I have a number of friends (mostly young and relatively well off) who think Buddha got it totally wrong with his bummer First Noble Truth. From what they can see and tell me they know first-hand, life is one big party – sexting, drugging, gaming and hip-hopping. Where’s the “Life is suffering” First Noble Truth part in that?
It becomes clear soon enough though, as I sit across many a restaurant table from these Princes and Princesses (which Buddha also started out as) and simply listen as they tell me about their wonderful lives: mostly they aren’t paying very close attention. It doesn’t take too long though, after a few thoughtful, reflective questions, for them to drop into the sinkholes of their lives – the romantic relationship they desperately wanted to work out that didn’t; the work they have to rationalize every day as being meaningful; the father, mother, sister or brother they haven’t spoken to in years. I see no point in telling them their central processing units aren’t even close to being fully built out until age 25. Nor do I dump on them the fact that much of their life so far, has been spent “slawing cabbage” (Cabbage is the insider term doctors and nurses use for heart bypass – coronary artery bypass graft [CABG]). They will discover soon enough that Buddha totally nailed it, and there is hard work to do to burrow deeper into the heart in lieu of emotionally bypassing it.
If, as contemporary wisdom teacher, Baba Ram Dass claims – death is like taking off an old shoe that’s too tight, birth must be like first putting it on. And the life that subsequently unfolds must inevitably end up creating more than a few blisters. And in fact, I hear about many of those blisters over restaurant tables often from people who think Truth One is to accentuate the positive and make sure happy thoughts rule the day. One reason I listen deeply to them is because repeated experience has shown me that doing so holds the potential to strengthen both my own and then their brain circuits. From there my brain can then go to work on heart muscle so that we won’t have to perpetually turn away from so much of the actual suffering that’s pretty evident in their circumscribed lives. Once able to turn towards our own suffering, perhaps we will each be able to bear witness to the suffering in so many other parts of the world where trauma and deliberate, mindless damage to brains and hearts must be endured daily.
Avoiding the Crying Game
The crying I bear witness to in restaurants is rarely a full-on wail from the depths of the heart or belly. Most often it emerges as a kind of embarrassed, self-contained leakage that catches a person off guard, a small bit of buried grief that bubbles up unexpectedly – the first love that unexpectedly evaporated; the idyllic childhood that dropped precipitously into the hellhole that was middle school; the close friend from work who died driving drunk.
Grief is always about lost love in one form or another, isn’t it? All the seemingly unmanageable events and circumstances that unfold in our lives that we are unprepared for and have little control over. The things that end up buried in memory and then become barriers to an experience we become desperate to reclaim – from the world, within ourselves or across a table in a restaurant.
A Good Cleansing Cry
Even though many of the people I sit with crying in restaurants would rather not feel the painful things they feel, crying is actually a brilliant evolutionary design feature. Tears of grief are filled with neuro-toxins and crying is one way the body is built to move them out of our system. And it doesn’t much matter if the crying happens in a movie theater, in a pub over a beer, or in a restaurant.
Crying also serves as a signal that our nervous system might be ripe for memory reconsolidation. It has long been recognized by psychologists and social neuroscientists alike that we have to “feel it to heal it.” Basically what that means is that nerve cells in the brain that recorded earlier traumatic memories have to be actively firing for a therapeutic intervention to be transformatively effective. It is only while those memory cells are actively recalling the “past painful” that new neural connections can form and make integrative connections with them. Only then can a reframe work or a larger big picture perspective emotionally take hold.
Transforming the Paternal Wound
Last year I wrote about one such example from my own life: Recovering From My Father’s Moral Injury. I read about the horrific details of what my father had to go through during WWII, and realized the profound suffering that could only result from the savagery of his war-time experience. Turning toward that suffering allowed me to authentically hold his abandoning the family as an act of courage – he did the very best he was able to manage with the brain damage that resulted from circumstances he had little ability to change or effectively deal with. And I have no doubt that his decision came at great additional emotional and spiritual cost to him. Were my father alive today I would gratefully take him out to dinner at a little local restaurant where we might both have a good, long cry.