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Now, there’s another aspect of the problem, and that is, that a great deal of our negative attitude to the experience of pain –and acute physical pain I’m speaking of now– is connected with a certain culturally conditioned unwillingness to react to pain in the natural way.

In other words, we are afraid of giving in to suffering, in the way that our own physical organism suggests to us. We are afraid of crying; we are afraid of screaming; we are afraid of going into those very undignified motions, which constitute the human being’s reaction in pain.

Even though, we sometimes have the very same reactions in acute pleasure.

But we are fundamentally ashamed of pain. Because we are taught that giving in to pain –weeping, or something like that– is unmanly; sissy. Or something like that.

Now, it’s a very dangerous doctrine, that a human being should always be rigid in conditions of suffering.

I often like to quote a passage from that Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, which says:

Man at his birth is supple and tender; in death, he is rigid and hard. Plants when they are young, are pliant and soft; but when dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus, tenderness and softness are the companions of life, but rigidity and hardness are the companions of death.”

In other words, there is strength in weakness.

Consider a cat. When a cat drops off a tree… What does the cat do? Does it go rigid, ’cause it’s “Allow me, I’ll be a real tough guy and meet the ground without flinching!” Does the cat stick out its feet like this? No. Because if it did, when it hit the ground, it’d be just a broken bag of bones. When the cat is in mid-air, it relaxes. It goes with it; it becomes weak; and so it hits the ground with a soft, heavy thud. And is unharmed.

Think also of water. Water was one of the basic symbols of Lao Tzu’s philosophy. To be like water… Nothing in the world is softer and more yielding than water, and yet at the same time, nothing is like water for overcoming and wearing away things which are hard, like rocks.

And thus, if you put a knife into water, and you try to cut it… What happens? Water gives completely to the knife. The water closes up wherever the knife went, and although you strike at it as hard as you like, you could never create a wound. So it is you see because of its softness, that the water triumphs over the hardness of the knife.

So then, it’s the same with human beings. Unfortunately we are so brought up to mistrust our natural feeling reactions to sudden experiences. We are conditioned to believe that we will suffer less, that we will somehow triumph over pain, if we hold our feelings rigid.

But you know? Our reactions to pain are in a way therapeutic; they’re healing! Just like fever. When we have poisons in our blood, the natural defense mechanisms of the body send up our temperature, and in this way boil out the invading bugs. Now, it used to be thought, that when people had fevers, this was the disease; the fever itself was the disease; and so, once upon a time, doctors used to give medicine to take away the fever.

But by taking away the fever, they very often killed the patient! Because they took away the defensive action of the body to drive out the disease. And so in just the same way, if one refuses to react in the way of nature to invasions of pain, so, too, one may shatter the body beyond what it can stand.

It’s the same thing you know. No bridge will stand up, unless it has give. If a steel suspension bridge is built so firmly that it doesn’t sway in the wind, that bridge will come crashing down on the first gale. It’s just because there’s give in it, that the bridge is strong. Take a great building, like the Empire State; the Empire State also has a swaying; and if it didn’t have that sway, it would be a very insecure structure indeed.

So then.

When we are willing to react to pain as our own natural feeling suggests; if we are willing to scream, if we are willing to weep, if we are willing to wriggle and writhe as pain suggests to us to do; a very strange thing happens. The very willingness to react in that way, often makes it quite unnecessary to do so.

Now, you may say I’m just talking big, and the only way I can prove what I say, is the next time you have a toothache, the next time you have any serious pain, see what happens if you do this. If you, as it were, go along with the pain and don’t try to fight it; yield and become weak and you will discover the strength in weakness.

So then, you see, this is not really an escapist philosophy at all. It is most definitely a philosophy of keeping in mind the actual reality of the situation in which you find yourself. I don’t know what could be more realistic than this; what could be more fundamentally facing the hard facts of life. One keeps his attention on the actual concrete fact that is happening, as distinct from our socially conditioned and inculcated ideas and attitudes about it. And this is really, facing reality a hundred percent.

