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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

An Activist’s Struggle with “Acceptance”

In Chronic Pain, Health Justice, Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on January 29, 2013 at 12:39 AM

In Buddhist lore, there is a story about a woman named Kisagotami who suffered from the death of her only child. In her grief and desperation, she went to the Buddha hoping that he would know a way to bring her child back to life. As the story goes, the Buddha told her to bring him a handful of mustard seed—and that such seed needed to come from a household where no one had ever died. The woman agreed to this task and immediately went about going from house to house in search of the mustard seed. However, after visiting one household after the other, she realized that there wasn’t a single one where death had not visited. Acknowledging this sad fact, she returned to the Buddha who in turn told her, with great compassion, that she was not alone in her grief. Death—the ultimate sign of life’s impermanence—was a natural part of human existence.

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Kisagotami coming to the Buddha with the desire to resurrect her child.

This now-mythic story appears at the beginning of a chapter on suffering in a book entitled The Art of Happiness (1998), co-written by the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. In the book, Cutler interviews the Dalai Lama to examine the Buddhist prescription for finding happiness in a life badgered by constant stress and suffering. Regarding the story summarized above, they write: “Kisagotami’s search taught her that no one lives free from suffering and loss. She hadn’t been singled out for this terrible misfortune. This insight didn’t eliminate the inevitable suffering that comes from loss, but it did reduce the suffering that came from struggling against this sad fact of life… Although pain and suffering are universal human phenomena, that doesn’t mean we have an easy time accepting them.” [emphasis mine]

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I began looking into Buddhism seeking answers: a way to deal with inscrutable health issues that created an impassable chasm between my current sickly living and the life I had become accustomed to. For sure, my life before was filled with struggle—but it was one where I found fulfillment and hope in the very process of struggling. Being in the thick of a fight gave my life meaning—even when I knew I was up against impossible odds.

Today, my chronic pain prevents me from moving forward the way I once secretly envisioned. Whether I acknowledged it to myself or not, I hoped that at this point in my life I’d be more engaged in explicit activist efforts, working side-by-side with my communities, developing old friendships while making new ones. And while some of that has occurred, my invisible pain has kept me bed-ridden more times than I can count. My entire worldview has been altered by a web of health conditions that makes simple survival—getting by day to day—a struggle. To avoid slipping into a seemingly inevitable abyss of loneliness, I sought a philosophy that dealt directly with the issues that now mattered to me most: coping with pain and illness, finding a sustainable way of living in peace without compromising my revolutionary integrity. The dharma seemed to bear that promise, and I’ve been adamantly trying to learn as much about Buddha’s philosophy ever since.

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Front cover to the 1998 bestseller co-authored by the Dalai Lama

All of this said, I quickly found myself dealing with an internal turmoil. An earnest desire to learn more about the dharma resulted in many questions on my part, and I sensed a common motif between many of the issues I was confronting. Namely, I sensed a friction between struggle and acceptance, two paths of action in a world filled with decision-making junctures. The story of Kisagotami highlights the role that both struggle and acceptance play in Buddhism and in our daily lives. Are there struggles—like the internal struggle Kisagotami had against the death of her child—that should be tempered with acceptance? Is acceptance always the way to finding peace and happiness in this world? The more I examined the questions of when to struggle, when to accept, the more I realized that this was an incredibly nuanced discussion that merits explicit attention.

Below I will attempt to explain the emotional/philosophical quandary in question, first by examining how I came to the quandary in the first place. As the discussion is highly detailed, I fragmented this written exploration into parts meant for easier access and readability. It is part autobiographical, part historical, part philosophical, and part social and political commentary. I encourage readers to read or skim through sections as they see fit.

My Path: From Revolution to Dharma

I hesitate to use the word “revolutionary” to describe myself, largely because of the ways in which that label has become colored with meanings that seem to obfuscate more than clarify, but I would most definitely say that I see a need for “revolution.” Having grown up in a working-class immigrant family in the heart of Empire, seeing daily the costs of our run-amok capitalist world on the very livelihood of my family—and my own personal suffering—it’s hard for me not to desire change. Not some pennies-and-nickels reformism, but a veritable radical revolution that will bring an end to elite favoritism and greed, and lessen the unjustifiable suffering of the world’s oppressed. So before I became severely ill, I had already suffered and struggled through depression, suicidality, and constant efforts to prove myself in academic environments where who you knew was more important what you knew.

But things changed as I became involved in political struggles, building an activist’s optimism that infused my life with meaning. Although I battled depression and fatigue while I worked long hours, it all seemed worth it. As Victor Frankl notes in Man’s Search for Meaning, individuals who suffer with purpose are more likely to survive through the most hellish circumstances. And having spent years working around immigrants’ rights, housing, and labor rights, and building a career in political education, I felt fulfilled in being able to fight the good fight. Things were never easy. Everything seemed to be a struggle. But I was at least healthy enough to put up a fight.

Things radically changed in a short period of time as a tornado wrecked havoc on my body, leaving irremediable changes in its wake. My brother’s paradoxically long-but-young life of suffering was over, but a new set of struggles had only just started for me. As if the Universe had left me with the pieces of his unresolved struggle. Like my brother, I started a downward path of debilitating symptoms, a lessening in quality of life, a withdrawal from the communities that gave me a sense of personhood and hope. Chronic pain had set in, and as months rolled by and as one medical treatment after the other failed me, my future started to seem bleaker and bleaker.

“What kind of a life had I in store for me now?,” I thought. One where I was in constant pain, unable to pursue the dreams that once brightened the landscape of an already-arduous life?

I couldn’t find solutions for my intensely personal struggle in the activism or revolutionary politics that became embedded in my identity. At best, perhaps a theory for understanding how my autoimmune condition arose, an understanding of the larger picture of transgenerational suffering and marginalization that led to where I am now. But reading Marx or Alinsky or any other revolutionary writer provided no prescription for what to do with my body, mind, and spirit. (And, of course, the literature from mainstream biomedical industrial complex only offered weak suggestions.)

I felt like a soldier down, too wounded to fight side-by-side other activists, taken away from the battlefield when that was the very experience that gave me energy. I became a homebody for once in my life as my pain made spending time outside too uncomfortable. And much like anyone else first learning to cope with chronic pain, I wanted to treat it and get it over with. I wanted to think that it was like a terrible flu or a broken bone, something that could heal with the proper assortment of pills, diet, and exercise. And given that this was pain, I wanted to put the healing process on turbo-drive so I could go quickly resume life as normal.

Time made me realize that this was nothing like a flu or a broken bone. Whenever I felt any relief I was quickly slammed against the cold concrete of interminable pain. I came to truly recognize my former able-bodied privilege—and to this day, I feel stuck in a perpetual straddling of an amorphous line between healthy and unhealthy. Most disturbing of all was my realization that I wasn’t going to be soothed by the answers of our dominant, seemingly effective system of medical institutions (what many recognize as the primacy of allopathic medicine). Since I was already critical of the medical industrial complex, and since I had already opened my heart to yoga and meditation, I chose to trust my gut and move from there.

In my research I learned about very different paradigms of health and healing. I learned that unlike the positivist approach that underlies the allopathic medical establishment (feigning absolute “objectivity” in its efforts to maintain power over human minds and bodies), other forms of medicine—such as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or Ayurvedic medicine—were very overtly affiliated with philosophies that examined the entirety of human experience and the interconnectivities of the Universe. Unlike the current Western medical establishment, embedded as it is within a capitalist-postmodernist zeitgeist, the other forms of medicine I investigated treated the body holistically, as being connected with something vaster and more Supreme. Rather than treating the body like a machine with various interchangeable parts, these other medicines saw the interconnections between mind and spirit (way before the emergence of ‘psychoneuroimmunology’). They saw how stress could impact the body, and how practices like meditation and yoga could remedy these impacts—all without the need for potent, potentially harmful pharmaceuticals.

Reading about the medicinal practices of yoga and meditation that originated in India, I was slowly drawn into studying Buddhism. I was intrigued by the dharma’s focus on impermanence and its willingness to examine dukkha (translated as suffering or stress). I found a way of thought that directly addressed illness and suffering and gave a prescription for how to cope with these. It gave me a sense of optimism much in the same way that activism did for me before. Although I had done yoga and meditation before, I started to take these very seriously now that I understood, more intimately, how stress can deteriorate one’s health. For certain, I started these practices for quite selfish reasons: improving my health. But over time I was drawn to the worldviews that these practices emanated from, and so I kept reading and researching vigorously.

