The reluctant patient

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By Greg Suffanti

QFWF no. 10, January 2019

Buddhism is about making peace with this whole evolving being called “Me”

People always think, “oh, Buddhism, peace and light,” like being a Buddhist is somehow taking a vacation from life.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Actually, it can sometimes feel like anything but peace and light. If you really want to practice Buddhism there’s a lot of deeply personal work involved, and it’s not always easy, fun, or uplifting (at that moment).
Practicing Buddhism means dealing with life and resolving problems with a wisdom that looks at the whole picture, towards the future and towards the truth, even when that asks an awful lot of the practitioner. Buddhism is about looking at all your own warts and moles and anything else you may want to call all the things you don’t like about yourself … and making peace with the whole evolving being called “Me.”

I gave him a piece of my mind, and a punch … problem over … or so I thought

It takes technique to land a blow without hurting yourself…[1]

I got a Christmas card this year from my upstairs neighbors Marc, and his live-in girlfriend, Michelle. I like them both a lot and am thankful to have such pleasant and considerate neighbors.

But it wasn’t always this way. Eight years ago when Marc moved in, taking in 2 young, male, student housemates as well, I wondered how my life might change as I went from having a family with three children living above me, to a group of young men with scooters, girlfriends and a big boat parked on the canal, literally in front of my ground-floor apartment.

I went on a three year journey to hell and back, which frequently involved the police, the single mother living above them, much lost sleep, holes in my ceiling (while banging on it in the middle of the night) and even a stroke along the way.

The three partying amigos went along doing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, until one day I lost control when I spotted Marc and his housemate Charlie outside on their boat and decided to give Marc a piece of my mind; and ultimately a punch to his chest, that seemed to immediately end my three years of misery. Or so I thought.

This story is about a journey of self-discovery

Apparently Marc had called the police to report the incident. I never saw a policeperson or even the ‘wijkagent’(police officer of the district) that was very familiar with all the problems my neighbors and I were having.

I did see my therapist thereafter, who apparently had already contacted the police, warning of an explosive situation. I suspect the police gave the unharmed and fit 25 year old quite an earful, because from the moment I struck him, he, and his housemates never made an inappropriate noise again. Not even once. True story.

Marc told me several years later that he was afraid of me for a long time thereafter. I was sorry to hear that, and told him so, although there was a time when that news would have been music to my ears.

No, I’m not condoning violence as a way of solving problems, and actually, this is a story about a longer journey, quite a bit longer actually.
As the problems escalated with my neighbor, I started on a journey of self-exploration that has been one of the most profound and transforming of my entire life.

At the time, all I was doing was looking for solutions to my various problems. What I discovered is that forgiveness is a solid foundation upon which to grow, and, even more important, forgiving myself for all of my own mistakes is perhaps the biggest gift I’ve ever given myself. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.

As the hate grew, so did my unhappiness

Back then, I grew to know hate as I’ve never known it before, and as the hate grew, so did my unhappiness, and perhaps related or not, even my own health failed. I knew I was out of control, and I knew I was in trouble, so in a sense, the stroke was a gift.

I started seeing a therapist after my stroke, so I was regularly confronting my feelings with an eye towards healing my whole being.
Each time I saw my therapist he asked, “how’s it going with the neighbors?”.

As much as I felt animosity towards my neighbors, I also felt bad for Marc when his boat sunk within a week or so of my punching him. I observed him trying to hide behind a tree as he watched the two divers trying to get the cables around his boat. The whole street was closed off for most of the day by the huge crane necessary for the undertaking, and there hid Marc behind a tree for much of it. However, any sympathy I felt was quickly replaced by a feeling of being wronged.

It was easy to blame those who were contributing to my unhappiness

Stroke[2]

My stroke in 2013 weakened me to my core, and my world fell completely apart. I stopped working. Light and sound were barely tolerable in my new world, and I felt a helplessness that I’d never felt or known before. I couldn’t even trust my own body. I was constantly wondering if I was going to make it until my 50th birthday in 2014.
I felt defeated and depressed, and it was easy and natural to direct my hate and frustration at those who were contributing to my unhappiness. My world became smaller after my stroke, and I became embarrassed about my non-working self that almost never left home.
In fact, I struck Marc directly after his housemate, Charlie, said I was “pathetic for staying home all the time.” Charlie may have made the comment, which struck a raw nerve, but Marc was the owner of the apartment and my punch as well as my anger was directed at him. They were evil to me, and I felt hurt, betrayed and justified in my all of my actions and feelings.

