Suffering, Samvega and the path to happiness and peace
I offer the following reflections, in the hope that they will arouse Samvega and motivation to practice in accordance with the Buddha Dhamma, and that this will lead to a reduction of the suffering inherent in Samsara.
This isn’t about ‘me’. It isn’t about attainments. It is just a tale about a series of experiences. A tale about adversity and endurance and perseverance, about the incredible gift of the Buddha Dhamma, and it’s power to transcend the suffering of our existence. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t wise, it isn’t prescriptive… hopefully it will stimulate some reflection and perhaps you can utilize the suffering that another being has endured as an aid in your own journey. That is my wish in sharing this.
Having served here as a volunterr moderator for a couple of years, I know that this forum is about the EBT’s, and that personal reflections don’t belong here, so I am making this post as an essay on the lived experience of following the Buddha Dhamma and the Noble 8 fold path (as per the EBT’s), and it’s transformative effect.
The majority of this text was written almost 20 years ago, before I was a Buddhist practitioner and is intended to demonstrate suffering and dealing with it as seen by an ordinary person. The sections written in italics have just been added, and are from the perspective of someone who has been practicing the Noble 8 fold path for over 10 years.
May all beings find liberation from suffering.
** A Poem: Return**
After years in the Abyss,
where the shadows of death
danced upon my unseeing eyes,
I can again perceive the flowers.
The stench of despair
has disolved in the sunshine.
Golden colours and happy sounds
dispel the agonising wails of grey.
My body, my soul
my compassion for self
they have all returned
as old and beloved friends.
Only the cavernous wounds
attest to the reality
of both this, and my
reversed black universe of hell.
But now I am well again
the shadows retreat as distorted memories
And germinating in my fertile heart
is the very seed of hope.
What is it to return. What is it like believing that there will never be a return, that death is inevitable and rapidly approaching like an eclipse of the sun, an eclipse of ones life. This is my story, my journey towards death and back again. I write it now, for the shadows are retreating as distorted memories, but yet I do not want to forget. The experience is so intense, it is like a crucible, in which life is reduced to its simplest components. For me everything was burnt away, everything discarded except for love. The experience of love as the fundament of humanity, as the very essence of life, is something that I do not want to forget. This constitutes knowledge that I almost had to die to get, it is too precious to waste. It should not be forgotten in the frivolity of distraction that comes from health and a full lifestyle. I hope to be able to live everyday of my life into the future, with the intensity, the love and the compassion, as if it were my last day, everyday.
My story started a long time ago, maybe 10 years before I became really sick, with gradually but continually declining health. As my condition became worse, it really began to affect my capacity to live and to work, and so I started to look more and more intensely for the reasons and cure for my illness. This was a very difficult task. The symptoms were so wide ranging and seemingly unrelated. I must have visited about 10 doctors over an 8 year period, each one diagnosing and treating me differently. One thing, I am sure, they all had in common though, is that they all thought I was a hypochondriac. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. It was just that they had no explanations for what was happening to me. As my condition deteriorated, it became clear to the doctors that I was not faking it, my symptoms were evident, however, they still had no explanation. I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, chronic headaches/migraines, hypertension, endometriosis, hormone imbalance, and a varying range of other things. Really a bag of mixed all sorts. The problem was that there was no treatment that could arrest the symptoms for any of my conditions, and I continued to steadily decline. Over the last 12-18 months before I was forced to quit work, came an unbelievable increase in symptoms including memory problems, vision disturbance, anxiety, sleep disturbance, day and night sweats, weight gain and truly extraordinary bloating, as well as constant vomiting and diarrhea and increasingly obvious nervous ticks and almost continuous tremors. I found it difficult to concentrate and found my emotions difficult to control.
At this point I was in constant pain, I always needed to be within a very short distance from a toilet, and was becoming increasingly upset by the seriousness and pervasiveness of symptoms that made no sense. I could hardly drive my car to work. I had long given up cleaning the house or cooking, and my days consisted of a losing battle to manage to keep going to work.
It had already been quite some time, since I had ceased going out to any social activities and had lost contact with many friends because it was just too difficult, I simply didn’t have the energy.
