A dear friend of mine called to say that his beloved pug couldn't walk. He was so distraught on the phone making it really hard for me to understand what had happened. Like all of us, to one degree or another, life isn't easy. Yvonne and I have dogs, each is truly an amazing creature with an incredible capacity for unconditional love and acceptance. I also once had a pug and her name was Truffle. She was my constant companion through some of my most troubled years. Truffle died when she was 18½ years old and it took ages before the sadness of her absence dissipated. If it's true that one human year is equal to seven dog years, then dearest Truffle lived to the ripe old age of nearly 130 years. The friend who phoned, in the depths of his despair and grief, said, "Why is life so difficult? Why do we have to suffer so much? Everything seems to be such a struggle." His observations struck a deep chord inside my heart and I could sense his hopelessness. Then he asked a very important question and one that has been asked for millennia, "What is suffering?"
In his popular book, "A New Earth", Eckhart Tolle describes an ethereal thing which he calls the Pain Body. Tolle speaks about human consciousness and its link to suffering. It turns out that consciousness has everything to do with emotional pain. You see, most people think involuntarily. We don't seem to choose what we think about, we just go about life with a constant flow of random thoughts streaming through our conscious and subconscious minds. It's an incessant stream of inner noise, a voice that seems to have a life of its own. Stop for a moment right now and listen to your own inner dialogue. Notice where your thoughts start and where they lead you. The part of your thinking, which we call conscious and subconscious, occupy only a tiny part of your brain's complex circuitry. Let's differentiate between conscious, subconscious and unconscious thinking so that you get a clean understanding of what's meant by these terms. Conscious ideas are those thoughts of which you are fully aware in this moment. You can hear them in your mind, like an inner voice giving a constant commentary as you go about doing stuff. Some of this conscious thinking could be positive and uplifting but most of it is self-critical, demeaning and bleak. Subconscious ideas are those that lie just outside of your consciousness but which you could bring to consciousness at any time. Take the date of your birth or your ID Number as examples. These bits of information are readily available to you but you don't walk around reciting them all day long. Unconscious thoughts happen outside one's conscious awareness and we have no easy and direct access to them, well, that's what science believed for a long time but there seems to be some evidence emerging that we can even access this lowest level of thinking through deep hypnosis, meditation and prayer. Deep unconscious thoughts are the ones that drive most of or bodily functions. Neuroscientists tell us that our subconscious and unconscious thoughts occur at a rate of about 40 million neurological inputs per second. That's a hell-of-a lot of bandwidth needed to process this amount of information. Given that your conscious mind's working capacity is limited to processing only a mere five to nine chunks of information at any given time, it's like trying to sample the mighty Zambezi river in full flow with a hosepipe.
Not only is there an incessant stream of thinking in most people's brains but if you take a moment to analyse the kind of stuff you're thinking about right now, you'll probably notice that nearly all of your thoughts are about happenings in your future, things that you need to do, or about stuff that you have already done in your past. This crazy inner voice is obsessed with everything except being present and connected with what is happening in this moment. This inner voice seems quite fearful of being present in the moment and it seems to try its best to avoid it.
Science believes that our evolutionary development of the frontal lobe in our brains set us apart from all other living things on this planet. We found the ability to think abstractly. Science believes that animals have the capacity to see, hear, smell, smell and taste things in their environment but it is only us humans that label, analyse and seek their meaning and purpose. Yet, having this incredible capacity to think abstractly, are we truly experiencing the world around us as it is and not how we think it is. Have we not set ourselves up for biased opinion by adopting and holding onto limiting ideas about the things in our environment? Let me give you an example of what I'm saying and I'm going to make a bold statement which I'll justify in as moment: Nothing you are looking at right now, nothing that you are hearing or sensing with your sensory organs is real — it's all an illusion. That's a pretty crazy statement to make so let me explain. As I speak to you, I'm looking at the studio microphone here on the desk and it sure seems real to me but if I pause and deconstruct what's actually happening, I can understand it very differently. There's natural sunlight pouring through the window. This is a stream of photons produced by the Sun that radiate out from it, casting light upon all of the planets in our solar system. A comparatively tiny number of those photons find their way through my studio window and fall upon the objects in the room. If this didn't happen, I wouldn't see a thing. Photons bounce off these objects and scatter light in all directions. Some objects absorb photons, some reflect them. Of the scattered photons that bounce of the objects in the studio, an even tinier number of them enter through the aperture of my eyes and fall upon my retinas. This causes an electrochemical signal to propagate along the optic nerves and into the visual processing part of my brain at the back of my head. Only then can I say, "Ah, look a microphone." But is the microphone in my consciousness real? No, it just can't be… I can't experience the reality of the microphone itself, I can only interpret the stimuli produced by the photons reacting with the retinas in my eyes and label the shape I recognise as a microphone. Let me explain it another way. Suppose that an image of my microphone is displayed on a screen in front of you. You'd have no trouble knowing what it is. But now look closer at the screen, with a magnifying glass if you have one, and you'll start to see that there isn't an image of a microphone at all but rather an array of myriads tiny dot (called pixels) of varying colour. Collectively, they create an illusion and you call that a microphone. The very ideas about a microphone lies somewhere in a complex, interrelated database somewhere inside your head. I gave the microphone all the meaning it has. The mic itself, is without meaning. I call this a Complex, Relational Database of Nested Perceptual Schemas. "Whew, Tom, you've lost me now…"
You might not be familiar with the term Schema, so let me clarify that for a moment. Generally, a Schema is an outline or model of something. It's not the actual thing but simply a schematic diagram or model of it. The blueprint plan of your house is only a schematic representation of the house itself. However, in psychology, a schema is a pattern imposed on complex reality or experience to assist in explaining it.