Unsurprisingly, what are likely naïve questions on my part began to surface. Having come to see struggle as a part of our existence, a part of our survival, even a part of our happiness, I started to have issues with the way “acceptance” was discussed among certain Buddhist writers. Wasn’t acceptance, after all, a form of complacency? How does acceptance of suffering lead to peace and happiness, for is it not the struggle against suffering that enables us to overcome it? Furthermore, the mantra-like focus on changing one’s “perspective,” “looking inward,” and “taming the mind” all seemed to explicate larger socio-political problems onto highly individualized cognitive appraisals (this is a point I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with, but lack of space prevents me from engaging this point any further). I was baffled and intrigued by this seemingly large conundrum.

I once asked for advice from an energy healer (an obvious act of desperation if one ever existed). His suggestion was that I shouldn’t seek to change the world. “There’s nothing wrong with the world,” he said. The world is full of beauty and goodness, and there’s no need to change it. His very suggestion implied passive acceptance.

All of this seemed to go counter to my education as an activist. I never questioned whether there was suffering in the world, and I never questioned the importance of struggle. Collective struggles are what enabled us to achieve certain victories that many of us (really, the most fortunate among us) take for granted today: an eight-hour workday, weekends, the ability to work without fear of injury or the ability to go to a hospital if we do get injured. Of course, many of these victories are being curtailed as we speak, but fighting seemed to be the key to seeking the world of peace and happiness we wanted. In my mind, sitting back and devoting our energies to accepting our suffering—interpreted in the wrong way—could lead to the sort of interpretation given by the healer who offered me “advice.” Coming from a place of affluence and privilege, it was easy enough for him to suggest an individualistic path of focusing on one’s own mind, on acceptance. But that struck me as completely unacceptable.

And I started to encounter a similar sort of advice being propounded by more self-identified Buddhists in essays and films. It was as if collective struggle was worthless, or at least, not the right way to solving the world’s problems; rather, it was turning to our minds, learning acceptance, that was crucial. My confusion was augmented when I read about Buddhist activists who held views that were admittedly more palatable but nevertheless question-raising. Briefly put, I encountered what seemed to be a dialectical friction between struggle and acceptance.

What’s in a struggle?

Having become accustomed to a paradigm of ‘struggle’—both in my personal life, and in my way of understanding social conflict and power dynamics—I recently started thinking more deeply about its relation to suffering and how it was playing out in my disease-ridden life. Upon questioning myself on the matter, I immediately realized, in spite of their oft-accepted conflation, that struggle is not suffering. At the very least, they’re not equivalent in the way we typically understand these terms in the English language. One can struggle for higher wages, respect, security, love—and these struggles, while they may involve some level of suffering, can be exercises that confer fulfillment and purpose to our lives. As an action, struggle can involve contending with a difficult situation or challenge; suffering, on the other hand, is an experience that can result from loss, failure, or mental unrest.

I also realized that although the concept of struggle was constantly on my mind, the very term finds form in different meanings. We have collective struggle and personal struggle. We struggle against issues within ourselves (against illness, confusion, fear or general unhappiness) as well as without (against an abusive boss, a hot-headed partner, environmental injustice and war). Struggle can be conscious and voluntary (as when we choose to fight back against the police) or unconscious and involuntary (as when we struggle to remain alive after being beaten). A ‘struggle’ can be a small tussle in a boxing ring or a large-scale power play between forces of corporate domination and the preservation of people’s livelihoods. Additionally, what I realized for myself was that being able to struggle with community meant something far different than this more personalized subjugation of struggling with chronic pain and health issues. And it is this difference between collective and personal that I want to give a closer look.

Undoubtedly, written history is rife with examples of collective struggle, almost invariably a struggle between those with less power and those with more. Whether we examine the examples of historical interplays between plebeians and tyrants, slaves and masters, it is clear that people have long forged common bonds and fought against mutual enemies. Although history is always written by the powerful and winners of wars, lurking beneath is the undeniable truth of people’s revolts, battles, and struggles against the oppression of emperors, monarchs, and entrenched elites. Occluded from mainstream history texts are the individual plights and perspectives of those of an oppressed class, whether they be the plebeians of Rome, the untouchable castes of India, Japan, or Tibet, or the peasants and slaves of the Mesoamerica. In spite of what we’re taught in schools, the brutal examples of global imperial colonization and domination that resulted in an immeasurable loss of life and culture among indigenous Americans, Africans, Asians, and non-continental nations did not occur without protracted wars, rebellions, and individual mutinies. Certainly, the very many people’s revolts have left indelible markers on the historical landscape, but were quickly suppressed and forgotten via the willful dictates of the powerful in particular times and spaces.

Of course, one need not look deep into the historical canon to see examples of collective struggles of what we commonly call the ‘common folk’ or ‘the people.’ The American and French Revolutions would have been impossible without the vital support of the supposed commoner (although, as critical historians have seen in both cases, the more powerful of the ‘oppressed’ quickly gained the helm while the individual plights and perspectives from the lower classes rarely made it into the history books). The protracted labor struggles that came in the advent of industrialization in Britain and the United States gave rise to new reconfigurations and models of organizing that we continue to utilize today. And although many today look to the revolutionary movements of the late 60’s and early ‘70s to find examples of collective struggle (from antiwar demonstrations to women’s rights to black, indigenous, Asian and Latina/o struggles for liberation), the socially-aware observer will find all sorts of examples of collective struggle in our “postmodern” informational age in the form of multiscalar progressive organizational coalitions and networks (e.g. Right to the City Alliance, Take Back the Land,  the various independent struggles lumped under the ‘Arab Spring,’ Occupy Wall Street and its offsprings, Yo Soy 132, and Idle No More).

The examples of collective struggles are endless and I can do no justice here trying to engage them all. But as a non-religious person trying to critically engage with Buddhist thought, I couldn’t help but wonder what Buddhist scholars thought of collective struggles, particularly people’s resistance struggles, much of which was necessarily violent. If, as I hinted earlier, acceptance meant compliance with an unjust brutal world that was shaped (and could be changed) by humans, then this was an acceptance I wanted nothing to do with. It reeked too horribly of thoughtless compliance and bourgeois ideology. But when I thought of historical examples of Buddhists fighting in the trenches against ostensible injustices, I began to really question whether Buddhism (a religion or spiritual system of thought that has as many varied interpretations as any other religious/spiritual system) had a single, homogeneous understanding of acceptance—and, for that matter, struggle and suffering.

Buddhists in Collective Struggle

In thinking about Buddhists in collective struggle, the first example that came to mind was the famous role of Buddhists in the Southeast Asian War (aka Vietnam War). I thought back to the memorable account of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in a public square in Saigon (June 1963) to protest the U.S.-backed Diem regime. This, of course, was all I was taught in my high school U.S. history course. Researching the topic further, I found information that resonated with my knowledge of history and politics in the Americas—information that is deliberately ignored, obfuscated, or suppressed in the most accessible outlets of public media. Although I make no claims of being a historian (let alone an “objective” one, which does not exist), I will try to briefly narrate what are verifiable accounts:

Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street June 11, 1963 to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963 to protest persecution of Buddhists by the U.S. puppet government of Ngo Dinh Diem. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

The history of Euro-American imperialism in Southeast Asia dates back to the so-called Age of Exploration, becoming most clearly manifest in the military conquests of France in a period between 1859 and 1885. As with other examples of imperial-colonial domination, the people of what was then called Indochina fought endlessly for self-government and basic civil liberties. After generations of struggle against French rule, another imperial power (Japan) came into the fold following the defeat of France to Germany during World War II.

It was under oppressive Japanese occupation that a communist-nationalist liberation movement, the Vietminh, came into power with a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, as its leader. As Howard Zinn (1980) writes in his renowned chapter on the Vietnam (Southeast Asian) War, the Viet Minh successfully defeated the Japanese and its puppet government in 1945, celebrating their victory by issuing a Declaration of Independence  that modeled the U.S.’s. This proved to be a short-lived victory, however, as French forces (now liberated from the Third Reich) began bombarding communist-led Vietnam in 1946. This was the beginning of the First Indochina War that lasted until 1954.