I would still go to my parents for dinner about once a fortnight, but had already been unable to even sit at the table for the duration of the meal. I would take myself off to the next room and lie prostrate on the couch, simply unable to find the energy to sit upright at the table. I was unable to finish a meal due to excessive exhaustion.
Looking back now I am surprised that we just accepted this state of affairs. That I somehow thought that it was still ok, or normal, or that I should just snap out of it. At this point already I was hardly living.
In order to keep going with my tasks, given that I was in continual pain, I was taking painkillers constantly. Some to help get me out of bed and into the car, some at morning tea, at lunch, and then again in the afternoon. Everyday. I began to have to go to different chemists to get the painkillers. Because as I was taking so many, each of the chemists were starting to caution me. I knew things were really bad at this stage. I had a group of 9 chemists that I would go to. I write this now and am astounded myself, but at the time, it was the only way I knew how to keep myself functioning. And functioning was always, to me, the most important thing.
At this time I was on various prescription medications, antidepressants, sedatives, anxiety tablets, blood pressure tablets, stomach tablets and painkillers. A veritable cocktail, little did I know that things were yet to get much, much worse.
I had always considered myself to be a healthy person and felt pretty much indestructible. What a joke. Anyway it came to the stage where I could no longer physically get myself to work. I had already been regularly locking my office door and lying on the floor in pain and completely exhausted, but now I could no longer even drive myself to work. I quit work.
It was the 12/8/99. The twelfth of never. This day is indelibly etched on my mind. It was the beginning of my death. A part of me died on that day, and has not returned. I believe that the grief I experienced on this occasion will remain with me forever. It was terrible.
Now 20 years later, the grief is entirely gone, and reading these words it is hard to believe that I could ever have been so completely deluded and foolish. What an absolutely fundamental lesson, clear identification of the suffering inherent in identity view, that enabled me to eventually enter the path of Dhamma.
When it came time to quit work, the very thought of it was unbearable. Thank god I had a lot of anger. At this time the anger really saved me, even though it was pointless, unfocussed anger and distressing to experience. It made me fight, just fight.
Afterwards my depression spiraled out of control. In a journal that I started keeping at this time I refer to myself as a maggot infested turd, and yet felt that this was too generous a description of myself. I did not deserve to be alive, I was below contempt. I was too sick, too incapacitated to work. I no longer had any self worth, just endless self loathing. What I did, my work and actions is what constituted my identity at this time. The drive of my life was to be esteemed because of my abilities and work ethics – what I accomplished…
Nobody was addressing the totality of my symptoms. At this stage the mental and cognitive symptoms were receiving most attention, since I found them the most distressing. Also I appeared to be quite immune to the sedative, antidepressant and anti anxiety medication. No matter the amounts that I took, they did not seem to have any impact on me, rather I kept getting worse. My doctor at the time described my constitution as being like that of an elephant.
Over the 16 weeks following my departure from work, my symptoms continued to worsen until I would just lie on the floor all day in pain, very depressed, and anxious. I could no longer drive the car, or even make cogent phone calls. The anxiety was increasing dramatically, and I was being treated for some “unspecified” form of mental illness. In December I finally agreed to being hospitalized in a private hospital. I was as scared as a rabbit about to be skinned alive. I still want to cry when I think about it. Two months previously I was in charge of a range of psychiatric rehabilitation programs, working at both a practical and policy level, and here I was now, in a psych unit being chided by the psych nurses for not wanting to join in the groups or go for walks. They took my voicing of my physical symptoms, of being in pain and nauseous, as excuses to get out of doing the activities they had planned.
I was so utterly demoralized, so completely scared stiff, so unable to be in control and no-one seemed able to help me.
I’ll never forget though, and never forgive them for making me break down in public. In their group session talking about sadness and making - forcing - us to listen to sad soppy songs. All I wanted to do was die. The crying was uncontrollable, my soul was bleeding grief. They never did anything with this. It was for no purpose, it did not help. On the contrary it made me feel so much worse, so helpless, and humiliated and useless. I thought I was going to die, and here were these stupid people making me feel emotionally ratshit. My mother came for an unscheduled visit during one of these sessions, and crying uncontrollably I blurted out how much I loved her and how sorry I was. She was so shocked. She had never seen me like this. My whole family was traumatized. No-one knew what to do, or what to make of it or how to handle it. All semblance of me being able to look after myself was shattered. If anyone had thought that I was a strong and resourceful person, they could only have believed it to have been something unrelated to the person they saw before them. My self died there in that unit. Died tortured, humiliated, convulsed and grotesque. There was nothing to replace it… it was a void. … a soul-chilling vacuum – nothing but despair.