Mental schemas (mind blueprints and models) help mediate our perception of the things we interact with in our world and they guide the way we response to the objects we encounter. If I didn't have a perceptual schema in my mental database for the microphone here on the studio desk, I would be at a loss to know what to do with it — I might even not know what it is. I need my inner model (schema) to be able to recognise the microphone. Only with that concept already in my brain, can I say, "ah, here's the mic" and set about using it.
Most perceptual schemas are of themselves a complex, interrelated database of attributes, experiences, sensations and emotions, tied to object's schema. Data databases of Perceptual Schemas can be embedded within the schemas of other schemas. Technically, we call this nesting. Think of how many things there are in your world for which you have a personal perceptual schema. There is a schema for every person you know. The better you know the person, the more complicated the subschema is that describes him or her. There are also schemas in your database for everything you know, whether you've encountered it through your five senses or not. Cast your eyes around the space you are right now and you will notice how you reference your inner database, how familiar these objects are to you and how much you know about each one of them. Schemas about one thing cross-links to other schemas in very complex ways. Schemas are islands of information but each one is linked with thought bridges and connections to other objects. Choose one object that you can see in the space you are in and notice how that object links to other ideas about it. Perhaps it links to a smell, a feeling, an emotion or a memory of this object's significance and history. This complex referencing never ceases, even when our eyes are closed, sit in an undisturbed, comfortable quiet place. So obsessed is the average mind over the need to trawl through our database of schemas that even when the external, environmental stuff is quiet, the mind still creates its own stimulus through the power of imagination. There seems like no escape from this inner business. And the sad thing is, that none of these schematic models are real, they are all models, blueprints, diagrams of what is real. They're all an illusion.
If nothing in our consciousness is real then it has to be said that what is not real can't harm us. Mmmm. Of course, a falling beam could squash you or a random person might stab you in the heart but I'm not referring to this kind of harm. I'm referring to a much more insidious harm: the kind of harm that happens you when you bring back an old memory and create a fresh model of it in the present moment. If you've ever had the muzzle of a loaded gun pressed to your temple by a manic burglar, then notice your reaction to what I have just said. Adrenalin flowing, heart pounding and heavy, panicked breathing. Snap! But let's quickly bring some sanity back for you… Sure, your body reacted to you having accessed the perceptual schema you have of a criminal with a gun to your head. In fact, your body may react as if the criminal was doing this to you right now but where is the burglar in this moment? He's in your head! The villain that did this to you is by now far away or locked up in jail yet you still have this complex schema in your database that causes you to react the way you do. Who's really causing you harm right now, the criminal or are you causing yourself harm by the way you choose to think?
Tolle says, "You don't run your body, your intelligence does. It also is in charge of [your] response to [your] environment." Intelligence gives rise to the instinctive reactions of the organism. An instinctive response is the body's direct response to some external happening. An emotion on the other hand, is the body's response to an inner happening, a thought. Although your mind is very clever, parts of it are incapable of differentiating between an actual situation and an imagined one.
As we stepped through our evolutionary past, we slowly separated ourselves from the rest of creation. We learned to create, control and manipulate our environment. We acquired the ability to judge. Even an amoeba judges in a fundamental way, but the kind of judgement we're capable of is far, far more complex.