And so, there come out of this, two basic results.

The first is, that when we don’t resist pain, we don’t set up a vicious circle in connection with it. Take the pain of fear again. Supposing you are in a situation where the doctor has told you, “You have to have an operation”. And of course, if you’re going to undergo this operation in the best way, you need to be rested, you need to have plenty of sleep, you need to be strong, and so on.


Fine advice, isn’t it?

Because, the moment you know you gotta have an operation, you are liable to get a bit frightened, and then you know you ought not to be frightened; you ought not to stay awake at nights and worry about it; you need sleep! Then you get afraid, you see, because you’re afraid! You’re afraid that your fear is going to lead to insomnia and debility, and so you are afraid of being afraid! And then, because you see that you are afraid of being afraid, you are afraid because you are afraid because you are afraid! So that worry is always a vicious circle, in which you are worrying because you worry because you worry because you worry! And this, as it were, builds up a whole chain of reactions, which makes the pain of fear worse and worse and worse.

So then.

If at any point in this link, we can, as it were, be willing; be willing to be worried; and then you don’t worry about being worried. Being willing to afraid; then you don’t have to be afraid of being afraid.

And so, this, in other words, diminishes the total amount of pain, because it doesn’t allow the painful situation to build itself up and up and up and up.

In the same way, if somebody stuck a hook into you, and you pull away from it, well the hook goes more deeply into you. But if you are caught, like a fish on a hook, and you go with the hook, this reduces the amount of tension. And this works backwards, all the way down the line.

Now, there’s also a second result.

And that is, that when our mind, our consciousness, our attention, is fully focused on what is, on the actual situation, as I said, we are free from various thoughts about it and associations with it, that bring up a context which makes the experience painful.

So you might say that this is an attitude of taking things as they come, one at a time.

For example.

Many of you who are not blessed with dishwashers, have to wash many dishes day after day. And when you’ve been married, as a woman, for, oh… ten or eleven years… One day you’re sitting there at the sink, utterly weary of the whole thing. And in your mind’s eye, comes the immense pile of dishes which you’ve had to wash day after day in the past… There they are, in your mind’s eye, standing up piled for ever and ever, on the draining board. And also in your mind’s eye, is that enormous pile of dishes that you’re gonna have to wash in the future. And you think, “My life is out of a mere drudge! Washing dishes, washing dishes, washing dishes, and there’s no end to it!”

But if you were realistic, you would see this:

You have only one dish to wash in your life:

This one.

You can only wash one dish at a time.

That’s the only one you have to deal with.

It’s the same with climbing a mountain. If you start to think as you climb, “Oh, what a lot of steps to take…” then the task becomes utterly oppressive.

Or if, for example, you make a new year’s resolution. And you say, “Well, all I’m going to go on the wagon; I’m not gonna drink anymore this new year”. And if you say, “This whole year, I will not touch another drop of drink”, well, of course the old devil immediately brings to your mind: “Three hundred and sixty-five days of not drinking anything!” (anything alcoholic). And that’s overwhelming. Don’t tempt the devil that way. One conquers the problem by not drinking this one; and saying nothing about the next.

So with the climbing of the mountain. Taking each step, as if it were the only step to be taken.

And so, in the situation there, where there is the experience of agony, whether it be physical, or whether it be moral, the way out is, in a way, suffering that agony as if this were the only thing in the whole world to be done. By going right down to the bottom of the furnace, no further pains will harass you. It was also so, isn’t it, in Dante’s Divine Comedy; when Dante and Virgil find their way out of hell, by going down to the very centre of hell.

I like to illustrate this with another of those Zen stories.

There was a monk who got news that his mother had died, and he was weeping. And another Buddhist monk said to him: “You oughta be ashamed of yourself! You are monk, still showing worldly attachments by weeping.” He said: “Don’t be silly! I’m weeping because I want to weep.”

Alan Watts transcribed by Leon Hieros

Strength in weakness