Friday, May 4, 2007

I Scream Koan

A friend of mine started a meditation class recently. It follows her pilates workout. She has been been looking at chakras and koan cards and working on all manner of breathing and relaxation techniques. From her descriptions and her apparent satisfaction, it seems to be a great class.

I have studied two forms of martial art, learned about several religions and philosophies, and even dabbled in alternative spirituality, but I have never taken a course specifically for learning meditation. So I have been listening with interest to the things that she has revealed to me about her sessions. The other day she shared one of the thoughts on her koan card, and it stuck. I've been turning it over in my head for the last few days. On the front of the card, it said:

"Make medicine from suffering."

On the other side, the card read:

"Abandon your judgements and concentrate on healing yourself so that you can cease to be a patient and become a doctor. Suffering heals separateness."

The meaning seems clear to me: the koan entreats us to look upon hardship as a way to learn lessons about our own nature, and to use those lessons as a salve to heal ourselves and grow beyond our apparent shortcomings. I like this sentiment. As a response to life's trials it is neither passive nor unrealistic. It invites us to become agents in our own salvation, which in turn will make us vessels for rendering aid and comfort unto others.

The last part of the koan troubles me, however: it comes uncomfortably close to the glorification of suffering as a sacred rite of passage. "Suffering heals separateness"? That sounds like a Catholic Christian concept, one that I grew up with and that I find to be very distasteful. Suffering is not an agent. It does not "heal" anything. It does not "do" anything at all: it is a result, an outcome. At best, suffering is a random misfortune that befalls someone. At its worst, it is caused by the evil and/or greed of another human being. Our response to tragedy, to adversity, to suffering... that is what sets us apart. Not the suffering itself.

It is possible that the teacher who wrote that koan intended for students to contemplate such an avenue of meaning. I cannot presume it didn't occur to that person! After all, I am ignorant of the author's goal, and of the broader philosophical and spiritual context taught in the class. But throughout the ages philosophers and theologians have considered human suffering, and have struggled to assign meaning to it. So it upsets me to see suffering couched in terms that lend it an air of mystical purpose. I want to believe that a person's redemption lies in the choices he makes, not in the sorrows that befall him.

I'll have to think on this more. Maybe I'll bug my friend again - perhaps there will be a clue in next week's koan... Meantime, I'll embrace hedonism.

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