The Geneva Conference of that last year dissolved French Indochina and partitioned the region into four independent countries: Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam (under the Viet Minh government), and South Vietnam (under Emperor Bảo Đại). It wasn’t long before this partition of nations led to conflict, primarily in a Cold War geopolitical environment that drove the McCarthyist U.S. into “defending” its Southern sphere of influence. After a U.S.-backed coup d’etat by then-Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunch anti-communist who blocked efforts for democratic elections, the socio-political atmosphere of South Vietnam quickly became heated. In a nation that consisted mostly of poor rural laborers who were Buddhist, rule under a Catholic U.S.-puppet president (who had recently moved back from living in New Jersey) was completely insufferable. By siding with large landowners, much-needed land reform for most of the population was never implemented. He imprisoned and killed communist-supporters and critics of his corrupt regime while replacing locally elected leaders with his own men. In 1960, a National Liberation Front was formed in South Vietnam that united various strands of Diem’s opposition, including (most importantly) disgruntled peasants.

By 1963, Buddhist discontent circulated after Diem (who for years implemented policies favoring Catholics) placed a ban on flying the Buddhist flag. In droves, Buddhists had protested the ban by publicly flying their flags and facing government gunfire (and in many instances, death). A turning-point was reached when Mahayana Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, with the support of several other monks and nuns, performed a self-immolation that was publicized around the world. Many Buddhists thereafter followed his example, following his last words in a letter written immediately before his death:

“I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”1

In the ensuing years, a number of other monks set themselves on fire in a flagrant dramatization of what was truly a people’s oppositional movement. Given the vast abundance of literature about the Southeast Asian War, there is no need to recapitulate the obvious facts. However, it is noteworthy that a largely rural peasant counteroffensive in South Vietnam with a substantially weaker military arsenal defeated a Goliath superpower. This is perhaps one of the greatest testaments in recent history to the power of collective struggle against inhumane injustices.

Another prominent example of Buddhists engaged in collective struggle is showcased in the fight for Tibetan independence. Much like with Southeast Asian Buddhists, the struggle among Tibetan Buddhists involves a long history of fighting against imperial powers. For centuries, Tibet’s autonomy was challenged by nearby Chinese and Mongolian empires as well as by a brief effort by British forces (in 1904). The year following Mao Zedong’s takeover of China in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet and immediately began to assert influence on the Tibetan government, headquartered in the capital city of Lhasa. In 1951, under significant duress and following defeat at the Battle of Chamdo, representatives of the young Dalai Lama signed onto a seventeen point agreement with Mao’s regime. The agreement affirmed Chinese sovereignty while claiming to provide for some degree of Tibetan autonomy.

In the years following, however, considerable unrest brewed under oppressive Chinese military rule, most especially in the eastern Tibetan section of Kham. There, the native Khampas faced starvation, beatings, and imprisonment as many of them (numbering in the tens of thousands by the late 1950s) chose to join the resistance. Kham leaders, without the explicit approval of the Lhasa government, contacted the CIA under President Eisenhower to request support—which it did, by training and arming Tibetan guerrillas. Needless to say, this strategic U.S. support was given as part of a larger effort to subvert the imperial foe of Communist China.

As the Tibetan resistance movement spread, many Tibetans in Lhasa started to agree with their local Tibetans in Kham. On March 10, 1959, after years of Chinese military intervention and a fear that the Chinese would abduct their Dalai Lama, several thousand Tibetans gathered around the Dalai Lama’s summer palace 2. This launched an uprising (celebrated annually by Tibetans) that was eventually crushed and led to the exile of The Dalai Lama and other Tibetans to Dharamsala, India. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who stayed in Tibet were executed in the guerrilla warfare that ensued (again, with the intrusion of the CIA). Along with the extreme and brutal loss of life came a replication of an oft-seen pattern that has persevered since the early 16th century: colonization in the form of territorial occupation and cultural co-optation, marked here by the destruction of thousands of Tibetan monasteries and cultural institutional as well as the coerced influx of Chinese from the interior.

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Tibetans gather around the Potala Palace in Lhasa on March 17, 1959.

A recently produced documentary, The Sun Behind the Clouds (2010), examines in-depth the contemporary issues facing Tibetans, torn between clashing interpersonal views and divergent spheres of imperial influence (those of China and the United States). Although the detailed politics of Tibetan independence are beyond the scope of this review, what’s clear is that there exists an ongoing collective resistance among Tibetan Buddhists against Chinese imperial rule. I find that my attempt to understand the dialectic between acceptance and struggle within a Buddhist paradigm is illuminated by the conflicts exposed in this film. Whereas the Dalai Lama demonstrates a willingness to negotiate with (and even forgive) the Chinese government, those supporting the Tibetan independence movement, including many Tibetans and non-Tibetans, within Tibet and beyond, seem willing to engage in further collective struggle. This schism that places many Buddhists at odds with a Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual leader makes it clear that choosing between when to fight back and struggle, and when to forgive and accept, is a highly contentious terrain.

The Meanings of Personal Struggle

As with individual Tibetan Buddhists who must choose between resisting, accepting, or finding a middle ground, all humans are challenged to make decisions about when to fight and when to stand back or run away. Although there can be no collective struggle without personal struggle, I’ve come to understand the importance of acknowledging the latter as something in itself, as something quite different. Of course, there is much that intertwines collective and personal struggles: as two examples, personal issues can be shared by others in the community, helping build cohesion; and community struggles, which often work to create mass consciousness, may challenge individuals to take sides. However, I may also deal with personal struggles that others may not share. This is something that requires much nuance to explain, but briefly put, even if I suffer from conditions (chronic pain and multiple sclerosis) others do share, the uniqueness of my symptoms, medical history, etc. makes this an incredibly personal struggle. (You can even choose to see this as another dialectic, between the personal and the collective)

Of course, this notion of personal vs. collective is nothing new. There is a widely-held belief that through our inherent humanity we are also all unique individuals with unique needs, unique relationships, and unique histories. Canonical history itself shows us that, even when we forge common bonds and build collective struggles, there are almost always cracks in any surface of homogeneity. One need only consider examples of well-known historical struggles (e.g. women of color in the feminist movement, blacks in the early U.S. labor movement, trans-people and other marginalized queers in the gay and lesbian movement) to see that movements are often fragmented by sub-group differences. At the more micro level, divisions are also fostered by personal differences, even within well-organized political groups (e.g. the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Wobblies, Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers).

Figuring out how to navigate a social landscape of strategic political coalitions and nuanced viewpoints is never easy, as any one actively engaged in community struggles can attest to. Identity politics, philosophical views, spiritual beliefs, and economic well-being all collide in our conflict-ridden world. This is not to say that unity and solidarity are impossible—just that they are contingent upon a recognition of each other’s intrinsic humanity and individual differences. Even when we are seemingly well-situated in a group, collective, or movement, each one of us must contend with problems that are intensely singular, sometimes threatening to any belief in shared humanity or “one-ness.” In my case, the very real threat of loneliness emerges from intensely personal medical/socioeconomic/spiritual struggles around which it’s hard to foment movement or solidarity. In my brother’s case, I saw how a rare ailment and a set of conditions very few could relate to brought upon despair and social withdrawal.

It is all this, of course, that led me to seek answers beyond a conventional Leftist political paradigm. I’ve started to wonder what happens when we no longer have the energy to fight. What do we do when we’ve exhausted all our possibilities of struggle? What do we do when (physical) struggle is no longer viable? What if compromise, submission, or downright resignation are the most rational choices?

Moments of Acceptance

I have no doubt in my mind that I am conflating many issues from multiple scales of experience. But my own experiences lent themselves to a very complex understanding of what struggle and acceptance mean, and it is the latter that I turn to next.

