Suffering & Joy

Sep 26, 2006
On time for once, it's become fall all of the sudden, although the leaves have only just started to turn. All of the summer humidity has gone out of the air, and it is quite literally easier to breathe. I've always found fall the most...realistic of the seasons; I feel more myself at this time of year than any other time at all. And I've started seriously gearing up for Hallowe'en/Samhain -- no way I'm going to let the over-commercialization of Christmas (already! in the craft stores! by the gods!) get in the way of my favorite holiday. Plus, now that I'm on a regular shift at work, I have enough downtime to write -- even if my supervisors look a little confused by my piles of Crowley books all over the place. And so, the work-through of Little Essays Toward Truth continues.


I have a serious problem (and I doubt I'm alone in the Pagan community in this) with the First Noble Truth. In Buddhism, Dukkah, suffering, is the most basic fact of human existence -- or, in the words of the Dread Pirate Roberts, Life is pain. Anybody who says differently is selling something. This idea, though, has always struck me as the same sort of escapist ideal that allows the Book religions to disregard this world in favor of the next. (I know that isn't strictly the way it works in Buddhism, but there is a strong enough correlation, and the idea is borrowed shoddily enough by many Western philosophers, that the implication still lingers in my mind.)

More specifically, then, I have been having a problem with the way Crowley throws around the First Noble Truth in his Little Essays Toward Truth (and as I've said before, the origins of almost all modern Paganism are in these sorts of writings -- although I admit that this is getting a little detailed and specific to Crowley's system, here.)

One of the problems with Crowley's writing is that he throws himself wholly into his immediate subject -- in his essay on Laughter, laughter is the most important, the most vital part of the Universe and the magician's practice. In his essay on Sorrow, which basically postulates the First Noble Truth as the only motivation for magickal study, the same is true. On the one hand, everything in this world is painful; on the other hand, one of the truths the enlightened seeker will discover is the nature of the Universal Joke. Some paradoxes I can deal with, but this one seems a little out there.

On reflection, I think Crowley actually intends the First Noble Truth in a somewhat more limited sense -- this world is nothing but pain for those who acknowledge nothing but this Universe and the mundane things in it. Self-awareness and knowledge of the true nature of things -- of magick, of higher mental planes, all sorts of things like that -- allow the enlightened person to find the Universe not only less painful, but downright hilarious.

Crowley's sequence of events differs fundamentally from the Buddhist sequence, which states that the realization that the world is pain is the beginning of enlightenment and eventual release from the world. Like an AA meeting, admitting the problem is the first step. Crowley, on the other hand, says that the realization that the immediate, material world is pain is the only motivation for reaching beyond it, which eventually gives not release but a greater understanding (and the ability to laugh at the Universe, even, presumably, the bits which were previously painful.)

I still think this is a little broad -- everything is painful? even the things you enjoy? so much for individual agency, if you can't even rely on your own emotions -- but it certainly has some logic in it. After all, one of the things people often get told when they're depressed (which is extremely unhelpful if we're talking clinical depression, by the way, and not just a crappy day at work) is to get a little perspective; Crowley has just turned this everyday occurrence into a cosmology. (He apparently rejects the Douglas Adams cosmology, which states that if anyone were ever to really 'get some perspective,' they would immediately be driven insane by the full knowledge of their own insignificance. Then again, Crowley was famously egotistical, so it's hardly surprising that this possibility never crossed his mind.)

I would be happy to write off Crowley's use of the First Noble Truth as a limited and wholly temporary state of mind if not for another bit of philosophy that also seems to be lifted imperfectly from Buddhism. For the advanced practitioner, Crowley recommends a state of mind he calls indifference. Indifference here being used in the sense of "without distinguishing," one is supposed to react to every aspect of the Universe with joy, presumably as a means of forcing higher levels of awareness. First of all, I still find this idea a little broad -- I have a hard time finding joy in the news from Iraq and Guantanamo -- but aside from the usual metaphysical hyperbole, well-intentioned though it may be, the way Crowley develops this concept reminds me also of the Third Noble Truth, Nirodha, or cessation of desire. In Buddhism, this follows linearly from the First Noble Truth: because everything is pain, we should desire nothing, because nothing could be worth getting, much less desiring. Crowley is instead arguing freedom from desire via lack of differentiation -- if everything in the Universe brings you joy, why bother to desire anything?

