There are two kinds of suffering in this world: the kind that leads to more suffering and the kind that leads to the end of suffering. If you’re not willing to endure the latter, you will surely have more of the former.
— Zen Proverb
I know someone, it could just as well be you or me, who is constantly trying to figure out what’s wrong with her in order to get to the bottom of it. She’s tried medication, psilocybin, retreats and therapy, but to no avail. I don’t even know her that well, but I know what her problem is: that she thinks she has a problem.
None of the modalities she’s tried can resolve this essential problem. In fact, they reify it. All she needs to do is feel what she’s feeling and be who she is. But as the proverb goes, if you’re unwilling to do that, you’ll surely have the chance to keep “fixing” yourself forever.
. . .
I’m not going to lie and say I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy, though I do have a copy on my old bookshelf in Los Angeles. I will borrow its paradigm of heaven, hell and purgatory, however, and assign my own interpretations to them, irrespective of the pace with which Mr. Alighieri circumvolves in his grave.
My idea of hell is scrolling through Twitter, playing a trivia game like Wordle or otherwise doing something that keeps you engaged but distracted from essential tasks and your own vital existence. Hell isn’t painful, in my view, it’s actually comfortable and easy, only there’s a nagging sense of neglecting something and a dread this procrastination cannot go on indefinitely. Hell is suppression of feelings, resistance to life. It’s tossing and turning in a futile attempt to sleep in.
Purgatory is painful. Avoiding it is why you remain in hell. It’s the raw emotion underneath the ceaseless mind chatter. The abyss in your stomach and throat, uncertainty in your mind, anxiety in your chest. It’s also the miserable jog around the track in the cold drizzle when your foot is sore, your back is tight, or you’re a little congested and just don’t feel up to it. Most of us hate purgatory.
Heaven is after the run, when you’re walking home, observations and ideas are flowing freely. It’s the sense of relief after you let an emotion speak its mind without interrupting it. It’s the state of calm that arises after you’ve burnt through the karma in purgatory sufficiently.
But spend a little time in its kingdom and pretty soon you find yourself back where you started, in hell. Heaven as a reward doesn’t last. Because a permanent state of heaven for doing good or working hard would be a stupid and absurd state of affairs, not commensurate with the world’s sublime workings, its fractal majesty. The Tao or God or whatever word you prefer isn’t a schoolmarm. You can’t curry favor with it, and you can’t game it with hacks.
All one can do is choose purgatory over hell as often as it presents itself. To choose the kind of suffering that leads to the end of suffering over and over again. At some point, I imagine, one’s capacity to suffer in purgatory is so profound the suffering itself is heaven, there is nothing to be avoided, nothing for which to be rewarded. The Buddha’s first noble truth was “Life is suffering” and maybe hell is only for those who would avoid it.
. . .
It might sound harsh to see people struggling with their demons, trying to self-improve and dismissing their efforts. But as I said, this could just as well describe me. You have no problem except that you think you do. I’ll leave off with a George Carlin quote that sums this up nicely:
If you think there is a solution, you're part of the problem.