The Trauma of Everyday Life
By Mark Epstein, MD
Publisher: Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-59420-513-2
“I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” The Buddha taught this through the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the path that leads to the end of suffering. He explained that the cause of suffering is clinging to pleasure and avoiding pain, and the end of suffering comes about by following the practices of the Eightfold Path – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In The Trauma of Everyday Life, Mark Epstein, a practicing Buddhist and a psychiatrist, examines two forms of suffering – acute trauma that is a result of extreme circumstances, and a more chronic trauma, the day-to-day dissatisfaction, anxiety, unease that comes from living in a fleeting and temporary world. The Pali word the Buddha used, dukkha, generally translated into English as suffering, covers both.
Epstein says that suffering “happens to everyone. The potential for it is part of the precariousness of human existence.” Even what we call “trauma” we should see as
simply a fact of life…. Trauma is all pervasive. It does not go away. It continues to reassert itself as life unfolds…. If one can treat trauma as a fact and not as a failing, one has the chance to learn from the inevitable slings and arrows that come one’s way.
The famous story of Kisagotami, a mother whose infant son died suddenly, is an example of the universality of suffering. She went to the Buddha in her grief and asked him to bring her son back to life. The Buddha said he had the correct medicine, but first she had to bring back some mustard seed from a house where no one had died. She went to her village, but she couldn’t find anyone who had not suffered a death in the family, so she returned to the Buddha without the mustard seed. The Buddha replied, “You thought that you alone had lost a son. The law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.” Later, after becoming a disciple of the Buddha, she stood on a hillside at night gazing down at the village below. As she noticed the lights flickering, she realized that her own state was like the lamps. The Buddha said to her, “All living beings resemble the flame of these lamps, one moment lighted, the next extinguished – those only who have arrived at Nirvana are at rest.”
When Epstein was traveling in Asia with one of his meditation teachers, he met Ajahn Chah, a well-known monk from the Thai Forest tradition. Epstein asked Ajahn Chah what wisdom he could take back to share with people in the West. Ajahn Chah asked,
Do you see this glass? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.
Epstein explains that Ajahn Chah was modeling the teaching that one could appreciate and value the glass, while still knowing that it will not last. He was capturing the “pivotal truth” of impermanence without negating the value of life. The glass – the self, this life – is valuable so it is important to respect and appreciate it, while knowing that it is, in a sense, already broken. Suffering is a basic fact of existence. Epstein further explains:
We remain entangled in our tangles, burning with the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddha had something else in mind for us…. Look closely at this world, he suggested. Examine it carefully. Probe your experience deeply, with attunement and responsiveness, and you may come to agree with me. Like the glass, the world is already broken. And yet when you drop your fear and open your heart, its preciousness is there too.
Another story about a beautiful young woman of the Buddha’s time named Patacara illustrates the depth of understanding that can arise when a person loses everything. Patacara was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her parents confined her to the top floor of their large home until they could arrange her marriage, but she fell in love with one of the family’s servants and ran away with him to get married. She and her new husband moved far away and when she became pregnant with their first child she wanted to return to her ancestral home to give birth. She delivered the baby before she was able to do this, but sometime later, pregnant for a second time, Patacara set out for her parents’ home. Her husband followed her and tried to stop her, but a storm arose unexpectedly. When he went to look for shelter he was bitten by a poisonous snake and died, so Patacara had to give birth alone in the midst of a raging storm. When she set out in the morning with her two children, she found his corpse, and blaming herself for his death, she proceeded on toward her parents’ town. She came to a river that was swollen from the heavy rain, so she left her boy on the shore and took her baby across first. She placed the baby on the far bank and returned to get her son, but when she was halfway across a hawk swooped down and snatched the baby. When she screamed her son thought she was calling for him, so he jumped into the river to come to her. The current was too strong for him and he was carried away and drowned.
By this time, Patacara was completely traumatized, but there was still more suffering in store for her. When she reached the town where her parents lived, she learned that they had also died in the storm when their house collapsed on them and burned down. At this point, Patacara completely fell apart and people began to think she was crazy. The Buddha resided nearby and he recognized her as “one who was ripe for his message of deliverance.” He gestured for her to come to him, and said, “Sister, regain your mindfulness.” She was somehow able to recover her composure because of his words, and after listening carefully to her story, the Buddha said, “Patacara, do not be troubled any more. You have come to one who is able to be your shelter and refuge. It is not only today that you have met with calamity and disaster, but throughout this beginningless round of existence, weeping over the loss of sons and others dear to you, you have shed more tears than the waters of the four oceans.”
Patacara did take refuge with the Buddha and his disciples, embarking on the Eightfold Path. Sometime later she was outside doing chores. She noticed water trickling down the slope of a hillside, and this resonated with her internal experience. “Some streams sank quickly into the ground, others flowed down a little farther, while others flowed all the way to the bottom of the slope.” Patacara noted that some of the streams were like her children and they disappeared quickly from this journey of life. Some of the streams that flowed a little further were like her husband who lived into young adulthood. The streams that flowed to the bottom of the slope were like her parents who lived into old age. Patacara later wrote, “When I saw the water flow from the high ground down the slope, my mind became concentrated like an excellent thoroughbred steed.” By taking refuge in the Buddha and by reflecting deeply upon her inner and outer reality, Patacara awakened and was able to relate to the tragedies in her life with “attunement and responsiveness.” Epstein says,
With every reason in the world to feel sorry for herself, and with the pressures of grief compressing her heart, she managed to see deeply into the nature of reality…. Patacara’s pain was so intense, her losses so grievous, it was amazing that she could go on at all. I can imagine that nothing else made sense to her than to give the Buddha’s counsel a chance. As Patacara realized in her reflection upon the streams, there may be nothing else to do with the traumas that befall us than to use them for our own awakenings.
Patacara and Kisagotami were both severely traumatized by their losses, but they were able to come to terms with them because they realized that their suffering was not out of the natural order of things; they realized that “trauma has been happening since the beginning of beginningless time.” For Patacara the realization came with the image of streams flowing down a slope, for Kisagotami it was flickering lights, and for Ajahn Chah it was the broken glass. They each understood that life is precious, fragile, and fleeting, but with “attunement and responsiveness,” difficult experiences can lead to awakening. Epstein tells these stories of “suffering and the end of suffering” and says,
Trauma could be known, not only as a personal tragedy, but as an impersonal reflection of an underlying and universal reality. Suffering is part and parcel of human existence. It is in all of us, in one form or another. The choice we have is how we relate to it.