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S'more Buddhism

Published: Saturday 26 Dec 2020 | Edited: Sunday 27 Dec 2020

A month ago, I was writing about taxonomy. On Monday, I wasn't 100% sure what taxonomy was, but I wanted to learn more. On Tuesday, I had a handle on what it was and compiled a couple anecdotes that illustrated what was interesting about it. By Thursday, I considered myself an expert on the topic, ready to write an op-ed to the NY Times explaining how the field had gone off the rails, and what could be done to salvage it.

On Friday, reading through the draft to the Times, I realized what an ass I was being. My knowledge level was a step above a Wikipedia read-through, and my confidence level was a step below Edward Jenner when the boy he stuck with cow pus lived.

So, that's gonna be my disclaimer before talking about Buddhism: I'm prone to overconfidence, maybe especially in this area. I have practiced meditation; I have studied the first two basic layers of Buddhist philosophy; I'm engaged with a couple podcasts by more professional adherents.

But I've never been on retreat, I haven't engaged with translations of the foundational texts, and I don't even meditate everyday.

I didn't learn about it from a perfect practitioner, though, and my life would be different if he waited until he had escaped samsara before sharing it with me.

The first (and probably most personally impactful) bit of understanding I got from Buddhism, is called

The truth about suffering

Here's the truth about it: there it is. Or, maybe: here it is.

Suffering. In Sanskrit it's दुःख; in Pali: dukkha; possible translations to English include pain, dissatisfaction, and stress.

The truth about suffering is that it pervades life. To live is literally to suffer. Every single conscious human (and I'm guessing Buddha would say each animal and bug and stuff, too) will experience pain and disappointment as an essentially feature of its existence.

People who experience severe trauma early in life, or who deal with chronic depression, or who generally have a subgrade resting bitchface kind of attitude toward life will identify with this truth. Naturally happy, bubbly individuals may have a harder time accepting or believing the truth. But the "truthy" part of it is in the fact that even the most well-rounded, mentally healthy, annoyingly cheerful people are destined to consistently experience the dissatisfaction of life on a consistent basis, despite their best efforts to convince themselves otherwise.

So, that's number one: life is suffering.

Naturally, the next talking point is

The truth about the source of suffering

Buddhism leads its students to ponder the cause of life's pain. According to the Buddha, it all boils down to desire or craving. Desire is the root of suffering. That's the truth.

Craving can be the obvious case of the feeling in your stomach when you've gone too long without a meal, or the impulse to eat more when you've already had enough. But, more interesting to me, were the examples of situation-craving and being-craving; not necessarily wanting an object directly, but the desire for a condition or a resolution. Like, wanting a phase of life to be over. Saying shit like, "I'll be so relieved once I get my student loans paid off," or "Won't it be nice when the kids are a little older, and we can send them out into the yard on their own?" and "At least the vaccine will be here in the Spring and we can all get back to normal."

Desire is really what's tripping us up. A little reflection on the things that bother us or depress us or stress us out will usually lead quickly to some desire for something to be different than what it is.

With those two truths as the foundation, Buddhism has been chugging along for two-and-a-half thousand years trying to help out: introspecting on life, finding and understanding its dissatisfactoriness, injecting a little Roundup into the roots of that dissatisfaction.

I don't think that's the whole of Buddhism, but it was a huge insight for me as a Westerner who had never heard these ideas. And it's something simple for me to reflect on when stress inevitably appears in my life. Funnily, for me, the mere acceptance that my suffering is a fact is often enough to significantly and instantly alleviate it.