Not surprisingly, like the term ‘struggle,’ ‘acceptance’ has variegated meanings that shift from one moment to the other, one space to the next. Unlike ‘struggle,’ which has been a forceful word in my vocabulary for years, ‘acceptance’ echoed strangely within the pre-articulated limbo of my mind. When I conjured up examples of how the word could be used (“to accept one’s fate,” “to accept payment,” “to accept one’s apology”), I realized that my understanding of the word “accepting,” as used in the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness, could be entirely muddled or even misguided. I thus decided to look up its definition on dictionary.com:

Needless to say, the alternate definitions of acceptance left me confused. In the context of Buddhism, I was left with many possible interpretations: When writers talk about acceptance of suffering, do they mean that we must receive suffering with approval, like a gift from the heavens to help us reach enlightenment? Do they mean that we must take it like foul-tasting medicine, awful to bear but good for the soul? Or does it simply mean that we must believe that suffering is a fact whose undeniable veracity we must assent to? All of these may be possibilities, and for all I know, maybe all true. Certainly, the evident semantic issue is not helped by the fact that these writers are translating ideas from Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Pali texts which were in turn written by scholars who did not write in the Buddha’s (unknown) native tongue.

Yet, even in contending with the confusion, I came to certain realizations about what acceptance does not mean. Acceptance does not mean complacency, subservience, or willful ignorance. Acceptance does not mean admitting defeat. Acceptance does not mean falling into despair. Acceptance does not mean giving up.

I realized these things when noting that resignation, complacency, and defeat are nowhere in any of the writings or videos with Buddhists discussing ‘acceptance.’ And the word ‘struggle’ (which has the less-ambiguous meanings of “to contend with an adversary or opposing force” or “to exert strength, energy, and force”) bears no apparent conflict with the meaning of acceptance. Wanting to resolve the issue, I decided there is no contradiction between struggling and accepting, and that, in fact, the two often work in tandem. For instance, when accepting the fact that you’re up against an incredible enemy (whether that be your mother, your boss, your partner’s ex, your government, or advanced neoliberal capitalism), you may decide that struggle may be useful if not blatantly necessary. Likewise, when struggling against a difficult situation at home, you may choose to accept the situation, accept its difficulty, and accept the fact that you are only human.

During the time I had my first significant MS flare-ups, I had to deal with a number of experiences that coerced me into acceptance. The first notable instance was accepting the fact that my brother was approaching death. I saw how hard my parents struggled with this notion, and though their reactions were understandable, I couldn’t help but feel as if it was (like Kisogatami’s story) a struggle against an undeniable fact of life. When they chose not to disclose to my brother the doctor’s intention of putting him in a hospice facility, I yelled at them because I thought it was dishonest and unhelpful in the long-term. None of this, however, gets at the fact that each one of us was dealing with my brother’s impending death in different ways. We were united in our suffering—and yet our responses, our struggles, were markedly unique.

Shortly after news that my brother’s life was as visibly short-termed as the sands at the top of an hourglass, I suffered a flare-up that gave me intense vertigo for a week. After recovering and going back to work, I experienced severe dysesthesias that made getting by on a day-to-day basis excruciating. From my desk in Manhattan I read about the encampments at Liberty Square, feeling at once disconnected from the world and my body. Just months after playing an organizing role for an earlier demonstration on Wall Street, I was angry that my body was not letting me join the fight. The stress of my brother’s health, my parents’ reactions, my alienating job, and my newly-formed health problems began to unravel in my body. Rather than voluntarily accepting issues that were boiling up for years, I was forced—finally—into submission. At that time, I was too caught up struggling against my new stressors (my disease, my disabilities, my parents’ failure to accept the undeniable) to continue my struggle against the old (“the system,” corporate greed, the non-profit industrial complex, and my internal propensities to loneliness and depression).

In my continuous turmoil and struggle that slowed the pace of time, the months of October and November trudged on by painfully. I was incapable of walking during one week in November, during which time I wondered what would happen to me, my brother, and my family. Shortly after my brother was transferred to a hospice facility in Brooklyn, I was able to make my way down there alone, albeit with obvious impairments: my feet and hands periodically numb, my energy drained. Making my way into the hospice facility, I was surprised by how unfazed I was at the sight of dying bodies. I found my brother cold asleep in his room and chose to take advantage of the time by reading my book on a hallway bench. It wasn’t long before an elderly white woman—presumably a volunteer from the church—sat next to me and asked me who I was waiting for.

In my typical, New York-conditioned skepticism, I gave her a curt and somewhat-dismissive answer: “My brother.”

I just didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t even want to speak. But she persisted.

“What’s his name?”

“Anthony.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-six.”

Before long I was telling her that I was dealing with MS, that I had just suffered continuous flare-ups in a short period of time, and that I wasn’t sure whether I would be at my brother’s bedside when he moved on. My voice felt monotonous, detached, cold.

And in an attempt at a conciliatory tone she said, “There’s only so much any of us can do. We’re only human. And sometimes we just need to accept what we’re able to do.”

It was a painful learning experience, for sure, but I did learn to accept—in a post-superficial way—that I was person with a body and that I was thus prone to illness, aging, and death. Slowly, too, I saw my mother’s anxiety-ridden face melt into a calm obeisance, as if she understood that the inexorable mysteries of God were beyond her. As if this particular struggle was found to be no longer sensible and worthy.

And it is in what we both experienced that I’ve come to appreciate another (emancipatory) meaning of acceptance: letting go. Letting go of an obsessive need to control all aspects of life. Letting go of views that no longer make sense in our actual spatio-historical context. Letting go of what we think our lives are, and letting go of who we think we will become.

The Middle Way

In thinking about this turning point in my life, I realize that struggle and acceptance have always coexisted. After all, my struggle to get by with illness continues, but I accept that this is now a part of my life.  You can accept the existence of struggle, or (as Kisagotami did) struggle against an acceptance of our impermanence.

Thinking in a way that acknowledges a dialectical co-existence between acceptance and struggle lends itself to all sorts of transformative analysis. For instance, although Buddhist monks in Vietnam struggled against the Diem regime for years, it was likely an acceptance of death that enabled some of them to set themselves on fire. And in Tibet, while many continue to struggle against the oppressive Chinese regime, many also accept that the fate of the country is beyond the workings of a single player.

Acknowledging such co-existence, however, doesn’t offer the definitive resolution one might seek. As I’ve noted earlier, the problems with mere semantics creates an issue with framing a struggle-acceptance dialectic, and trying to untangle meanings from context and using them for practical ends is an incredibly arduous challenge whose purpose may ultimately prove worthless. With respect to the semantics issue, we can easily find ourselves in a rut of arbitrariness if, say, we can accept our struggle, or struggle with our acceptance, or accept and struggle at the same time. We can easily find ourselves reconfiguring meanings ad nauseum, shifting the meaning of ‘struggle’ and ‘acceptance’ at will while moving about like a pendulum in frictionless space. And once we’re able to reconfigure meanings in a relativist fashion, cherry-picking which definitions or meanings we choose to utilize in a particular context, we have to contend with undesirable consequences, such as the ambiguities of how to decide and act. We can, for instance, interpret the Dalai Lama’s (and other Buddhists’) advice on accepting suffering as implying, by the very fact that it was even suggested, that acceptance is itself a struggle—and, absurdly, a struggle we must accept. This potentially infinite regress reeks of nonsense and vacuous non-sequiturs that give us no basis for action.

Although all of this reads like a perplexing koan, I do find a saving grace in Buddhism’s very understanding of impermanence and the cyclical nature of life. Within this view is a recognition of the world as both changing and immutable, something shaped by one’s point of view and consciousness. As we are susceptible to highly polarized views, we are advised, in our search for peace, to find a “middle way” between extremes in thought and feeling. Much like a synthetic resolution to a Hegelian dialectical quandary, the “middle way” might be more than just an approach expounded by the Dalai Lama around the issue of Tibet. It may actually mean that no one perspective can give us Truth, and that our peace and happiness lies in an art of balancing (and shifting between) decision-making polarities: whether to be violent or non-violent, to be forgiving or unforgiving, to be struggling or accepting.

To be sure, this is a most irresolute of resolutions—but so is the nature of philosophizing on life. What bothers me most, however, is how such inconclusivity will be understood. I can’t help but hear a Left critique that says that any “middle way” is automatically a compromise in a war between enemies, a most despicable form of concessionary politics that uses divide-and-conquer to pare the edges of a revolutionary momentum. Maybe. Maybe not. Although I’m prone to be sympathetic to such a view, would it really apply in all cases? I’ve come to think that “middle way” approaches are more likely to be de-radicalizing accommodations in the context of collective struggles, but when it comes to personal struggles, a “middle way” approach may offer a much-needed balance in the aim for mental clarity and corporeal health.