Coincidentally the hospital I was in had had no spare beds in their psychiatric unit, and I was given a bed next door in their Environmental Control Unit. This was fate and fortune finally smiling upon me, even though I did not know it at the time. Spending two weeks in this controlled environment, except for my forced daily visits to the outside world to take part in “rehab”, made the world of difference to me.
While in this unit I was taken off all medication, and over a fortnight I began to feel a bit better. In hindsight it is clear that I had very strong allergies to the medication, but this was not to become clear for several more years.
The psychiatric diagnosis I was given was codeine psychosis, and had no further treatment. However the allergist of the Environmental Control unit spoke to me on a number of occasions, and I attended one of his talks in the unit where he looked at my symptoms as a bit of a case study. I was finally on my way to an accurate diagnosis. I had severe allergies and chemical sensitivities, basically a non-specific immune and body wide inflammatory illness, triggered by everyday foods and chemicals…
After discharge from hospital (the psych unit), I went to see him in his rooms and we began work. I was admitted to the Enviromental Control Unit some 6 weeks later for a full investigation and spent almost 3 months there (literally living in a sterile bubble). It turns out that I was allergic and severely sensitive to almost everything. My immune system was completely haywire and attacking almost everything. – my self.
In a clean and controlled environment I made quick improvements in many areas. The results of many of the tests were incredibly dramatic, and even for a cynic like myself, pretty conclusive. Here started my road to recovery, my long and hard road to recovery.
It is now 3 1/2 years since my admission into the ECU. I have put many measures in place over the years and am now able to function as “normal” again within my environment.
I made and worked to a 1000 day recovery plan (of my own devising due to my professional background and skills). This was an unheard of condition and no-one knew how to deal with it, and even questioned if it was real, so I was left to my own resourcefulness to cope.
The feelings of hope have returned, and I hope soon to feel some happiness or even joy. The feeling that I miss the most is lightheartedness. Everything in my life recently has been so serious, so sad, so full of despair and anxiety, of grief. I miss feeling carefree and lighthearted. Maybe one day, I hope to re-experience this too.
Anyway, my real journey into depression started after I received my accurate diagnosis.
In Buddhist hindsight, this was all about confronting the causes of suffering due to loss of identity. It was about being able to see through the prior conditioning, all the multitudinous layers of delusion, finally towards the happy realization of non-self.
Even remembering the suffering and depression sends a chill down my spine and makes me feel sick in the pit of my stomach, as though a black hole is opening up inside of me. It is an odd feeling and what I imagine dead terror must be like. But I will face this, to write it down and record it. Even if I am in tears while I do so.
I’ve come to see this phase as a self imposed, mind made, hell. It came about because of the conditioning and delusions that I had. Not understanding Suffering, the cause of suffering and the way to be free of suffering.
Depression, or the “evil D” as I call it. I call it the evil D, and many call it just D or the black dog, it is to take away some of its power, for to utter its full name is like tempting fate. It is the thing that shall not be named. It is a foul, evil, inhuman thing. It feeds on the misery of human souls, and is insatiable. It sniffs out every weakness in your self, your body, your mind and your soul, and uses it mercilessly against you. It is tireless, it never sleeps, never rests, never takes holidays. Its sole purpose is to destroy you utterly and as completely as possible. It is a deamon from hell, it is blackness, it is despair and anguish personified, and it knows no mercy.
When engaged in the battle with the evil D, be under no illusions, you are fighting to the death. You are fighting for your life. If you give in, or weaken, you die. The evil D is ultimately evil, destroying you from within, it compels you to take your own life.
It compelled me to take my own life in an extreme form for well over a year. It was not so intense, just medium for several years, and really quite mild for many years before that.
