Buddhists can teach Christians about suffering

By RAY WADDLE , The Tennessean, October 25, 2008

Tennessee, USA -- Everywhere, every day, a swirling opera of judgmentalism plays out in the interior life, depleting energy and neighborliness, polluting the spiritual winds of our time.

How many times an hour does the mind launch its venomous little missiles? Things like: She's too self-involved I'm too fat he's un-American she's a moron I'm worthless God will blast them all.

The mind busily creates these story lines to explain sadness and hurt. Yet such judgments only intensify the suffering.

For 30 years, Gordon Peerman has been trying to understand suffering and the mind's strategies for managing it or worsening it. He's a local Episcopal priest and psychotherapist who turns to Christian contemplative traditions and also to Buddhism for practical insight. He will sign his new book, Blessed Relief: What Christians Can Learn from Buddhists about Suffering (SkyLight Paths Publishing), at Davis-Kidd Booksellers at 7 p.m. Nov. 6.

Society asks: How do we cope with pain and suffering? Peerman says pain and suffering aren't exactly the same, and this makes all the difference.

Pain happens because life's ceaseless change grinds down bodies and relationships.

"But suffering, in the Buddha's teaching, is what we add to the pain," he says. "Suffering is our thoughts and stories about whatever is happening, our resistance to what is. In the Buddhist account, it is this resistance that is at the heart of suffering."

Millions cry out: Why did God do this to me? In Peerman's experience, seeking the why of suffering is less fruitful than the what. Better to metabolize suffering meet it, stand with it, "sit in the fires of the suffering" until one comes out the other side with renewed compassion.

"Some people become wise through suffering," he says. "They become great souls. Others are crushed by it and become bitter beacons of suffering. There is some choice."

The book offers nine Buddhist practices for dismantling the power of fear and suffering. One exercise aims to place those powerful negative ruling thoughts ("I don't trust you," "I don't belong," "Something bad is going to happen," among others) under scrutiny. Ask: Is the judgmental thought true? Can I absolutely know it is true? How do I react when I think this thought? Who or what would I be without this thought? Liberation arrives when a toxic thought dissolves under mindful self-cross-examination.

Christian-Buddhist encounters suggest nonviolence and serenity can change the climate of the heart. This is no abstraction but is urgently practical.

In an age of disinformation and ideology, it's easier than ever to blame, demonize and write off everyone outside the tribal circle. The world's overheated mind needs calming. Tools of blessed relief are within reach.