And when it comes to the question I first presented—of when to accept, when to struggle—I will deliberately avoid universalizing maxims of ethical behavior (even at the likely expense of seeming like a post-modern relativist). As simple as it sounds, I find this to be true for me: I don’t think we will find an answer that makes sense for all of us all of the time. There is a certain relief that comes from this recognition, this letting go of a need to control the world under a paradigm of universal truths. Realizing this, I’ve decided that I need not find answers in Buddhist thought, but can rather allow new thoughts and resolutions enter through the personal dharmic road that led me here.

I’ve thus decided that there are moments when it makes sense to struggle—often with all the passion our bodies and souls can muster. I’ve also decided that there are moments when we must accept that, as humans, there is only so much pain, suffering, and injustice we can bear alone.

Doing a bit of word-play, I would also like to end by adding that we can also accept into our hearts not only the truths about illness and death, but also the beauties and joys of simple living. We can live with a revolutionary acceptance of different forms of life, one that goes beyond a superficial multicultural tokenism to a realization that all humans have a right to freedom. By accepting such freedom, we allow room for a diversity of tactics, a diversity of views, a diversity of ways in which to live and love. Such is an acceptance I can truly embrace.

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Cleaning out the Closet: Thoughts at the End of a Year

In Chronic Pain, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Life with Chronic Illness, Philosophical Musings on December 31, 2012 at 7:04 PM

Rusted silver keys to locks unknown.

Endless black wires and cords to equipment that no longer exist. Several black, gray, and beige jean jackets folded haphazardly in a large brown box.

Impossible stacks of unopened letters, some trite credit offers, others with peremptory statements like “Immediate Response Needed” and “URGENT.”

All of these are items my brother left, making me the unexpected inheritor of many useless objects. And I was finally able to organize them. This past week, I finally finished a task that was a year in the making: cleaning out my brother’s closet.

Fear and fatigue had kept me from accomplishing this task sooner. It was much easier to keep the closet doors shut and ignore what things I would see, and feel, upon opening them.

While I had created a space of my own in this basement apartment, this particular closet I left untouched…until this past week. Yes, there is a sense of resolution, but the questions surrounding his fate, and mine, will always reverberate against the walls.

It was last year—the week following my brother’s death—that I started the process of cleaning out the basement.

I was definitely overcome by the seeming impossibility of the task: sifting through items that were a reflection of my brother’s quarter-century existence, determining what would survive (the furniture; the movie and video game sets my younger brother coveted; the fiction books that intrigued me) and what would face the black death of a thrash heap (the useless, nearly interminable wiring; the empty DVD box cases; the notebooks scrawled with mathematical equations from now-useless college courses).

Those were the easy decisions. But what to make of the boxes and boxes of brand-name clothing (a logo-galore of Guess©, Armani Exchange©, Old Navy©, Levi’s©, Rocawear©)? What to make of the now-outdated technology he once prized—bulky digital cameras, digital planners, digital everything? What to make of the billiards sticks and the one…two…three…four different air ventilators? What to make of the off-white dirty sheets with the irremovable stench of bed-ridden sweat? What to make of the metal cane with the soft Hyaplon grip? The PortaBook© Notebook stand? The DiscoveryKids© Animated Marine Lamp? The McKesson© powdered latex gloves?

That one person could accumulate and hoard so much stuff was breath-taking. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt overwhelmed, and a bit despondent. Actually, it was downright depressing. The objects that filled the various closets, drawers, shelves, and various nooks and crannies were all things that entered and exited through his life in some way or another.

Some were clearly transient—like the DVDs he played once, only to stash away in some corner I would later have to inspect, prying their utility with my own eyes. Others were clearly indispensable parts of his sickly life: the Samsung© flat-screen HD TV, the Asus© desktop, the Pfizer© meds. There was also the beige leather recliner where I always found him sitting on—nay, resting on, at a 60 degree angle, since his deformed spine could no longer support his body weight when sitting up. It was his relaxed posture, and it is how I most remember him: slouched on his recliner, staring at a flat-screen TV.

There is no way my brother could have collected so many things without money—and quite a lot of it. When my brother was still in middle school, in the late ‘90s, my parents sued Lutheran Medical Hospital for an excruciating misdiagnosis (they said meningitis) that prevented him from receiving the proper treatment for his later-diagnosed histiocytosis.

Years later, when he turned 18, he finally had access to what was rightfully his due: a quarter million dollars. One can imagine what it must be like to be teenager with an immediate access to so much cash. A quantity most people on this planet will never possess, most definitely not at once.

And for a kid from a working-class immigrant family, this was nothing less than hitting the lotto. With the money came a sense of power, a sense of being able to achieve the American dream that we see repeatedly in the media. At last, success through wealth.

As a teenager, this money was the conduit to a dream world he long harbored, after years of let-downs and humiliations.

By the age of 18 he had overcome the brutality of chemotherapy, forced home-schooling, and years of standing at the sidelines while his peers played basketball, ran a mile, participated in Phys Ed. Although I was too consumed with my own issues at the time to see it, I later developed a clear picture of what he used his money for: wooing a girlfriend with presents, buying a hardly-used car, buying an almost-limitless number of video games (one of his favorite hobbies).

Perhaps his wisest investment was helping with the down-payment of the house in which my family currently lives in. Back then, I was a passenger in a car my brother and parents were driving. Their vision of the American dream. A little house with an iron fence and a backyard. In some liminal urbanscape between the inner-city and the suburbs. A house that was blocks from the subway, a 45-minute ride from downtown Manhattan.

And so it was: with my brother’s help, using the endowment he received from medical malpractice, we were able to “escape” a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn and become homeowners in a mixed-income neighborhood in far-out section of Queens. In hindsight, there are some things that I think we all failed to see. We were so caught up in the allure of this experience—this sense of accomplishment, this sense of moving forward—that we failed to anticipate the impermanence of our materially-based happiness. After the paint had dried, the furniture moved in, the marble counters installed, we found to our chagrin that the house required more fixing than we anticipated: leaking pipes, an old boiler, an impossibly difficult basement. That year, my brother’s car was hijacked twice for its prized parts. And the neighborhood we were living in had experienced extensive white flight and depressing property values, creating a still-ongoing tension between the remaining, settled whites (mostly Italian, many living in the more decorated houses in the southern portion of the neighborhood) and the recent arrivals (immigrant families hailing from countries like Guyana, India, Puerto Rico, and Peru). In this leap “forward” we also moved so far away from our respective schools, workplaces, and old friends that we were spending countless hours simply commuting.

My brother’s condition also worsened over time. The pain from his deformed spine was finally forcing him to quit school, and he finally agreed to a spinal fusion surgery—a surgery I later learned has inconclusive signs of success, with many patients experiencing complications , needing re-operation, falling into permanent disability.1, 23 None of us knew this. We just held hope. The surgery was done in 2007, but it was followed by ruthless procession of additional surgeries, hospitalizations, and treatments.

I was absent for much of this: I was studying away in Rhode Island, where I could conveniently ignore the problems that festered at home. I was too absorbed by own unhappiness to really take on anyone else’s.

While I tried to overcome my psychic pain by consuming myself in my studies, part-time jobs and volunteer gigs, hoping to overcome the pain of isolation through activism, my brother consumed himself in the realms of fantasy: video games, movies, TV shows.

While I tried to run head-first into my reality, trying (if vainly) to change it, my brother tried to avoid it at all costs through digital displays of worlds where indigestible problems were nonexistent.

Worlds that satirized family problems (think of animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy), focused on ones that could be turned comedic (movies with plots about chasing “the girl” or dealing with some pesky sibling), or were too unrealistic to touch one to the core (think zombies, warriors, gods, heroes and aliens in our newest supply of sci-fi movies and video games). After learning about the countless efforts my brother made to improve his health, to survive in a world that seemed isolated, cruel, and unjust,

I can’t blame him for using his available resources—his money—to purchase endless distractions and escape routes. But his life in these last years offers an invaluable lesson about the role of material goods in our lives. Even at their best, they only brought him a brief sort of happiness, a brief escape from the present, a turning away from social realities. Although it is oft-noted cliché, something we often nod our heads to before we proceed to worry about our financial problems, relationships, and work, the material objects in our lives do not confer happiness.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is our mind’s interaction with the world that can make us happy, or make us suffer—but the objects in and of themselves do nothing.