Perhaps I should talk about mild depression first. Mild depression for me was feeling melancholy. Often feeling despondent and “full of grief”. It is a stage where it does not take much to make me cry, and I have to avoid sad things, such as the news or sad movies or they will push me over the edge into crying and despondency that will last up to several days. It means that I have lots of self doubt, and anxiety levels about doing things. It means that I have to distract myself to stop obsessing about things. It interferes with my sleep and my dreams. Perhaps the best way that I can describe it is that it is like wearing grey coloured glasses (not rose coloured ones). Everything is tainted by the grey, but not enough to stop you functioning, just enough to take away all the pleasure and to make certain things difficult.
Moderate depression for me was like looking through black glasses. Everything was awful. I would cry often. I was not able to avoid sad things, because everything was sad. The self doubt stepped up a notch to self loathing, and the deamons came into their own. Medium depression is perhaps most characterized for me by the struggle with the deamons, as well as the exhaustion. Everything took effort, and peaceful sleep was a memory only.
During my moderate D, I wrote a journal, and in it some poetry describing how I felt, that can still transport me back to relive the experience. I stopped writing altogether when the D became severe and as the symptoms of my illness became critical. Firstly writing was almost impossible for me then. My vision was terrible, I could no longer spell, my handwriting was virtually illegible, and all my remaining energy was focused totally on the act of survival, writing was a luxury that I just didn’t have the capacity for. My writing consisted only of lists and instructions to try to compensate for my failing brain.
Severe depression – is another category altogether. It is impossible to lead any semblance of a normal life, and functioning is restricted to the barest requirements for life. This severity of depression was for me a life and death struggle, every single day. For me my goal for the day was simply to stay alive. In my case the interplay between the physical symptoms of my illness and the depression became so blurred that it was simply like living in hell. The act of remaining alive for the duration of the day was an incredible accomplishment, that took every granule of strength and resources that I had. It was not cumulative in any way. Each day was a struggle. I could not remember yesterday, and I could not think of tomorrow. The focus was on today, this hour, this minute, this breath. This went on for over a year.
I cannot tell you about the horror of this existence. Nightmares and horror movies are a picnic, a joke, by comparison. The pain and the anguish were all but unbearable, and much of the time they were actually unbearable, the only way to survive was to knock myself unconscious with drugs. I took so much medication. It was as though the deamons took away the power of the drugs to give relief. It was always a calculated risk, to take as much as possible without killing yourself. The aim was to get some relief from the torture, not to die. Dying, was giving in to the evil D. This for me was not an option. It is THE thing that kept me alive. The absolute stubborn determination never to give in. With my last breath I would fight it. It was always the enemy, no matter what it told me about myself or the rest of the world. I knew in some part of my brain that it was the D that was deceiving and manipulating me to try and make me kill myself. I can’t write anymore at the moment, it is just too painful.
In terms of crying, during the worst of the D the crying was just continuous, litres of tears. My eyes actually hurt from all the water streaming through them. I remember crying to the point of choking. Over and over again. There was no way that anyone who would see me at this time could think that I was a normal human. Before going to the doctor or the psychiatrist, I would have to muster all my will and discipline, and would somehow manage to stop crying for a duration of 15 mins before I got there to 15 mins after I left. This was probably possible only because it was totally imperative for me to maintain the façade of being alright to the public eye, as much as possible. This was also the case with my family and few friends that I would contact during this phase. I would spend hours or days preparing myself for contact. I knew I needed it, it helped keep me part of the human race, but I could only do it if I maintained some semblance of dignity and control. As it is, when I look back at my behaviour, demeanor or content of some of my emails that I sent, I am so ashamed. I hate being ashamed, but there is nothing else for it. I was of diminished capacity, of diminished judgment, and this will always remain the fact. I have to live with it.
