Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 9)


Alan Watts discusses the Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist ideas about physical and moral pain, emphasizing the art of accepting pain by ridding it of its contextual associations.



“One thing do I teach, oh my disciples: suffering and deliverance from suffering.” It was in this way that Gautama the Buddha, living in the sixth century BC, gave the gist of his whole teaching. And it’s for this reason that many commentators and critics of Buddhism have called it a way of escape: because of its tremendous concern with the problem of human pain as the fundamental problem of human life, and the means of deliverance from pain. But I believe this is really a very mistaken criticism, because there is nothing that is so much the very essence of suffering as the fear of suffering itself. And if the doctrine of the Buddha were fundamentally based on an obsession to get rid of suffering, it would be a kind of self-contradictory vicious circle.


This is very well illustrated by another of those stories which I tell from time to time, where a student came to his master with the question, “It is terribly hot, and how shall we escape the heat?” In other words, this was a symbolic question asking about the whole problem of the heat of suffering. “It is terribly hot, and how shall we escape the heat?” And he answered: “Go right down to the bottom of the furnace.” “But in the furnace,” said the student, “how do we escape the scorching fire?” And the master’s final word was, “No further pains will harass you.” Now you might say, then, that the attitude of the Buddhist philosophy to suffering is not at all one of turning away from it, of solving the problem of suffering by turning one’s back on it and escaping it. Rather, its whole attitude is that the solution to the problem of human pain—whether it be physical or whether it be moral—is to go right into it.


Now, in the Buddha’s doctrine, pain (or suffering) in its most general sense is designated by this word duḥkha in Sanskrit. Duḥkha is the opposite of sukha. And if you break the word down, duḥ, here, means what is “disagreeable,” “painful,” “bitter,” and kha means “condition.” Su means what is “sweet.” So you might say this is bitterness in contrast with sweetness. And the first proposition of the Buddha’s teaching—what is called the first of the Four Noble Truths—is the idea that life as we live it is fundamentally duḥkha; fundamentally a kind of chronic frustration. And Man’s effort is always to get rid of this and go to that. But the idea of the Buddha was that, if you have this, you must have this, because these two contrast with each other. You don’t experience this unless you experience this, you don’t experience this unless you experience this. So if you go after sweetness, you cannot experience sweetness unless there is always as its background the contrast of bitterness.


And therefore, the objective of the Buddha’s doctrine was not to get rid of pain and put pleasure in its place, but to go to something else which stands, as it were, transcending these two opposites, above and beyond them, which in Sanskrit is called ānanda. That word is usually translated “bliss,” but in a rather unusual sense. There is a poem, again from the tradition of Chinese zen, which says:

Under the sword lifted high

There is hell making you tremble.

But go straight ahead

And there is the land of bliss.

And so bliss, here, has a very special meaning. It isn’t bliss in contrast to agony. And I think probably the best way of translating the word ānanda is to use the English word “ecstasy.”


Now then, our problem is simply this: how is it that through a profound going into suffering—that is to say, a profound acceptance of it—there can come out of it some sort of bliss? This is the problem we have to understand. Now, first of all, by way of illustration I would like you to consider a mild but nevertheless chronic form of suffering which we constantly undergo: the experience of fear. What is fear? What, in other words, when you are afraid, are you actually feeling? A great deal of the doctrine of primitive Buddhism as we have it recorded from the Buddha’s own teachings is concerned with close attentiveness to one’s inner feelings and states of mind. A careful watching of them to find out what they really are. And supposing, then, you’re afraid. What happens to you?


Many people, when asked this question, seem strangely unaware. Their thoughts are concentrated on the particular imagination of the feared event happening. In other words, a person is afraid of having a certain sickness, disease, and he keeps thinking of what it might be like to have that disease. But supposing we switch our attention from that and concentrate for a moment on what it simply feels like to be afraid, we find—don’t we?—that we get a kind of creepy feeling up the spine, we get a sort of sinking or hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach, and a clammy sensation in the palms of our hands. Now, as a matter of fact, that’s not really very painful, is it? That’s all that’s the matter with you, and that’s the worst that life can do to you at that moment.


