This brief piece concerns the world's two most important philosophical efforts to eliminate human suffering. Most consider these to be Stoicism in the West and Buddhism in the East.
Both of these systems emphasize equanimity, that is, maintaining composure or evenness of mind. This is achieved by letting go of attachments, by no longer clinging to some things and pushing others away. Ideally this results in a complete and easy acceptace not just of adverse events, but of all kinds of change on a moment to moment basis. Stoic practice approaches this primarily through various types of thoughts. Buddhism approaches it primarily, but not only, through meditation.
The importance of this ancient wisdom is enduring. Even our casual speech seems to acknowledge it. The meaning of the old phrase “taking it philosophically” refers to the very quality of acceptance or equanimity these ancient traditions advocated.
These traditions were bold. They claimed there was a way to eliminate suffering, not just reduce it. Buddhism in particular was very specific. The Third Noble Truth, which translates most economically as “There is an end to suffering”, layed it on the line.
It is essentially a claim that "nirvana" is possible. In Buddhism that term refers mostly to two things: the mythical issue of escaping rebirth, and a related psychological state. That state, something that supposedly can be achieved with practice, is a complete release from attachment and the suffering it brings. It is largely this latter sense in which Western, secular Buddhists appreciate the term.
But isn't the latter sense also a myth? Can anyone achieve complete non-attachment? I have a longstanding practice and, for just about the same amount of time, a skepticism about that. Sylvia Boorstein, the gentle Buddhist grandmother from northern California, expressed this in her own kind way. She called her version the “third and a half noble truth”, by which she meant that suffering, if not eliminated, could at least be reduced.
In fact all of the meditation teachers I have known or met have seemed appropriately down to earth on this issue. They have made it clear that no person is completely non-attached, and that all practitioners, experienced or not, are only in the process of working on this skill.
But aside from what’s possible, there is also the matter of whether we, whether anyone, would truly want to be completely equanimous. This is an issue I have considered for years, and I was delighted to see it addressed in Todd May’s recent, excellent little book "A Fragile Life".
May recognizes that philosophic perspectives and exercises can be extremely helpful for dealing with mild to moderate adversities. However, he doubts many persons have achieved invulnerability to life’s harshest trials. On this point May is more charitable than I. He is willing to believe that at least some, perhaps, have achieved invulnerability. I am not.
But more importantly, May opens the question of the bigger picture: would we want to be completely non-attached? He suspects that for most of us the answer is no, and I suspect he is correct. We are goal-making creatures, undoubtedly by genetic disposition. Goals large and small. They consume our day. When there are goals we pursue over an extended time, goals with which we somehow resonate, we talk about a sense of meaning. (See another of my articles on this site, entitled “What’s the Meaning of This?”) Thus meaning is bound up with, in fact largely springs from, attachment. Attachment to goals we consider important.
If equanimity is indeed the heart of wisdom, then we must ask: how wise shall we be? Most people, I suspect, would choose the satisfaction of a sense of meaning, even if it came at the cost of suffering. For example, if caring for others was something that truly gave meaning to my life, I would choose to have skin in the game. I would chose to be at least somewhat attached to my goal. And I would be willing to accept the internal, collateral damage such attachment invites.
Of course all of this is ultimately academic. Realistically, none of us will ever develop a literally ceaseless non-attachment. We will not have to make a decision about this matter, because it will always remain beyond us. By necessity our focus will be more modest. Maintaining mindful equanimity in most of our daily matters will be more than enough challenge for all of us, master and novice alike.
Still, there are reasonable differences of opinion on the most useful attitudes toward practice. I am reminded of a discussion I had some months back with a friend. He is also a psychologist and also a westernized Buddhist with a longstanding practice. For him, my emphasis on the reduction rather than the elimination of suffering would be counterproductive. It would be, in a sense, a strategic error. It would create a self-fulfilling prophecy that would subtly, unconsciously, limit the depth of his skill. And so on practical grounds, for the sake of developing his potential, he chooses to approach the Third Noble Truth as valid.
Fair enough. For me, however, a gentle realism about the human condition is more helpful. It helps me toward self-forgiveness, a kind of amnesty for those multiple instances of attachment and suffering—large or small—that continue to populate my day. And sometimes, if I'm lucky, a virtuous circle ensues: this self-forgiveness spreads out, as it were, and becomes equanimity.
Sometimes acceptance of self becomes acceptance in general.