Despair is knowing that you are not going to make it. I knew that it was only a matter of time. My strength and resources were finite, but that of D are infinite. It is a miracle that I am here today. It was the stubborn determination to fight even with my last actual breath that enabled me not to give up. But D is full of tricks. I would have compulsions to hurt myself, to drive off a cliff or into a tree, into oncoming traffic. This was the case with medium, and even mild, D while I could still drive the car. As it got more severe, I would have hallucinations or premonitions, where I could actually see my mutilated corpse in front of my eyes. I would be looking at a dead me, mutilated, very dead, beginning to rot, right there, as though this was me in a short while. It was as if I were already dead, as though my living body was in reality a putrefying corpse. These images and thoughts were inside my head, inside my eyeballs, there was no escape, no avoidance – I had to live with it. All the time, everyday, all day. I remember, looking at my stash of pills with longing. What stopped me from ending the torture then and there – 2 things, the thought of the hurt that I would be doing to the people I loved, and the inability to give in. It is not as simple as it sounds though, because I knew that my strength was failing and that of the D and my illness was just increasing, so in essence I knew that ultimately I was fighting a losing battle. I recently re-read a letter I sent to my father at this time, and it is horribly obvious that I felt on the point of death. I shudder to think how he must have felt on receiving it. Only at a time when you believe that you will never have the chance to speak to someone again can one write in such a way – complete openness, honesty, and a total, urgent, need to communicate, with a complete disregard for social conventions or norms. If I did not tell him now, he would never know how I felt. This was no time to leave things unsaid.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my family, friends and husband had all come to accept the fact that I was, in all probability, not going to make it. This altered the way we communicated. For the first time there was an open show of affection, with hugs every time anyone left. We had never hugged in our family so this was a huge change. I am really glad I didn’t know that my family were expecting me to die, at the time, because it was for them that I was fighting so hard and trying so hard to keep up a façade that everything was ok. In retrospect, you’ve got to laugh, it seems the façade was more for my own benefit than for anything else.
However, I knew that things had gotten to an even more serious level, when I spent a lot of time seriously trying to think of ways to make my death look like an accident. You see I was afraid that I would soon lose the capacity to actually kill myself. My physical illness had degenerated to such a level that I could no longer perform the more basic functions, to the point of being helped to walk to the toilet. My fear was that the illness just continually got worse, and there was no way that I could continue to “live” like this. The only way I could end it was in such a way as to spare my family the pain of it having been suicide. That is why it was so important to think of a way that it would appear absolutely like an accident but also be guaranteed to be fatal and without involving a third party like a truck driver. This is a lot harder to figure out than it appears. What I have left out of this narrative so far is that while my depression was deteriorating, so was my physical condition. My memory was completely stuffed. My vision was so impaired that I had not been able to read a book for about 2 years, even TV was becoming too hard to see the images. My speech was impaired, my ability to write, I could hardly even dial a number on the telephone. All the numbers such as to the hospital, and to my family, my husband were put onto speed dial, but I couldn’t even differentiate them. I couldn’t even use the dosette for my tablets anymore. I was continually looked after by my family in shifts because I could not care for my most basic needs. I was a living corpse. At this stage I couldn’t even find my stash of emergency suicide pills anymore. Did I mention despair before, well I think the paramount despair hit me at this time, when I feared that I had waited too long to end it and no longer had the capacity to physically do so.
You know I was most surprised to find myself in this position. I always thought, well I will fight as long as possible, but if things get too bad and it looks like I will be a vegetable forever, then I will end it. But this transition from human to vegetable is very insidious. One day I realised that I probably no longer had the capacity to kill myself, that I had missed the window of opportunity – I don’t think it is possible to be any more debased than this. And still to have comprehension of the fact.
In Buddhist terms, these experiences are the ultimate generators of Samvega … Once one realizes that there is a way out of this horror samsara… you’re not going to let ANYTHING get in your way or stop you!! Nothing else matters but practice towards liberation.
At this time, my physical health took a dramatic turn for the worse. I lost blood pressure, and finally had a seizure, that threw me out of bed and stopped my heart and clenched all my muscles to immobility so I could not breathe, let alone move or utter a sound. At this point I knew that I had only a minute or two to live.
I had regrets. Things that I had not done. People who I had loved, but had never told. I was not finished with life. But it was the end. I was calm. I was disappointed. I was ultimately surprised. This was not the way it was meant to be. I was thirty-nine years old.
Slowly I told myself that I should use the last seconds of my life, not to reminisce, but to try to draw a breath. Try to stay alive to finish the things that I needed to do. I remember with absolute clarity telling myself to relax, to focus on trying to relax my chest muscles. It is funny in retrospect, but at the time it was natural, it was my last attempt at living. After what seemed like an eternity, and of seeming disinterested floating away, I heard myself try to draw breath. It was as tortured as a pinprick of air escaping from a balloon. It was almost nothing. I kept going, just try once more. I remember I had to tell myself, stop trying to strain so hard to draw breath, let go, relax. Try again in a minute. Calm but dead serious, this was no game. I lay there for 5 or 10 minutes slowly, slowly, unbelievably slowly straining tiny amounts of oxygen into my lungs. Only after this time could I make enough noise to alert my husband who was asleep in our bed. He hadn’t even noticed that I had convulsed out of the bed, and I was completely immobilized on the floor unable to stir a micron or utter a sound.