When my brother died the objects remained. Hard and lifeless, they were nevertheless reminders of a life long lived.

And they only possessed a reality through others’ perceptions. Sick of the materialism of an affluent society such as ours, one that operates on a deliberate oppression and displacement of the world’s poor, I was more than eager to give it all away, either through donations or ecologically-friendly removal.

My younger brother coveted the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and large stacks of DVDs. My mother insisted on going through the objects I tossed into thrash bags to reclaim their supposed worthiness and relevance, only later to realize that there were too many things to reclaim.

It would have been pointless to keep so many things that would hardly ever be used again. A few days after that, when I was finishing up what seemed to be an interminable project of cleaning out the basement, that my mother finally conceded—with a sigh of impenetrable grief—that my brother had wasted so much of his money on material vanities. It’s like he was trying to fill the emptiness in his heart, my mother said in her soft Spanish. Her chilling words have never left me, for they signified the coldest truth I have ever heard. The resigned despair in her voice was almost unbearable—much worse than the months of wailing that preceded and followed his death. At week’s end, several large garbage bags littered the sidewalk in front of our house.

For me, this was all a new form of social awakening. I had become “socially conscious” and “politicized” before.

During my last year of high school, I had been agitated by my work with an organization of queer youth of color, and I became excited about the prospect of future activism. Midway through college, I was agitated again—except this time I was filled with anger. I was filled with animosity against the rich, white kids I was surrounded by in school, against decadent late-night indulgences and convenient ignorance of university staff, against the rhetoric of leftist radicalism that never left the walls of the ivory tower.

During this time, I was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—what I felt to be a final insult after years of feeling isolated and excluded from dominant society. All throughout these experiences, I felt like an activist, even when I least wanted to be. It had become an integral part of my identity. It was all about how I saw the world around me.

But my brother’s death brought about a new kind of awakening, one that was tinged with a gray sadness and a sense of death-is-imminent urgency. That my health started to deteriorate as my brother was dying was more than just a wake-up call—it was an emergency drill, a realization that I needed to see what my brother finally saw. Yes, there is sadness all around us.

But there is also greatness all around us. Our lives can be ephemeral and tragic, but also long and immensely gratifying. These may seem like platitudes, but I think there is something quite profound in these polarities.

One lesson that I’ve learned the hard way: if we continue to zoom through life with our minds locked onto the future, or dwelling grudgingly on the past, we’ll fail to see the beauty of things in the present. It all relies on our perceptions.

Trying to reconcile my leftist political background with my new-found appreciation of Buddhist philosophy, I’ve come to realize that it is all a matter of perceptions. Our mind interacting with the world. We react based on what we see—or at least, what we think we see. North American conservatives may see a destruction of traditional ways of living that they see as superior as spelling doom.

Liberals may see a diverse multiculturalism and the expansion of voting rights as signs of progress. An affluent person, blindly bound to his wealth, will likely see an increased percentage in taxes as unjust. And so it goes on and on.

Our perceptions of our social reality shape how we respond to the world, to one another, how we treat the beggar on the street, the European tourist asking for directions, the activist shouting against war. It is always a worthwhile question to ask ourselves why we hold the beliefs we do, whether we see the world as hopeless or full of possibilities.

Cleaning out my brother’s closet—over a full year later—made me think deeply about what I was really seeing. The anti-capitalist in me saw a hoard of brand-name clothing, digital hardware, and corporate logos that made me feel both angry and empty. It was the same unsettling feeling I’ve experienced many times before, a feeling of fighting a war that cannot be won.

Of being hurled down by the gods after reaching the mountaintop. As my pain medication kicked in, however, a subdued, neglected child surfaced. He saw these same objects with fascination—as if each told a fairy tale of dreams and desires. Tales of unresolved wishes.

I realized just how discerning my mother was in seeing through my brother’s youthful “vanities.” As I thumbed through my brother’s old but hardly-used jean jackets (which I assume he bought when he was a teenager and quite loaded), I started to wonder what he imagined when he purchased them.

Although we grew up in the same household, the same working-class and poor neighborhood (Sunset Park, Brooklyn), my brother and I grew up with different tastes.

I went through different phases in my adolescence and young adulthood (from penniless Goth to preppy gay to I-don’t-give-a-flying-fuck to whatever-I-feel-like), each phase reflective of how I understood the world and where I stood in it.

My brother, on the other hand, went to schools near our neighborhood and dressed in ways that were popular in the late 90s and early 2000s: a hip hop/urban fashion that consisted (for the male-identified) of heavy jean jackets, baseballs caps, bandanas, and gold chains. The image of “P. Diddy” Combs and his Sean John clothing line comes to mind as I picture the sort of images my brother was likely emulating, and which stands out in the two dozen jackets (!!!) he had purchased, along with countless shirts and baggy jeans.

Of course, one can easily attribute this spending spree to youthful naivety, peer pressure, or the like. But it seems equally, if not more, reasonable to trace the sources further upstream: to the incessant barrage of commercials, music videos, magazine ads, etc. that he and his peers watched, glazed over, and responded to. It was a coercion of marketing impacting a community: either buy the commodities that are given cultural valence in your world, or react by rejecting.

There is a story that I read recently has gotten me to think about the role of media imagery and materialism in our world. Actually, it was an account given by a Buddhist activist and linguist, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who documented the changes she saw in Ladakh—a region in northwestern India that was isolated from Western influence up until the 1970s4. As the account goes, the Ladakhis lived, for hundreds of years, as Buddhist farmers. As Buddhist monk Jack Kornfiel relates: “They lived simply, with rainfall enough to grow their crops and time to tend to their temples and follow the sacred rhythm of their year.”5 In the early years of the cultural invasion, they told visiting Westerners about how rich their lives were, how their basic needs were always met. Over the course of twenty years, however, Norberg-Hodge noticed startling changes. The capital of Leh transformed from a rural community of 5,000 inhabitants to a congested, urban sprawl. And after years of exposure to television, music, and fashion from India and the U.S., Ladakhis started to complain about how poor they were. As Kornfield tells it, “many Ladakhis have left their villages to live in crowded, impoverished quarters in the city, seeking the happiness promised by the modern world. There are blessings in modernization, and we can understand the villagers’ desire for running water and electric lights. But we can also recognize the costs of materialism when desire becomes out of balance.”

Desire-out-of-balance was what I saw in those jackets my brother bought. At one end, what I saw was a dream unfulfilled: a desire to look strong, healthy, popular, powerful. Whether I wanted to indulge in them or not, the images of the Sean John ads flooded my mind, showcasing a world of affluence—and black affluence at that.

Who can blame a young man from wanting to indulge such a dream? At the other end, I saw something extremely perverse and unjust: clothing stitched and hemmed by Third World women at paltry wages and substandard working conditions, then marketed to working-class youth of color in the global North and sold at substantially higher prices.

My head hurts trying to keep track of the whirlpool of insanity our modern capitalist world has wrought: the commodification, the marketing, the buying of our media, our education, our government. We don’t see all this in our everyday lives; instead, what we see are people leaving their homes, driving their cars, entering their workplace. And in the course of any given day we pass by countless ads meant to sell us something—on the subway, at the bus station, on our favorite Internet sites.

Ads intended to sprout a desire for things we don’t need. Before we realize the extent of this sensory deluge, these commodities have entered our fantasies and desires exactly as corporate headmasters wanted. And so we continue to struggle—sacrificing our livelihood at times—for those items that will bring us the lifestyle we covet. A house. A car. A flatscreen TV. Those incredible jean jackets P Diddy wears.

We put our bodies through incredible stress to achieve these things, our minds latched onto the rewards. And when the rewards finally come, we feel ecstatic. One would say happy. Until the novelty wears away and we’re left wanting more.

Such was the cycle that I saw in that heap of things my brother had bought over the years. It was as if there was something clawing inside him, a craving that was augmented by darkness. Like an addiction. Like filling an emptiness (as my mother put it) that would never go away. And isn’t this precisely what capitalism thrives on? The incessant, insatiable desire for more? (More capital, more consumption, more land, more war, more, more, more…) A system designed on quick fixes, on short-lasting highs that we then need to keep feeding to prevent a convulsion of our crack-addicted bodies.

