Did Buddha overlook the descent?
The other day, my friend Jack and I were talking about the “descent” and “ascent” parts of the hero’s/heroine’s journey. He asked me where The Happy Mind might fit into that cycle. That question got me thinking …
What Buddha had to say
The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are roughly: 1) Life is suffering; 2) The cause of suffering is attachment to the objects of desire; 3) You can end suffering by undoing your attachment to desire; 4) The Eight-fold Path is how to do it.
It could be argued that Buddha was only talking about the “ascent” here—the ascent to absolute bliss. He started at suffering, but he didn’t dwell there. There weren’t several Noble Truths about sinking deeper and deeper into the suffering, fully embracing it, uncovering and owning your shadow side, etc. I don’t think the Buddha was unaware of all these things or devalued them at all. I’m sure in the long course of his own path toward liberation and enlightenment, he had experienced his own fear and his own sufferings, his own sense of guilt and shame, his own shadow side.
The common element in all suffering
But in all those years, he discovered that there was a common element underlying every experience of suffering, underlying every experience of unhappiness or fear or anger. He characterized that common element as “attachment to the objects of desire.”
Moreover, his own complete liberation from suffering verified for him that this element was indeed at the heart of every experience of suffering. And so he shared his insight discovered after years of reflection and meditation, years of looking deeply into his own negative feelings and experiences and his own repressed shadow elements – shared it with others so that perhaps they could save a little time on their own journeys. In effect he said “Here’s what I found. This works for me and it works for everyone I’ve shared it with. Perhaps it can work for you too.”
Is Buddha too positive?
But would a contemporary psychologist or New Age teacher criticize Buddha’s whole philosophy for being too positive, too Pollyanna-ish? What about an in-depth analysis of the shadow side of our personality? What about the descent into the darker regions of our unenlightened human minds? What about fully accepting all of those negative feelings and experiences, sinking deeply into them, owning them and simply letting them be?
If we rush too quickly to simply let go of our attachments and be liberated from suffering, won’t we run the risk of just making an illusion of happiness that covers over all of our unfinished business? Won’t we be denying half of our human nature, and in so doing living only half of our lives? God forbid, we certainly wouldn’t want to be too happy too soon. The liberation from suffering message is nice, but maybe we don’t want to get there too fast.
How much time is the “right” amount? To be continued …