Furthermore, notice something else: that when you have what you call fear, you have also precisely the same sensations that you have in a totally opposite situation. When you have what we call shudders or thrills of delight, they are the same shudders, the same trembles, sometimes even the same creepy feeling up the spine, the same sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach that a very profound positive emotional experience can excite. So that we find that our feelings depend for their valuation as to whether they be positive or negative very much as to the context in which they occur.


For example, say a father is playing with his boy, and he gives him a slap on the behind. The boy looks around, and if he sees an angry expression on his father’s face, he feels hurt. It was painful. But if he sees his father as laughing at him and was just teasing him, it doesn’t hurt him at all. And so it is with all our sensations. The way they impress us positively or negatively, as good or bad, depends to a very large extent on the context in which they are set. Take, for example, in a poem like this by the humorous poet Thomas Hood. The poem says:

They went and told the sexton,

And the sexton told the bell.

Now, it’s the same sound told in either case, but its meaning is completely different because of the context in which it occurs. If the second line had said, “And the sexton told the minister,” then it would’ve had the same meaning in both lines.


And just as words change their meaning in accordance with their context, so the meaning of what we experience alters contextually. And so it is this, then, that close awareness of our feelings reveals. In the same way, we can say we weep when we are sad, but we also weep for joy. There are tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Exactly the same tears, exactly the same physical sensation, but what a difference the context makes. And therefore, the idea of the Buddha was to become delivered from suffering not by running away from it, but from looking at the actual concrete reality of what we feel and forgetting the context.


Now, of course, this is obviously something quite possible in the milder forms of suffering. But what happens when suffering becomes really acute? Perhaps, as an illustration of this, I might turn to a very extraordinary work of art. It is a sculpture of Saint Teresa by Bernini. Look at that face and try and decide what feeling that face is expressing. Is it agony? Is it a rapture of delight which would, as we say, cause one almost to swoon? What is it? Actually, if you look back and see the whole scene, you will see that the saint is confronted by an angel who is piercing her with a dart, the dart representing the divine love. And so the figure represents Saint Teresa in ecstasy; in profound joy. Profound delight at the state, the inner feeling, of her union with the godhead.


And this is exactly what is meant by ānanda: ecstasy. For pleasure and pain in their most intense forms both produce a feeling that we could call ecstasy. A very striking illustration of this has been given recently. Some of you may have heard of the work of a British obstetrician by the name of Grantly Dick-Read, who has many students among obstetricians in this country. For, as you know, the pains of childbirth can be some of the severest pains that a human being can undergo. And the point of Dr. Read’s work has been to show that if you change a woman’s attitude to the experience of childbirth—if, in other words, you stop calling these feelings pains and instead you call them tensions, and if, before childbirth, you train her to relax, to let go of herself and, as it were, cooperate with the tensions that she’s experiencing—the whole character of childbirth can be changed. And many women who have undergone this pre-birth training say afterwards that what they might’ve expected to be an extremely unpleasant experience turned out to be a profoundly moving experience, even a joyous one.


Now, of course, it’s pretty clear that we can do something like that when the context of a painful experience is very positive, as it is with childbirth. After all, this is a creative event. But wouldn’t it be a very different matter in the case of the pains of death? Would it be possible, for example, to look upon the pains of death as natural tensions, and so have an entirely different attitude to it? I don’t know why not. After all, we fear death, we have a negative attitude to death, largely because of social conditioning. It’s what we’ve been taught. For example, just to give another illustration and then get back to the subject of death, the idea of being sick—I mean vomiting—is something which most of us regard as disgusting. But is it actually disgusting? Don’t we revolt with the feeling of disgust from it because, when we were little children and we were sick and we threw up, our mothers went bleaagh, and we caught from them the emotional attitude toward that kind of experience so that it reverberates and echoes with us ever afterwards?


