I woke up feeling unwell yesterday and decided against going for a run. I was worried that it would flood my body with more cortisol, putting it under more stress than it was already under. The rest of the day I suffered, and I spent the rest of the day wondering if I should have gone for that run instead.
What is this suffering I speak of? It is emotional, mental, physical and spiritual, all rolled into one. Only recently I have begun to notice it was a discernible physical feeling: a pressure creating a tight band around my head, an inescapable anxiety that feels like a tightening around my chest – I struggle to find the words to describe the sensations that have so frequently triggered a cascading torrent of anti-life thoughts. I would feel like all life-force has drained out of me and I am on the brink; anything would set me off into an almost unending despair.
As I go through this anguish I found myself going into third-party observer mode. Why do I suffer so? What has caused my psyche and body to be in this horrible union? Why can’t I seem to deflect my pain and thoughts like most other people?
Overall, I seem to be getting better at this suffering. Sometimes, I have developed the capacity to detach from the sensations and feelings, to not identify with them. Other times, I go through the motions of my finely-tuned recovery process. But once in a while, I catch a glimpse of a pain so profound, that it makes me wonder if there is actually progress versus being better at putting a bandaid over myself.
I am not religious and for many reasons (which I cannot go into for the moment without sounding disrespectful) I will probably never be. But in recent times I have found myself seeking some solace in Buddhist philosophy. I like a philosophy that starts out with the assumption that life (or at least the illusionary life) itself is suffering. But I don’t agree with some parts of it. I am curious though.
This curiosity has brought me to read many books on Zen over the past year, and last week I read a memoir of a Japanese designer who decided to be a Soto Zen monk at the age of 30. For a year he gave up his freedom while he learned punishing rituals, other trainees and him would frequently get punched or kicked if they didn’t get their learning right. They were given so little to eat that some of them gorged on rice, developed beri beri and had to be hospitalised. Everything had to be learned as a complicated ritual, including defecating (basically Soto Zen’s founder wrote an essay on how to defecate properly and they all had to follow it). He barely had any personal time, his life was a series of instructions from senior monks. It was really fascinating to read through his journey, where at the beginning he described his fears and yet towards the end, he wrote:
“By contemplating life as it is, stripped of all extraneous added value, I found I could let go of a myriad of things that had been gnawing at my mind. Through the prosaic repetition of Eiheiji’s exacting daily routines for washing the face, eating, defecating, and sleeping, this is the answer that I felt in my bones: accept unconditionally the fact of your life and treasure each moment of each day.”
Why? Is it because there is an inner freedom to be found when everything external is stripped away? Perhaps there is also some sort of resilience that was developed, that if we could go through a year of living as a strict Zen monastic, we could therefore have the courage to face the upheavals in our secular lives? He also hinted that he valued his personal freedom a lot more after that one year, that he didn’t know what he had until everything was taken away.
At first I had found it depressing that we seem to require extreme circumstances to know who we are and what we want. But after continued thought I think this is necessary because we are raised with so much conditioning, so many layers of our supposed personalities heaped upon us. Without extreme conditions, how can we peel away these layers? Everything is so patterned and ingrained that it would take extreme mental discipline – which many of us living in first world conditions do not possess because we’re used to a certain level of comfort with basic necessities easily accessible – to remove these layers.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was astounding to me now that I have never questioned the constructs of my identity until a few years ago. Am I the person I believed I am or am I simply a conditioned response to the environment I was brought up in? I have found so much of what I valued to be meaningless and yet at crucial times I have found myself clutching to them for the illusion of safety and security. What disturbs me is that I know security is an illusion, and yet I hold on to it so tightly like everyone else.
Why do I suffer, I question myself repeatedly nowadays. What is it I can do to release myself from this suffering? I feel like an ex-addict who is no longer beholden by the choice of drug but still has to painfully deal with the aftermath of the withdrawal and the harmful chronic effects of the addiction.
Why do I suffer, I feel like these days this question has become a zen koan to me. I feel so close to grasping the answer and yet remain befuddled at the same time.
Today I woke up feeling similarly unwell like yesterday, but this time I chose to go for a run, though the decision took an hour. I ran, and I endured a different kind of suffering: feeling the fatigue in my body, out of breath, the discomfort of being physically unfit. I persevered somehow, midway I felt a pressure lift of me, almost as if running removes the tiring weight of my body and mind. For a few minutes there was just me, stripped down to my barest essential, and I felt free. Who was that “me”? Was it the personality described as me, my brain, or my consciousness? For that few minutes I felt like I almost understood the Japanese designer’s lesson during his Zen monk stint, it is as though we can only be who we are, if we are able to forget who we have become.