Real change takes time

At the same time, I am a Buddhist, and I try to take responsibility for my actions. I try to work on myself so that I can become a better person. It’s not easy to always be looking at my own short comings … but by looking at myself as honestly as I can, I’m also giving myself an opportunity to grow and to change.
It is just that what the Buddhists say is true … “real change takes time.”

I also knew, but now began to really understand, that it was up to me to end my own suffering. I began to better understand myself, and to more completely understand what was working in my life, and what wasn’t working.
I had to start with seeing, labeling and resolving my own anger … instead of feeling justified and hurt. I had to begin to see how my anger was causing my suffering, and I had to be open to experiencing the wealth of emotions and tears that comes with letting go of deep pain and suffering; a lifetime’s worth of pain and suffering.

I cried each morning for two years after my stroke as I woke re-living all of the pain I had experienced over decades of problems and illness.
In fact, I thought the tears would never stop coming. It felt like I had opened the floodgates once I became open to my own pain, and it felt like this was going to be my new reality forever. But it wasn’t. I also awoke to anger as I opened my eyes each morning feeling surrounded by my enemies. This also felt like a ‘forever’ situation. But it wasn’t.

I even grew to hate my beloved home

In actuality, it was mostly Marc’s two housemates who played games with me and their neighbor above, when Marc wasn’t around, which was increasingly often. They seemed to find it all amusing, and they felt out-of-reach to me as mere students renting rooms. There was constant denial that there were any problems at all.

My neighbor above them, Silvia, and I even said we felt like we were going crazy between all the problems and the constant denial that there were problems. We even discussed their assertion that there were no problems and that they had a right to party and play music. It’s just that every time we talked, we expressed the identical complaints and experiences, and after three years of partying until 4 in the morning, it was a depressing reality. I even grew to hate my beloved home. My sanctuary.

They were ruining my life and that of my neighbor and her 10 year old son

I knew my hate and feelings of worthlessness were not helping me, and I began working every day to get to my goal of genuinely liking myself and caring about my own neighbor(s) again.

At the time it seemed like some sort of Buddhist fantasy speaking of an unattainable goal, like some sort of story that just isn’t real life. My anger and hate felt fixed and permanent and justified; it wasn’t just my life THEY were ruining, it was also the lives of my neighbor Silvia and her 10 year old son.

So, back and forth I went between my feelings, which misled me, and the understanding that by working at lessening my own unhappiness (anger), I was increasing my own happiness. I was a two-time victim, having succumbed to my unruly neighbors, and even more importantly, having succumbed to my own anger and hatred, which consumed me.

My teacher told me I “had to make it better with my neighbors”

Geshe Ngodrup [3]

During those years, my teacher, Sera Monastery’s Geshe Sonam Ngodrup, was a monthly overnight guest in my house whilst teaching in Amsterdam. He laughed when I told him I punched my neighbor, knowing of the problems the three previous years, and knowing, with my arthritic shoulder, that I couldn’t hurt someone even if I tried to. Which I had not. (That was the one and only time in my entire life that I’ve hit another human being).
He then said,

“but you have to make it better with your neighbor.”

I woke every morning thereafter conscious that I must work at resolving my own personal issues, as well as thinking about the realities of my ”problem” neighbors. The “problem” students were gone by the next year.

By the year after, Michelle and Marc were living as a couple above me. And of course we bumped into each other, and slowly, slowly I began saying “hello.”

I was still mad though, deep down inside. Every time I thought of that period I filled with anger. It took years to really see how my anger only hurt myself. It took years to see the lack of self-acceptance and self-love. It took years to choose to live in the present and let go of the past ….

As though my anger was somehow going to re-write my own past life? It was a process of conscious effort working towards my goal and lots of patience to allow the whole process to work and take firm root in my being, so that understanding translated into actual reality.