In the end it seems as if Crowley is trying to combine several Buddhist sensibilities, which he obviously admires, with his own worldliness, which was at least partially a reaction to his own conservative Christian upbringing. After all, Crowley is famous for his worldly excesses. He was just not the sort of person to write off this earthly plane as worthless and spiritually unhealthy. However, his solution -- that spiritual enlightenment merely turns the First Noble Truth upside down, with all the absolutes still intact -- is both a little incoherent and completely morally bankrupt. These are both fairly consistant problems with Crowley, unfortunately, and in fact it is probably the recurrence of these problems in his writing which put o many people off him completely, in spite of his many genuinely useful and interesting ideas.


Jeff said...

Hey there,

My understanding of the Buddha's position on enjoyment is this: an excess of enjoyment should be avoided, because that leads to suffering when the enjoyment ceases and/or cannot be revisited. A little enjoyment here and there is fine, as long as you're willing to live with the consequences. :-)

But obviously, this logic does not apply to things that cannot be taken away or disappear -- things such as compassion or progress along the Eightfold Path. Feel free to enjoy that as much as you want. Even in these latter things, though, one must be careful not to tie this enjoyment to any sense of self, because the self is impermanent as well.

I could be completely wrong in my understanding. But I have derived a great deal of peace from it.

Jenavira said...

(Sorry I ignored you -- this is what I get for relying on my email to give me comment notifications.)

I think it's possible that you're right -- I know that most of what I know about Buddhism comes from Westernized sources, so I do hesitate to make any definite statements, because I know how things can get twisted from one worldview to another.

I guess my problem is more tied to the goal of the whole system of Buddhism, which is release from the prison of the world. Anything that starts with the assumption "prison of the world" rubs me the wrong way.

Inanna said...

Your writing really makes me want to read Crowley, whom I've never read!

My no doubt limited understanding of the First Noble Truth isn't that everything is suffering, but that suffering is an inevitable part of each human being's existence. Perhaps we could restate the First Novle Truth as "human life contains suffering." Suffering is a normal and very human reaction to some of the things that happen in our lives.

BUT, says Inanna's Buddhist, we make it so much worse for ourselves than it has to be. We create a lot of suffering by identifying with stories we tell ourselves about the way the world "really" is or ought to be. Stories like: it shouldn't be this way; it's not fair; things should never change; I'm doomed; this hurts and will always hurt, etc. We can loosen our grip on - and, yes, our addiction to - suffering if we can allow some space between an event, our experience of that event, and our interpretation of that event.

Thus, to use an example from my own life, "I have a migraine and I always get migraines and I know if I just ate better and maybe got more exercise I wouldn't get migraines and surely they're all my fault and the pain means that I'm getting sicker and sicker and will die and I hate myself...." can become - breathe - "get quiet, watch, what is the sensation like, how does it change, what do I need right now?" I lose the story, the anxiety, and the drama - or at least I loosen my grip on it for just a moment, just a breath - and my suffering lessens, even ceases, in that moment.

For me, this "detachment" - i.e. detachment from the drama - comes from being very present and aware in my body. It's not about transcending the body or the world, but about paying minute attention to it and stilling my monkey mind.

But then, I'm a Pagan. :)

Jenavira said...

That's great to hear -- I know Crowley's not the most accessible of writers, but I think he's quite rewarding.

I quite like your interpretation of the First Noble Truth (it occurs to me I've been looking for some kind of "authentic, original" interpretation, as if such a thing exists) -- that suffering is something we have to deal with if we want to get through life. I mean, I know plenty of people who think that happiness means not suffering, which is obviously impossible, so how could you ever be happy? But if happiness just involves accepting your suffering and learning to deal with it in the most productive way, that's a lot easier to get to. I'm going to have to think about this.

Inanna said...

I've only begun to realize that I often operate from an unconscious belief that happiness means avoiding painful things. The irony is that in trying to avoid painful emotions or sensations - in trying to push them away - we often just cover them up and make ourselves feel even worse (the bad feeling + the struggle to resist the bad feeling). I see Buddhism as telling us to give up the struggle, to lessen the resistance.