Sheba's suffering and death parallel some pages in a manuscript I am attempting to complete. The focus on this manuscript does not arise out of the blue. The theme of suffering nestles within my twin vocations of Pastoral Counseling and Jungian Analysis. How could the experience of suffering not occupy some central place within the work of all practitioners of healing? Suffering is life; life is suffering, although not the only thing.
But just because suffering holds center stage in each developmental phase of life, precisely because of its prominence in human existence, we desperately attempt to not-see the ravages of suffering. We try to drag it behind the curtain of life's drama. We distract ourselves with diversions of anything we can buy, beg, borrow, or burglarize -- anything that will take our minds off the real truth of our finite existence.
That truth is this: All that rises falls away. Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), a young nobleman living in a border area between what is now India and Nepal woke up to the reality of life's suffering in his observations of birth, aging, disease, death, and the experience of the loss of loved ones and things. This realization of life's impermanence and suffering was too much for Gautama. If this is all life is about, he appears to have reasoned, then how can we live with such awareness? Maybe more importantly, why continue on with life if we cannot escape or end the suffering?
And so, on the night of his 29th birthday, Gautama abandoned his life of luxury and privilege to become a wandering ascetic in search of an end to suffering. After six years, following an in-depth encounter with Mara, the tempter who traffics in distractions, diversions, and delusions of life, Gautama realized the enlightenment of his "Buddha-nature."
Emerging from his six years of an ascetic quest, a life-and-death encounter with Mara, the demon of unconsciousness, and finally a heroic affirmation of an enlightened conquest of suffering, the Buddha preached his first sermon at Deer Park in Sarnath, India. It was here Siddhartha Gautama, now speaking as the Buddha, announced an end to suffering, or at least, the way by which an individual might experience an end to suffering. As the very foundation of what would become Buddhism, the fourth largest of the major religions today, Buddha taught his small group of listeners the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Noble Eightfold Path." These, he said, reveal the path to end suffering for all who honor these truths. In a brief summary, they may be described like this:
The Noble Four Truths
1. The truth of suffering. Human existence is marked by the nature of impermanence, which we experience in birth, aging, disease, death, and the loss of all things and persons we hold dear.
2. The truth of the cause of suffering. The cause comes from the manifold feelings, thoughts, and sensations of anxiety that arise from our recognition of and attempt to avoid suffering, our drives to attach to things and persons we want to possess, and our pursuit of the countless distractions that divert our attention from suffering.
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering. It is not inevitable that we suffer, says the Buddha. In fact, there is a cessation to this suffering.
4. The truth of the Eightfold Path. The cessation of suffering may be experienced through the intentionality of following the Eightfold path as described below.
The Noble Eightfold Path
1. Right understanding. The word "right" as used here is not to be understood moralistically. "Right" refers to that which is appropriate to the situation. Thus, "right" understanding means that the Eightfold Path begins with a conscious acknowledgement of the reality of suffering interwoven within the essence of existence.
2. Right intention. The right intention is to undertake the Eightfold Path on one's own choosing with a resolve to see it through, recognizing the Path will likely lead us into new discoveries of our old "self' while opening up unexplored, new ways of being in the world.
3. Right speech. Our words arise from our thoughts; indeed, they are our thoughts. "As persons think in their hearts, so they will be." What comes out is what is within, yes? But the reverse is also true: What we say takes lodging within us. Our speech arises from our character while at the same time our words continue to mold our character. How hard it is in some families to say to one another, "I love you." However, once spoken the ice begins to melt, and a new relationship is born.
4. Right action. The same that was said about our speech applies as well to our actions. When people come into my consulting room, wanting to deal with a conflict in personal relationships or difficulties in the work place, they will sometimes say, "But this is just the way I am"! To which I gently remind them, "No, this is the way you have learned to be." If you change your behavior, you create a new life, and from your new life, you change the world.
5. Right vocation. I am not talking about your job as such; I am referring to your "calling" to be in the world -- which may be expressed in many different "jobs."
6. Right effort. The Buddha spoke of "effort" in four steps: (a) awareness of the negative pattern of thinking; (b) a resolve to turn loose that old pattern, (c) awareness of a new way of thinking; (d) commitment to put that new way of thinking into practice. This "new way" is that which leads to health and the alleviation of suffering.
7. Right mindfulness. We are likely to associate this with meditation, "mindfulness meditation." In that meditation, we watch our thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise, pass by, and then go on over the horizon of our consciousness. But right mindfulness does not end with our meditation, nor is it intended to. We learn in our meditation to practice in our active life the process of being mindful of feelings, thoughts, sensations. Our anger, our fear, our moods arise as we encounter stressful situations and people. But we learn we have choices: we do not have to attach to any of those feelings, thoughts, or sensations. We may need to take action, even strong action in some cases, but we do our best in mindfulness training to learn how to respond consciously. We have the feelings or thoughts; they do not have us.
8. Right concentration. This one is hard because it refers to that which is wordless. Consider its etymology, centrum from Latin, meaning "center." And look at the definitions Webster gives us:
1. to bring or direct toward a common center;
2. to render less diffuse, less dilute;
3. to express the essence of;
4. to bring all one's powers, faculties, or activities to bear;
5. to direct the attentions of the mental faculties toward a single object [the "one
This brings us to a deeper state of meditation. It is in the state of concentration that bliss may arise. It is in this culmination of the Eightfold Path that Buddha would say we realize our true humanity as a connection to the universe and to all others who, like us, suffer, but now with a sense of meaningfulness -- perhaps. This is the "end" of all the major religions, as it is the "end" of suffering.
And before I go, I want to add something further from the perspective of Christianity and Jungian psychology. But that will have to wait, when I will also say something further about Sheba.