Needless to say I was scared stiff, so much so that I laughed it off. My only concession was to get him to get out the CPR instructions in case it happened again. We hardly ever spoke about it. Just too scarey. I down played it to everyone and to the doctors. I couldn’t bear to face it. I’ve only been able to look at it again now that it is my anniversary of this event.
The good thing about it though is that it was the turning point for me. It dispelled the severest of the depression. I was no longer susceptible to the desire to die, the D had no more power to invoke that in me. I was so close to death, looking at my own death. My body had decided of its own volition to die. The body had decided to die, irrespective of what my brain told it. It was like it had taken the decision out of my hands, and it had basically succeeded, apart from my seeking and being granted a reprieve at the very last possible moment. I am so thankful for that. After this all my medication was ceased, including the antidepressants. Due to the fall in blood pressure, my medication for that was also ceased, so I stopped taking everything. I was on about 8 different prescription medications at this time. Not a single pill has passed my lips since this time, and I am healthier and happier than ever. The depression is gone and even my blood pressure is normal after over 10 years on medication. I can’t explain it, I only know that it is true.
So where am I now? I am leaving this experience behind me but I want to remember the lessons. I want to remember the humanity, the inhumanity and the very small difference between the two. I want to remember that love is the absolute fundament of life, that links all things and gives meaning and purpose. I want to celebrate my life. I want to live in a way that does not accumulate regret, and I want to give thanks every single day.
For, germinating in my fertile heart, is the very seed of hope.
This account was written almost 20 years ago (apart from the small sections in italics),
Re-reading it, in hindsight, after all this time, and from the perspective of now being a Buddhist practitioner, it seems like such a good illustration of the Buddhas Teachings, the 4 Noble Truths, and demonstration of the effectiveness of the Noble 8-fold path. Even though still subject to causes and conditions, I feel like it may be beneficial to share a lived experience ‘from Hell to Nibbana’ – to instill hope and determination in other beings who are suffering, that it is all surmountable. The Buddha is the supreme psychologist and physician… Follow his prescription and you too can emerge, from torture to peace and happiness. It seems a bit of a waste, of all that suffering and effort etc to just keep it to myself, when it may possibly be of some benefit to someone else who is struggling. So I decided to share, to maximise the benefit from this hard experience.
I just want to clarify my usage of the word ‘love’ in the concluding paragraph of the original text. At the time, I didn’t have access to the teachings of the Buddha, so it was the ‘best’ word I could find - but it’s meaning was in line with the concepts of Metta, Sila and Karuna, applied both internally and externally
Realising the transformative power of Metta and Sila.
Because our opportunities for practicing the dhamma are very rare, we should not squander them. It may be that you yourself personally have a relatively happy and easy life, so there doesn’t seem to be any urgency… I was like that – the world really was my oyster… I had everything going for me – blessed! It doesn’t take much for that to be completely destroyed – it is NOT in our control at all. In my circumstance I actually view my ill health as a blessing as well. Without these experiences I would not have been galvanised to the same degree, to put in the effort necessary to be devoted to the work needed to follow the Noble 8 fold path.
I had a brief remission from my illness for a few years, at the time that I wrote this initial account. But have spent the last 13 years again in declining health and degeneration of the body. Pain and discomfort make practice more difficult – so do yourself a favour – practice while the conditions are good! If you are already feeling the effects of sickness aging and death, then do yourself a favour and practice even harder!! Do not let anything distract you from the task.
If anyone wishes to leave a comment, please do so from the perspective of the Buddha Dhamma. Sutta quotes, illustrating particular points would be particularly welcome. On no account is there any need for sympathy or comment on the personal. The details are just useful as illustrations – I view this entire life as a priceless gift and opportunity for finding and practicing the Buddhas teachings, as he taught over 2,500 years ago
Homage to the blessed one, the fully enlightened and realized one.
(multiple edits to formatting)