It took years to see my neighbor as a human being … Just like me

It took years of trying to see my neighbor as another human being, just like me, also just looking for happiness, also filled with his own problems and suffering, before I actually began to see him as … another human being just like me.
It took years to feel warm again about my upstairs neighbor(s). It took years to see that by working at this problem, trying to fully root it out, I was coming to a more complete stage in my growth as a human being.

My neighbor has actually given me a precious gift: opportunity to grow and to change in a positive and meaningful way. I simply needed to see that this one problem was the tip of the iceberg, but by dealing fully with this one problem, I truly was getting at the root of the whole iceberg called “me.” It took years to melt that iceberg called “me’, and years to finally accept myself as I am and feel warm about myself. I call that progress.

This journey has been about discovering the humanity in others by acknowledging my own humanity. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this piece that I realized that there was one person I’d never fully forgiven … myself.

The author Jack Kornfield writes that

“finding a way to extend forgiveness to ourselves is one of our most essential tasks.” [4]

Jack kornfield – forgiveness meditation[5]

I agree. I had forgiven myself years ago, but not fully. This last year for me has been about accepting myself more fully. This is yet another example of the broader perspective and freedom that comes through (self) acceptance. Now, looking back, I see the sad soul I was then and if I could change anything, it would be to have discovered forgiveness earlier in my life; and primarily, forgiveness of myself for being simply human.

True enemies are internal … not external

When I look back at this period, I see how much effort I put each day into changing my perspective into a more positive and wholesome outlook. This wasn’t putting wallpaper over dirty walls, it was gutting the house and starting over again.
It wasn’t just my neighbor I was forgiving, I was rooting out old habits and discovering my own culpabilities and vulnerabilities which were magnified through this problem, and which brought out all the things in myself I needed to work on; the one problem bringing up many issues of pain from the past…. a whole lifetime in fact.

We’re talking seven years here from hell to heaven, so, not a quick fix. However, by looking at my own situation, and seeing my own suffering, I slowly began to see more clearly not only my own suffering, but the suffering of those around me. I needed a warm heart towards myself in order to touch my own humanity, and to begin to grow my understanding of others’ humanity.

This process has been about shifting old habits and replacing them with new ones. This process is about looking with compassion and understanding, and not with the eyes of judgement and recrimination.
Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism asks the practitioner to work for the well-being of all beings, and this effort needs to start with the self. Anger and hatred are the true enemies … The true enemies are not external … They are my own poisonous attitude(s).

My future is in my own hands

There is a natural spaciousness and warmth to forgiveness. It just feels good and right. As the years roll by I am thankful for my teachers, the real adults in the room, who have unfailingly helped me (and anyone who asks for it) to help myself in navigating this great adventure called a human life.

This is the spacious attitude I want for the new day in front of me, and the new year in front of me. Forgiving myself anew allows me to approach the new year with a fresh start, and a fair start, accepting myself as I am at this ever changing moment.
Thank goodness we can change in the direction we’d like … We can choose our own future if we work at it and let go of the negative attitudes we hold about others and ourselves. We can free ourselves through forgiveness.

Buddhism asks the practitioner to view himself/herself as a patient, and to see the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, as medicine.
Further, Buddhism suggests that it is beneficial to see the teacher as the doctor, who can diagnose the patient’s illness and prescribe the correct medicine.

I’ve been a reluctant patient through the years, having already suffered through years of chronic illness. It is an ongoing process, but I am getting happier, and sometimes, like through my experiences with my neighbors, the results of my efforts are so gratifying, that it makes the effort all so worthwhile.

Best wishes for a happy and humane 2019!

Notes

[1] Source: throw-punch
[2] Source: stroke
[3] Source: Photo on a 2016 trip to Sera Jey Monastery in Bylakuppe (Karnataka, India)
[4] The-practice-of-forgiveness
[5] Source: forgiveness-meditation

I've studied Buddhism at Maitreya Instituut in Amsterdam since September of 2000 and since 2001 worked there as a volunteer. Through the years I've served in various capacities such as leading guided meditations, leading Pujas, working at the front desk and hosting visiting Tibetan Lamas in my home because I have a guest room.