Yet, as much as instant gratification is an assumed part of our “American culture,” it is not the commodities themselves that trouble me (and, as it is, many of the commodities are things we absolutely need for our survival). For me, the more insidious aspects of our capitalist world have nothing to do with the things themselves. It is about how capitalism digs deep into our hearts and minds, shaping our mentality about the people around us, the houses and streets, the earth and the sky.

It is about how we come to think of everything—from a vacation trip to a seashore spot, to the food we eat and the clothes we wear—as quantifiable entities. As things with a price. From there we see a system that runs off dog-eat-dog competition and notions of ‘success’ predicated on wealth and power. We then feel as if we’ve failed when we don’t achieve the sort of ‘success’ that is flaunted at us in television shows and movies: a high-paying job, a nice house and car, a spouse and children.

We live out our lives always in the future, our minds always several steps ahead. And we suffer from anguish, stress, disappointment, loneliness. And a vicious cycle begins: drowning ourselves in work, abusing drugs and alcohol, surrounding ourselves with acquaintances, entering into superficial relationships that ultimately disappoint us…

To be clear, none of this is a denunciation against work, making friends, or building relationships. In fact, these are the activities that have the potential to suffuse our lives with meaning—even contributing to a long-lasting happiness.

But there’s a significant difference between fostering genuine relationships (either with people or our work) and the run-amok bigger-is-better attitude where we try to force our lives to fit some pre-compartmentalized box we were sold on TV.

Although my trip along the dharmic road is in its infancy, I’ve already come to sense Buddhism’s deeper appreciation for self-destroying impulses. Dukkha, an ancient Pali word, is often translated as “suffering” and “stress.”

And the dukkha we experience in the chasing of dream-lives, like those we see on television, has a distinct classification in Buddhist tradition: the dukkha of conditioned states (samkhara-dukkha), a dissatisfaction based on things never measuring up to our expectations. I like to think that my brother, in his wisdom, latched onto to this concept in his final days.

Speaking like an old guru viewing children at play, he commented on the hilarious vanities of the rich he saw on television.

He also came to humbly accept his own old vanities. Certainly, the suffering he experienced from bleeding to death (dukkha of ordinary suffering) was unavoidable. But he understood, in hindsight, how much of his earlier suffering was based on expectations of a life he desired.

A desired life built on expectations mediated by his surroundings. A desired life that always made his actual one seem inferior, festering holes of loneliness and disappointment.

As I’ve noted earlier, perception is key. We saw an extreme case of capitalism-mediated perceptions in the case of Ladakh. And it goes to show that if we are able to see what is good in this world, see what is good in all of us, we can avoid feeling as if our lives are somehow deficient.

In short, we can avoid the suffering from our unhealthy desires. Likewise, although it is a moral imperative to take notice of the evils of our modern world—the destruction of the planet, endless wars, the violence against the poor—we should also take notice of our vast potential for good.

Our ability to laugh at our follies. Give a lending hand to victims of a climate disaster. Resist neoliberal alienation by coming together, sharing our resources, dispensing with the obsession of personal ownership. In emphasizing the importance of the mind in constructing our worldviews, Buddhist philosophy shows us that we can have agency in our lives. We can choose to become passive recipients to corporate conditioning, or we can choose to find those things that will bring us genuine happiness. We can find goodness in our lives in the moment. We can find goodness in simplicity.

Organizing my brother’s closet this past week, I came to realize that I had undergone an incredible change over the past year. It’s still unclear what the legacy of his life will be, but I already have a lot to be thankful for.

To say I have a new-found appreciation for life is an understatement. I breathe in a new air, see a new sky. Walk on a new earth, in a new body with new feet. Even my relationship to objects has changed. Rather than a means to an end, I try to experience them as they are. As objects.

So now, while I try to figure out what to do with those jackets, and the many other things that stayed behind, I think back to the time my brother and I spent together. To how we enjoyed each other’s company while watching a few of his movies. Or the worlds of video game fantasy he showed me on his flatscreen. Yes, we were using material things. But in those moments, it wasn’t the material objects in themselves that brought us joy. Nor were they being used as means of escape or forms of distraction.

This time, they were being used wisely, moderated by a mindfulness of life’s impermanence. A mindfulness that this moment won’t last forever. So it was best to enjoy it.

1) Deyo et al. 2004. “Spinal-Fusion Surgery—The Case for Restraint.” New England Journal of Medicine 350:722-726.

2) Smith, J.C. 2011. “Back Surgery: Too Many, Too Costly, Too Ineffective.” Dynamic Chiropractor Vol. 29, Iss. 8.

3) Nguyen et al. 2011. “Long-term outcomes of lumbar fusion among workers’ compensation subjects: a historical cohort study.” Spine 36(4): 320-31.

4) Unfortunately, given that this is an account by a “Westerner,” I have to leave discussion of the Euro-American imperial gaze for some other time.

5) From Jack Kornfield’s essay, “The Transformation of Desire into Abundance,” as found in In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times (2009).

Seeing Life Through a Dying Man’s Eyes

In Chronic Pain, Life with Chronic Illness, Philosophical Musings on December 4, 2012 at 5:49 AM

My brother was never an affable, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. In fact, it was his frankness and humility that I most liked in him: he didn’t see a need for putting up pretenses, for dancing around issues that bothered him.

When we went to an uncle and aunt’s 50th wedding anniversary, he didn’t make any motions to show a false happiness. His demeanor represented what he felt: a brave, admirable struggle with chronic pain, but a willingness to appreciate life’s small pleasures in spite of it.

As he told my mom once, there is always something to enjoy: whether it be the fluttering of a pigeon, the taste of an apple, the rattling of a train. The sights, sounds, and images of the world have a beauty that is always available to us—if only we are willing to pay attention to them. Such age-old wisdom was not bad for someone who was barely twenty-six.

Image

During his final year, he was condemned to wearing a back and neck brace to support his fragile skeleton. He still found a way to tease, laugh, and smile.

Anthony wasn’t always so appreciative of the little things. For years, his life was consumed by imagery and fantasy, a fleeting, two-dimensional connection with the world that spun magically from scintillating pixels on a television screen. Down in his dark basement, sitting on his beige leather recliner, his interaction with the “world” was limited to the frontal plane, a one-directional visual reception of comical mishaps with the Simpson family, the Griffin family, or some other amusingly broken social unit.

While the rest of us were clocking in to our jobs or classes, my brother would go through passing seasons watching shows that put a comical spin on our social world (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report), or movies that played with heart strings and stomachs.

The allure of fictional worlds also presented itself in the various video games he collected and played over the years: worlds where you could kill and car-jack with impunity, where you could slay dragons and reptilian monsters, worlds where you were incredibly fit and powerful.

That he was finding such reprieve in worlds of entertainment and fiction should be no surprise: how else to live through an interminably painful and hopeless condition than to watch endless reruns of shows where lighthearted fun could be found in unrealistic yet hilariously absurd scenarios? Shows or games where you could detach yourself from the pain and isolation of everyday reality, and pretend that your biggest concerns are of the pettiest, materialistic types?

It was a year ago today that the person who taught me the most—my one and only older brother—passed away. His death was not a surprise to me and my family. It came about through one of the worst possible ways, like a long Shakespearean death…except much less romantic.

He died from the months of blood-letting that came from years of chemo-radiation, not for cancer, but for an insidious, rare disease that reared its head in childhood. It’s called Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (sometimes also known as Histiocytosis X; it’s definitely never a good sign when your condition has an ominous ‘X’ in it).

He suffered, for most of his short life, from something that most of us are fortunate enough to never encounter—a rare disease that stumped many of his doctors and for which very few resources exist.

His condition progressively destroyed his bones and wrecked havoc on his life as the pain from his breaking vertebrae prevented him from going to school, holding down a job, or having a modicum of a social life. Consequentially, my brother didn’t live out his youth the way many twenty-somethings do: his healthiest days were lived out in high school (though he was teased for misshapen back), and he took a break from college to seek surgical treatment that—it was hoped—would fix his the ongoing deterioration of his vertebrae (see spinal fusion surgery, a now-contested treatment).

As that “break” extended into multiple semesters, and one surgery led to another and another, his dreams and aspirations changed. At first, he wanted to start his own business. Then he wanted to just finish college. Then he just wanted to live a healthy life. Then he just wanted to live.

