My parents are both well into their eighties. But its only been in the last four years that they've begun to lose the momentum of living. In 2009 they made their last cross country road trip. Two years ago my dad began planning his day so he only had to make right hand turns when they ventured out around town. A year ago he stopped driving all together. In this last year their aging has started to accelerate along a geriatric Moore's Law. My dad is falling. My mom is fading. Literally. She's tough as a bear but you can almost see through her when the light is strong. My mom's big concern is that they can't leave the house whenever they want, but have to wait for the days when their health care aide is there. But they make do. Its not the life they had, but its the life they have now.
My wife's parents are going through similar changes. We live close to them, within a mile actually, and in the last two years we've become their de facto caretakers. We wouldn't have asked for this, but its what we've been given. I'm not saying its bad, because honestly its not so bad. Its hard for Paula to be reminded on an almost daily basis of the changes in her parents, and between shopping trips and doctor and hospital visits it has spoken for a lot of our free time of late. But in other ways its been a gratifying and enriching experience for both of us. But, again, it wasn't a choice. It just is what it is. The underlying elements I want to pull from the stories are that we have no real control over what happens to us in our lives, and that we live in an active push/pull relationship with life. Life acts, we react. Finally, I understand the central truth of Buddhist belief.
- Rule #1: Shit Happens
Buddhist's have a kinder phraseology for this first Noble Truth, that 'suffering exists,' but the sentiment is the same. At face value the idea that living means suffering is a bit of a downer, and it is really antithetical to Buddhism itself. I'd like to offer an alternate definition of that truth to use. It follows as; "challenges exist." And it is our acceptance of, and response to these challenges, both short-term and long, that determines whether or not suffering exists in our lives.
- Rule #2: You Can't Always Get What You Want
Its a simple matter of living. There is always more to want if wanting is what you do. I remember just a couple years ago seeing a pair of boots in my latest GQ magazine. Up to that point my life was pretty perfect, but in an instant everything changed. Suddenly my life was incomplete, and not only that, I had the realization that it had always been incomplete, and would continue to be so until I owned those boots. I was devastated. It took until the next month's issue and the ad for the orange watch for me to get over it. But when I was over it, it was over for good. Its the second Noble Truth; "attachment creates suffering."
- Rule #3: Learn to Let Go
The third Noble Truth states that "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." It reinforces this idea that between stimulus and response lies choice. Choice is our one true power. It is our single wieldable weapon in the struggle between living a life of suffering or a life liberated from suffering.
Our modern first-world view conflicts with this concept, as it allows that we alone determine the circumstances of our life. But its a narrow and ego-centric view, and at odds with the basic principles of nature. For as much as we believe that we can control what occurs around us, the simple truth is that we can only control what lies within us. Cause and effect aside though, the result is the same, as we still maintain ultimate responsibility for any measure of our satisfaction with our life.
I suppose at some time then we need to measurably define the meaning of suffering. My parents, for all the limits their circumstance has put on them, do not suffer, nor do my wife and I from ours. Perhaps it is because societally we put so much emphasis on getting what we want that have such a difficult time with simply accepting what we have. As a society we've set the bar pretty low as to what constitutes suffering. We focus on the accumulation of of things as the purpose of living. We define any want/need as equal in importance and urgency. But true suffering is more than the mere endurance of an unpleasantness or the desire for things we do not own. Suffering is the experience of a genuine life quality change. When we begin to feel physically or spiritually diminished by our condition, or feel helpless to change our circumstance, at this point we can say that suffering is taking place. And acceptance or acknowledgement of the cause of suffering is the key to ending suffering. Acceptance is not the same as giving up, its giving over. And only then can you harness the power that lies within you.
- Rule #4: Walk the Line
So how do we end suffering? In short, we don't. (see rule #1) Our mission therefore, should we choose to accept it, is to endeavor to minimize suffering; for ourselves, and when possible, for others. Yeah, but how? Currently we leave most of the heavy lifting for the pharmaceutical industry and our friends at Grey Goose, but there is another option. Buddhists call it the eightfold path or the middle way. Redefined, it simply means first accepting the existence of a circumstance, and then crafting a balanced response to it. Its not a "when life gives you lemons..." approach, because sometimes life can hand you a bucket of nails instead. It comes from exercising our one true power; choice, and empowering ourselves to make change. Once you acknowledge the existence of a circumstance, you have the power to control your interaction with it. Denying it merely prolongs our suffering, and enables us to disguise it as something else.
And when it comes to healing, a balanced approach is always the best. Extreme measures rarely work. The Buddhist parable is the story of the music teacher. He tells his student that when stringing a sitar, "If you stretch the string too tight it will break, and if there is too much slack it won't play". "You must find the middle to make the music." Its a delightful and magical solution to life. Measure your response, look for the good, let go, and make music.
peace and love,