moment similar to one I recently experienced and described in an earlier blog: I looked at myself, critically, in the mirror one day, but was then flooded with compassion for my face, with all its flaws and signs of aging. My experience was almost identical to Dass’, whose response to his reflection becomes the mantra, “Ah, so, even this.”
Dass spends time examining how our current culture feeds our fear of aging by dicounting the elderly. While most people in our society now are Baby Boomers, most advertising is directed at and showcases youth. We shuttle away our elderly, who more than ever live in facilities rather than with their families. This separation not only deprives the aged of contact with loved ones, it also robs younger family members of the wisdom their elders have to pass down. We learn much by our own mistakes, but we also can learn much from others; even if it is only the fact that they, too, made mistakes. In Native American culture, this concept is a very important way to keep the tribe intact: storytelling to illustrate that, whatever bad thing you did, someone else already did it, or something even worse. You don’t have to isolate yourself, which only feeds despair and self-loathing; yet we are isolating ourselves from a fount of wisdom when we hide our elderly.
Dass goes on to explore how wisdom is gained: chiefly, by experience. However, not just any experience, but that which is informed. An event can be an experience, but you can choose to learn from it or not. When you choose to learn, you gain wisdom. Your life events, especially those that may be seen as negative, or that you think you should have avoided, can make you wiser. As Native Americans put it, “There is no such thing as a mistake.”
Poet Antonio Machado translates the idea beautifully, in verse:
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
That I had a beehive here inside my heart.
And the golden bees were making white combs
And sweet honey
From my old failures.
When I saw these lines, I was wonderstruck, because I have carried this poem around in my wallet for 20 years! The first time I read it, I hoped that I too would someday be able to make redeem my mistakes. I continue to work hard making honey, but to the never-ending, beautiful song of bees.