With every trip to a doctor, with every test and treatment, we were constantly chasing something that would never be. My parents wrestled with the possibilities of saving him until the bitter end. For all those years he spent chasing something better, he was in his basement apartment, his hopes keeping him alive.

I’d like to think that the wisdom he imparted to me and my family was due to a compression of life: he had to learn, in twenty-six years, what many three times that age may be lucky enough to learn.

In the days after his death, I was burdened with the responsibility of cleaning out the basement. It was one of the most laborious tasks of my life—and not simply because there was endless stuff that had compiled over twenty-six years of living. It was because of the emotional weight that each item, each DVD case or loose-leaf or T-shirt carried. The hopelessness was everywhere. There were just simply vast piles of crap—these material things that, at best, brought him a few hours of escapist entertainment.

Many of the things were hardly used, or probably never used. And there before me was the evidence of his condition. The pain and loneliness could be found in the many attempts to run from it: endless piles of DVDs, video games, and outdated electronic devices. The clothes that no longer fit his shrunken frame. The college books and papers that were testament of an unfulfilled dream.

The challenge of cleaning out the basement was small compared to the cross my brother bore for all of those years. In my eulogy at his wake, I made a reference to the story of Prometheus, a Titan in Greek mythology who experienced inexpressible, empyrean suffering for giving mankind the gift of fire (and inciting the wrath of Zeus).

According to myth, Prometheus was chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains, where he was condemned to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day for eternity. Immortality conferred no special advantage to Prometheus, whose liver regenerated every night and whose suffering continued well past that of any mortal.

My brother’s suffering at the expense of an unrelenting disease that literally contorted his bones was, to me, nothing less than Promethean in nature: although he was no god, his mortal suffering came to teach the rest of us in the family a valuable set of lessons about the ephemeral nature of life.

Much as fire is valuable for the light and heat it provides, my brother’s wisdom helped us see in the dark and grow spiritually as human beings.

Image

Though immortal, Prometheus still suffered as an eagle ate his liver day after day

Although there are countless stories of human resilience in the face of adversity, my brother’s story will be the one that I’ll always keep nearest my heart.

I can write endlessly about his travails and how he bore them, but what truly inspired me—and truly made me see the world anew—were the moments he showed a will to laugh. A will to smile. A will to reflect and inquire. A will to love. He showed all these things to us in spite of the incredible pain he bore.

Towards the end of his life he shared what he learned with us—that the material things that once cluttered his life were insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Implicitly, in being able to laugh through a funny movie while dying, he taught us how much we can enjoy if we open our eyes wide to life, unclouded by judgments, fears, denials, hopes. Simply being—experiencing the world through sensation without cognitive appraisal—can bring us excitement and joy.

Seeing the world through the eyes of a dying man, you become in tune again with that inner child that finds endless excitement in touch, taste, and smell. The child that finds pleasure in the smaller things, like the taste of an apple or smell of a flower—the things we’ve become conditioned to ignore or see as hindrances as we strive for some future goal. The inner capitalist kicks the inner child to the curb. Tells the child to shut up and listen.

For once, I’ve made a deliberate decision to not easily succumb to the ways we’ve been indoctrinated; I’ve vowed to listen to my brother, whose words ring truer as I make my own journey with chronic pain. In helping me see things through his eyes, he helped me decolonize my mind just a bit more, helped me come closer to that once-pristine psychic landscape uncorrupted by avarice and competition.

There’s a long way for me to go, but I’ve given up on a black-and-white notion of my destination. The road there is the destination.

My brother was the greatest teacher I’ve ever had.

Thank You, Chronic Pain

In Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, Philosophical Musings on November 22, 2012 at 11:27 PM

Since my spell of chronic pain began last year, I’ve had to come to terms with some harsh realities.

I will likely never be able to take a fast, quick run on the treadmill without wondering if my head will explode. I will likely never be able to escape from frequent medical visits to ensure that my health is “stable.” For all I know, I may never again have another alcoholic drink, hike a steep mountain, enjoy a late night party, or go on a date.

This isn’t me trying to cast an overly pessimistic spin on a day I’m supposed to be “thankful.” In fact, my sense of gratitude for life has expanded tremendously since I was hit hard by the limitations of my condition(s) and the death of my brother last year.

Yes, living with pain sucks…but it has also thrown in me new directions I would never have entertained. It has forced me to accept my humanness, to see my abilities and limitations with an entirely new pair of eyes.

I am often awed by the impressive machinery that is the human body (its complexity and self-healing capabilities) as well as by the ubiquitously enigmatic mind. I’m continuously humbled by the expansive mysteries of this Universe and the resilience of the human species.  Yes, living with pain has taught me a lot.

That said, I’ve pondered the meaning of “thankfulness” in a world that has pain and wonder if my thoughts will resonate with anyone else.

“Pain” is itself a term that can be conceptualized and packaged in many ways, but however we choose to define it, it’s clear that we live in a world incredibly damaged by pain: the pain of war, the pain of genocide, the pain of past and present, the pain of brutal conquest, slaughter, and slavery.

I can delve deeply into the histories of colonized and destroyed societies, of broken families and cultural groups, of lonely, pain-ridden martyrs. I think, for instance, of the genocidal colonization of the Americas that reduced the populations of Indigenous peoples from 70-100 million to 12 million within the first century of colonization and conquest (the 1500s).

I think of the 50 million or more Africans who were killed or forcibly removed through the slave trade during the initial centuries of Western imperial expansion in the “discovery” age.

I think of the millions of people today who contend with air bombing, displacement, and tyranny in places such as Gaza, Afghanistan, Syria, and yes, even the ever-so-powerful “Western” nations. (The United States, for instance, has the highest GDP spending on weapons of mass destruction, one of the highest-per-capita incarceration rates in the world, as well as an economic inequality index that should make us all shake our heads in exasperation. One need only look at which residents of New York City are still battling for basic necessities in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy)

However, knowing the merciless violence perpetrated in our past is not enough: it is important to recognize how the pain of our ancestors continues to live with us today.

Many of us understand the role that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other systems of oppression play in our collective dehumanization.

However, what’s often not understood is how we perpetuate these oppressions in our daily practices. We are complacent when we are left thinking that these violent oppressions are part of a detached past of which we are not to blame (perhaps our less-informed ancestors, but not us). We are complacent when we imagine racism and sexism as “issues” that were overcome in the past–and if they still exist, it’s because of the ignorance of “others” for which we cannot be held liable.

Such moral detachment doesn’t help ameliorate the “issues”–really, the persistent violence–that we see in the world today. Whether we speak of the Black underclass or the “feminization of poverty,” whether we speak of inequitable access to quality education, jobs, and health care or the fight for political representation, the real “issue” we must confront is the historical reality of power–who has it and how it’s used.

“Privilege” talk is helpful only if it engages in a radical re-reading of how power operates in our day-to-day social world. And that means acknowledging those upon whose blood and sweat we’ve come to enjoy our material goods.

So, today, in recognizing that “Thanksgiving” is not a holiday that emerged from the “coming together” of grateful European colonizers and Indigenous Americans, I’ve decided to use this time to redefine the meaning of “thanksgiving.”

While I don’t adhere to a particular religion, I feel many wouldn’t argue with the essence of these basic points, which also befits the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and loving-kindness.

  • Expressing gratitude should not be a once-a-year practice. We should make “thanksgiving” a daily practice, which we can display by consistent kindness to others and  recognizing that not everyone shares our privileges (e.g. having a place to live, living without fear of murderous attacks of war, etc.) Their pain is our pain is the Universe’s pain.
  • Coming together with our friends and family should not necessitate a special holiday. If we’re given the time off, we should make use of it, and if it’s a “good excuse” to meet with friends and family, do so.
  • If we’re in the spirit of “giving thanks,” we should thank the people whose land we stole, the people whose labor power enabled us to have food in our refrigerators and on our plates, the animals whose lives we had to slaughter to fatten our bellies.

May peace and love reign in our hearts. May ignorance and greed not cloud our eyes to the world around us. May we overcome the pain of our past without inflicting pain on others in the present. May we have courage to live with our eyes open, and our minds and bodies ready for the revolution. 

Hasta la victoria, siempre. 

Kristin Richardson Jordan

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