Well, it’s rather the same with death. Because death is, after all, beneficent. If we never died, not only would our world become hopelessly overpopulated, not only might we become utterly bored with century after century after century of experience without intermission, we might crave death after the first five hundred years of life, and never to be able to have it would be like the torture of a chronic and fantastic insomnia. So if death is fundamentally merciful, if it is natural, if it is something that is just as much an integral part of being a human being as having a head or having hands, then would it not be possible to have a changed attitude to death in any community or society, so that in due course people could begin to look upon the pain attending death in the same way as they can be taught to look upon the pain attending birth?


Now, there’s another aspect to the problem, and that is that a great deal of our negative attitude to the experience of pain—and acute physical pain I’m speaking of now—is connected with a certain culturally conditioned unwillingness to react to pain in a natural way. In other words, we are afraid of giving in to suffering in the way that our own physical organism suggests to us. We’re afraid of crying, we’re afraid of screaming, we’re afraid of going into those very undignified motions which constitute the human being’s reaction in pain—even though, as I just pointed out, we sometimes have the very same reactions in acute pleasure. But we are fundamentally ashamed of pain because we are taught that giving in to pain—weeping or something like that—is unmanly, sissy, or something like that.


Now, it’s a very dangerous doctrine that a human being should always be rigid in conditions of suffering. I often like to quote a passage from that Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu which says:

Man at his birth is supple and tender,

In death he is rigid and hard.

Plants, when they are young, are pliant and soft,

But when dead they are brittle and dry.

Thus tenderness and softness are the companions of life,

But rigidity and hardness are the companions of death.


In other words, there is strength in weakness. Consider a cat: when a cat drops off a tree, what does the cat do? Does it go rigid? Does it say, “I’m going to be a real tough guy and meet the ground without flinching”? Does the cat stick out its feet like this? No. Because if it did, when it hit the ground it’d be just a broken bag of bones. When a cat’s in midair, it relaxes. It goes with it. It becomes weak. And so it hits the ground with a soft, heavy thud and is unharmed.


Think, also, of water. Water was one of the basic symbols of Lao Tzu’s philosophy: to be like water. Nothing in the world is softer and more yielding than water. And yet, at the same time, nothing is like water for overcoming and wearing away things which are hard, like rocks. And thus, if you put a knife into water and you try to cut it, what happens? The water gives completely to the knife. The water closes up wherever the knife went. And although you strike at it as hard as you like, you can never create a wound. So it is, you see, because of its softness that the water triumphs over the hardness of the knife.


So then, it’s the same with human beings. Unfortunately, we are so brought up to mistrust our natural feeling reactions to certain experiences. We are conditioned to believe that we will suffer less, that we will somehow triumph over pain, if we hold our feelings rigid. But, you know, our reactions to pain are in a way therapeutic. They’re healing, just like fever. When we have poisons in our blood, the natural defense mechanisms of the body send up our temperature, and in this way boil out the invading bugs. Now, it used to be thought that when people had fevers, this was the disease; the fever itself was the disease. And so, once upon a time, doctors used to give medicine to take away the fever. But by taking away the fever, they very often killed the patient because they took away the defensive action of the body to drive out the disease.


And so, in just the same way, if one refuses to react in the way of nature to invasions of pain, so too one may shatter the body beyond what it can stand. It’s the same thing. You know, no bridge will stand up unless it has give. If a steel suspension bridge is built so firmly that it doesn’t sway in the wind, that bridge will come crashing down on the first gale. It’s just because there’s give in it that the bridge is strong. Take a great building like the Empire State: the Empire State also has a sway in it. And if it didn’t have that sway, it would be a very insecure structure indeed.


So then, when we are willing to react to pain as our own natural feeling suggests—if we’re willing to scream, if we’re willing to weep, if we’re willing to wriggle and writhe as pain suggests to us to do—a very strange thing happens. The very willingness to react in that way often makes it quite unnecessary to do so. Now, you may say I’m just talking big. And the only way I can prove what I say is: the next time you have a toothache, the next time you have any serious pain, see what happens if you do this; if you, as it were, go along with the pain and don’t try to fight it. Yield, become weak, and you will discover the strength of weakness.