Take a piece of paper, fold it and run your nails along the fold so that it is easily visible. Now, unfold the paper again and look at it. You can do this using your imagination too. Label a section on one side of the fold with the word "good" and the other side of the fold, "evil." The further you move away from the fold into the good zone, the better it gets, and conversely, the further you go into the zone on the other side of the fold, the worse it gets. Place a mark anywhere on your sheet of paper to represent, let's say, "wild promiscuous sex." You can place the mark either in the good or evil zones but remember that the further away from the fold, the better or worse it is. Where have you placed your mark? Was it on the fold, meaning that it is neutral? It's brave of you to place the mark in the good zone because it defies what most might consider proper behaviour, and you'll have to defend your placement there. If you thought that wild promiscuous sex was an evil thing, how far into the bad zone did you place your mark? I bet you, that every one of our many thousands of listeners would have placed their mark in a very different position to yours. Judgement, you see, is a very subjective and personal thing.
Your judgemental notions of what you consider good and evil, cleaves our database of perceptual schemas in two. Almost every schema you have about something is tainted with personal judgement. You judge others, you judge life, you even judge the food you eat, otherwise you wouldn't have favourite things that you seek out more than those you dislike. Which schemas of yours do you place on the evil side of the mental divide and which do you believe belong in the good zone? Who told you to place these schemas here? Who influenced your decision? Who primed your mind to these classifications? Other people shape our thinking. Teachers, parents, priests, older relatives and friends all have a hand in shaping the way you think. You, influenced by others, live in a make-believe world inside your head. There, and only there, will you either walk freely or get snagged by your own beliefs.
Oh, if you folded your piece of paper by only flapping over and creasing a corner (you see I never told you how to fold the paper — I just told you to fold it) then which part of the paper did you label good and which part evil? If good got the bigger stake then you might consider yourself as being liberal, optimistic and predominantly cheerful because there's so much space for good and such a little bit for evil. If you labelled it the other way around, you might be conservative, pessimistic and serious about life. It's not for me to say which group of people are right and which are wrong If I were to do that, I would have to make a fold somewhere in my own thinking. But what if I choose not to do that? I'd be non-judgemental, accepting, celebrating diversity which would lead to abundant joy. There is no concept of right or wrong outside your mind. All of your own judgement lies inside your head and it will either liberate or confine you there.
So, we have to ask, can suffering occur in a world without judgement?
A constant stream of awful environmental happenings drives evolutionary advancement. Animals and plants simply react to hardships in their environment. Wildebeest, hunted relentlessly by lions over millennia adapted to the threat by herding together in large numbers. Nature uses camouflage, poison, thorns and scales as survival strategies. We are the only species on this planet that trap ourselves in the web of our own thinking, and when that happens, we call it suffering.
Tolle describes the "pain body" this way, "Because of the human tendency to perpetuate old emotion, almost everyone carries in his or her energy field an accumulation of old emotional pain […] The energy field of old but still very-much-alive emotion that lives in almost every human being is the pain-body [but it] is not individual in nature. It also partakes of the pain suffered by countless humans throughout the history of humanity […]" He goes on to say, "People with very heavy pain-bodies usually have a better chance to awaken spiritually than those with a relatively light one." Christ is the archetypical human, embodying both pain and the possibility of transcendence.
Can you heal your pain-body? Most certainly so…
Here's just one recommendation from Sogyl Rinposhe which he shared in his book, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." He says, "Perhaps nothing is as painful as believing that there is no use to the pain you are going through. […] How much pain are you in? Imagine now all the others in the world who are in a pain like yours, or even greater. Fill your heart with compassion for them. And pray to whomever you believe in and ask that your suffering should help alleviate theirs. Again and again dedicate your pain to the alleviation of their pain. And you will quickly discover in yourself a new source of strength, a compassion you'll hardly be able now to imagine, and a certainty, beyond any shadow of doubt, that your suffering is only not being wasted, but now has a marvellous meaning." Repeat Sogyl Rinposhe's words to yourself again and again, "May I take on the suffering of everyone that they may be free from this affliction and from all their suffering."
In Book 1 of Neale Donald Walsch's trilogy, "Conversations with God," Walsch asks this question of God, "Getting back to suffering — where did we ever get the idea that suffering is good? That the saintly "suffer in silence"? And God replied, "The saintly do "suffer in silence," but that does not mean that suffering is good. The students in the school of Mastery may suffer in silence because they understand that suffering is not the way of God, but rather a sure sign that there is still something to learn of the way of God, still something to remember. The true Master does not suffer in silence at all, but only appears to be suffering without complaint. The reason that the true Master does not complain is that the true Master is not suffering, but simply experiencing a set of circumstances that you would call insufferable […] We make real that to which we pay attention. The Master knows this. The Master places himself at choice with regard to that to which he chooses to make real.
By changing your thoughts about life you can bring Heaven to Earth.
Shantideva wrote a poem:
May I be protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.
Just like space
And the great elements such as earth,
May I always support the life
Of all the boundless creatures.
Until they pass away from pain
May I also be the source of life
For all the realms of varied beings
That reach unto the ends of space.