By Steven E. Hodes, M.D.
Physician to Meta-Physician
I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.
Metaphysics is the study of the nature of reality.
Buddha as well as all seekers of wisdom struggled with the same basic questions of existence. How can we possibly reconcile the pain and suffering we see around us with a higher or deeper spiritual purpose? Why not accept the inherent absurdity of life? Why bother to do anything, feel anything, attempt to better the world? Can we possibly reconcile manifest evil with any reason for hope, any motivation for existence itself? Should the religious doctrine that human sin justifies suffering be acknowledged as valid?
I personally find that particular notion unacceptable. Suffering is not punishment for human sin. Rather, it represents the human mind’s assessment of pain which is inherent in the physical world. This is the distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is universal, suffering varies considerably from one person to another. Pain is isolation, failure, rejection, the knowledge of the mortality of everyone we love. How we process this pain, how we can use our awareness of the nature of reality to accept what we have no power to change, affects our degree of suffering.
This impermanent nature of all things is a universal truth and Buddhists in particular immerse themselves in this knowledge from an early age. This is not meant to depress the individual or impair their enjoyment in life. On the contrary, our typical Western approach which is to deny the reality of death, to relegate the elderly and dying to hidden facilities produces a deeper psychological distruption and cataclysm when the death of a loved-one inevitably finds us. Suppression of emotions and fears only intensify their power.
To totally face and accept the inevitability of the death of all mortal beings, including our loved-ones and ourselves, allows us to move past this hidden fear and embrace life fully. The awareness, the understanding that no one escapes this life without pain allows one to accept what comes their way with peace, equanimity and understanding. Some students of spirituality [Michael Newton, Phd and Caroline Myss, Phd for example] believe that our souls agree to certain contracts before birth which will lead them into painful life situations. Although most of us could neither confirm nor deny this assertion, all we do know is that we possess the free will by which to deal with them. Sickness and death are not options. When we understand this truth, deeply and resolutely we are able to move through life with less suffering.
Evil acts are a powerful cause of pain and suffering in this world, yet they do not argue necessarily against the existence of God or a higher spiritual reality. Just perhaps the universe does operate according to the doctrine of free will. It is the only reasonable assumption that seems right to me. If everything is pre-ordained, pre-planned, pre-determined then why bother with the charade? If free will does operate, however, than evil must be allowed to exist. Why? Because without total free will, our acts of compassion, of kindness, of love would have no meaning either. Evil and good must freely flow from our own soul’s choice. To limit evil would defy the concept of total free will. That is not to say that I would not choose to see evil severly curtailed and eliminated. It just would not be the universe we inhabit.
We will be confronted by fear from the moment we attain human consciousness. We will understand that we have to face life’s slings and arrows essentially alone and we are frightened by this. To the extent that we are capable of loving that which is impermanent, we will suffer. To the extent that we are mortal, we will be fragmented. To the extent that we are alive in this world we will find ourselves with anxiety and a lack of peaceful equanimity.
It seems to me that we can find meaning in life by understanding metaphysical reality. Buddhism offers the knowledge of the nature of reality as a means to overcome fear. By understanding that all things are impermanent, that all beings will experience pain, that we should not be surprised when we experience these same traumas in our own lives. If we were unique in such painful experiences, perhaps then we would be justified in lamenting our fates or blaming our sins. Perhaps we are truly victims of a cruel hoax. Yet the knowledge that this is universal should reduce our suffering. The wise individual, therefore, will not be defeated by pain, but accept its reality and find redemption in sharing this knowledge with others who are suffering.
Rather than seeing life’s tragedies as punishment for sin, the understanding of karma seems more reasonable to me. Acts of treachery, of insult, of murder, of failure to love, of destruction of another being should engender in the universe a call for balance. Freely exercised evil does not go unpunished. Karmic justice is the most appropriate and fair. It may not be in this lifetime, however, that such acts are addressed.
Perhaps our souls are here to learn from our past mistakes. Our journey in any one lifetime may be like ‘survival weekend’ anyway. While it seems as if loving thy neighbor, extending compassion and lovingkindness to one another are clear paths towards spiritual growth, the absolute scarcity of such behavior in our world points to the difficulty in translating them into action.
Evil causes suffering. And suffering diminshes joy. Suffering unbalances us. Suffering fragments us. Suffering leaves us fearful and feeling unloved. Our delicate equilibrium of mind/body/spirit desperately seeks to repair itself. We become ill. We become sick physically, emotionally, spiritually. In Kabbalistic terms we see the universe as purposefully shattered, seeking meaning in our attempts to heal the breaks, to co-create reality through our thoughts and deeds. We are all physicians here. Compassion and acts of lovingkindess are our Rx.
Perhaps suffering is our gift. It challenges us to understand its nature, to accept its universality and to defy its propensity of suffocate us, to defeat us. Perhaps we find the ultimate meaning of existence for ourselves as fixers, as healers .
© Steven E. Hodes, MD., 2006
Steven E. Hodes, M.D. is a board certified gastroenterologist with over 25 years private practice based in Edison and Old Bridge New Jersey. He also has a degree in Religious Studies and teaches Contemporary Metaphysics at Brookdale College as well as lecturing and writing on Kabbalah and Healing, the Jewish View of Afterlife and on Near-Death Experience. Visit him at his Blog, Physician to Meta-Physician at www.meta-md.com