So then, you see, this is not really an escapist philosophy at all. It is most definitely a philosophy of keeping in mind the actual reality of the situation in which you find yourself. I don’t know what could be more realistic than this, what could be more fundamentally facing the hard facts of life. One keeps his attention on the actual concrete fact that is happening, as distinct from our socially conditioned and inculcated ideas and attitudes about it. And this is really facing reality a hundred percent.


And so there come out of this two basic results. The first is that, when we don’t resist pain, we don’t set up a vicious circle in connection with it. Take the pain of fear again: supposing you’re in a situation where the doctor has told you you have to have an operation. And, of course, if you’re going to undergo this operation in the best way, you need to be rested, you need to have plenty of sleep, you need to be strong, and so on. Well, fine advice isn’t it? Because the moment you know you’ve got to have an operation you’re liable to get a bit frightened, and then you know you ought not to be frightened, you ought not to stay awake nights and worry about it. You need sleep! And then you get afraid, you see, because you’re afraid. You’re afraid that your fear is going to lead to insomnia and debility, and so you’re afraid of being afraid. And then, because you see that you are afraid of being afraid, you are afraid you are afraid because you are afraid. So that worry is always a vicious circle in which you are worrying because you worry because you worry because you worry. And this, as it were, builds up a whole chain of reactions which makes the pain of fear worse and worse and worse.


So then, if at any point in this link we can, as it were, be willing to be worried, and then you don’t worry about being worried. Be willing to be afraid, then you don’t have to be afraid of being afraid. And so this, in other words, diminishes the total amount of pain, because it doesn’t allow the painful situation to build itself up and up and up and up. In the same way, if somebody stuck a hook into you, and you pull away from it, well, the hook goes more deeply into you. But if you’re caught like a fish on a hook and you go with the hook, this reduces the amount of tension. And this works backwards all the way down the line.


Now, there’s also a second result, and that is that when our mind, our consciousness, our attention, is fully focused on what is, on the actual situation—as I said, we are free from various thoughts about it and associations with it that bring up a context which makes the experience painful. So you might say that this is an attitude of taking things as they come one at a time. For example, many of you who are not blessed with dishwashers have to wash many dishes day after day. And when you’ve been married as a woman for, oh, ten or eleven years, one day you’re sitting there at the sink, utterly weary of the whole thing. And in your mind’s eye comes the immense pile of dishes which you’ve had to wash day after day in the past. There they are in your mind’s eye, standing up, pile for ever and ever on the draining board. And also in your mind’s eye is that enormous pile of dishes that you’re going to have to wash in the future. And you think, “My life is out of a mere drudge! Washing dishes, washing dishes, washing dishes, and there’s no end to it!”


But if you were realistic you would see this: you have only one dish to wash in your life—this one. You can only wash one dish at a time, and that’s the only one you have to deal with. It’s the same with climbing a mountain. IF you start to think, as you climb, “Oh, what a lot of steps to take!” Then the task becomes utterly oppressive. Or if, for example, you make a new year’s resolution and you say, “Well, I’m going to go on the wagon. I’m not going to drink anymore this new year.” And if you say, “This whole year I will not touch another drop of drink,” well, of course, the old devil immediately brings to your mind 365 days of not drinking anything—anything alcoholic—and that’s overwhelming. Don’t tempt the devil that way! Once conquers the problem by not drinking this one, and saying nothing about the next. So with the climbing of the mountain: taking each step as if it were the only step to be taken.


And so in this situation, then, where there is the experience of agony—whether it be physical or whether it be moral—the way out is, in a way, suffering that agony as if this were the only thing in the whole world to be done. By going right down to the bottom of the furnace, no further pains will harass you. It was also so—isn’t it?—in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when Dante and Virgil find their way out of hell by going down to the very center of hell.


I like to illustrate this with another of those Zen stories. There was a monk who got news that his mother had died, and he was weeping. And another Buddhist monk said to him, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! You, a monk, still showing worldly attachments by weeping!” He said, “Don’t be silly, I’m weeping because I want to weep!”


Alan Watts

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