[Excerpted and adapted from “The Three-Petalled Rose”, a work in progress, by Ronald Pies MD]
The Rabbis of the Talmud had plenty to worry about, and many reasons for sorrow. The Talmudic era, after all, followed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans, in 70 CE. This cataclysm followed a failed revolt by the Jews against their Roman oppressors. This was also a time in which the Jews were divided against themselves, with a group known as the Zealots favoring rebellion against Rome, and many less radical Jewish leaders opposing it. Tragically, Zealot rebels often killed Jewish leaders who didn’t fully support their revolt.
Given this backdrop, it’s under-standable that the rabbis had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward “worrying”. On the one hand, the Talmud tells us, “Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you never know what the day will bring.” So far, so good! But the commentator then adds, “Maybe by the time tomorrow arrives you won’t be here anymore, and you worried about a world that was not yours.” Perhaps this is not the most comforting thought for many of us! Nevertheless, the rabbis were well aware of the corrosive effect worry can have on the mind and body. Once again, the Talmud seems to have anticipated findings of modern psychosomatic medicine, when it tells us, “Worry can kill; therefore let not anxiety enter your heart, for it has slain many a person.” (We now know that, indeed, there is an increased risk of fatal coronary heart disease among patients with panic disorder, phobic anxiety, and other anxiety disorders).
The rabbis also understood the profound depths into which the soul can sink, after the loss of a loved one. Thus, the Talmud observes, “For a man whose wife had died during his lifetime, the world is steeped in darkness…His steps become short…His astuteness fails…” Indeed, there are prescribed rituals of mourning in Judaism that recognize the importance of ordinary grieving; for example, the custom of “sitting shiva” for a week after the death of a loved one. At the same time, the Judaic tradition recognizes that mourning and grief must have limits—both for the sake of the mourner and of the community as a whole. “We should not mourn excessively,” the Talmud says, “because we must not impose upon the community a hardship that would be difficult to bear.” In this respect, the rabbis were not far from the view held by the ancient Stoics; for example, the Roman philosopher and statesman, Seneca, remarked that, “We can be pardoned for having given way to tears, so long as they have not run down in excessive quantities…” Some modern day psychologists may disagree, arguing that we should never set limits on grief; but from the community’s perspective, the rabbinical and Stoic positions may be more persuasive.
Finally, in the Jewish mystical tradition known as Hasidism, we find the idea that even in our grief, there may be a transcendent meaning that is concealed from us. Thus, a Hasidic saying states, “Even in the deepest sinking there is the hidden purpose of an ultimate rising. Thus it is for all; from none is the source of light withheld unless one withdraws from it. Therefore the most important thing is not to despair.”
How are worry, sorrow and depression viewed in the Buddhist tradition? If, as the Four Noble Truths tell us, “Life is suffering;” and if everything is “impermanent” as Buddhism teaches–then surely Buddhists believe it is perfectly normal to walk around feeling sorrowful, worried and depressed, right? Well, no—not at all! As Chagdud Tulku teaches us, “It’s true that we can’t really grasp and hold onto things, but we can use that knowledge to look at life differently, as a very brief and precious opportunity.”
Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that “…Every time you take one mindful step, you have a chance to go from the land of sorrow to the land of joy.”
The Buddhists are also aware of how often we destroy our own happiness, and bring on our own suffering. Thus, the great 8th century sage, Shantideva, tells us,
“Hoping to escape suffering, it is to suffering that [people] run. In the desire for happiness, out of delusion, they destroy their own happiness, like an enemy.” (from The Bodhicaryavatara).
How many of us know friends or family members who fit that description?
For Buddhism, what is required is neither a pessimistic nor an overly-optimistic view of life’s “slings and arrows”—what we have called dukha—but a realistic outlook. Writer John Snelling, in The Buddhist Handbook, has put it this way: “When we face up to the dark side of life…we begin to appreciate the full grandeur and challenge of human existence…we can start to do something about changing our lives, putting them on a deeper, more authentic footing.”
. Like cognitive therapists—and like the Buddhist sages—the Stoics believed that external events do not cause worry, sorrow, and depression. Marcus Aurelius tells us that “Things themselves touch not the soul…nor can they turn or move the soul: but the soul turns and moves itself alone…” That is, it is our attitude toward “things” and events that determines our emotional response. We make ourselves unhappy by holding certain irrational views or persisting in certain self-defeating behaviors. As Prof. William Irvine puts it in his book, A Guide to the Good Life,
“…what is really foolish is to spend your life in a state of self-induced dissatisfaction when satisfaction lies within your grasp, if only you will change your mental outlook.”
The Stoics teach us that when “bad stuff” happens, we need not be rendered miserable by the unfortunate events. Thus, Epictetus says, “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the Will. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens.” Indeed, for the Stoics, the will is really the only thing under our control (assuming we are not suffering from, say, a dementing illness). Epictetus writes, “Within our power are the Will, and all voluntary actions; out of our power are the body and its parts; property, relatives, country, and in short, all our fellow-beings.” It is when we put our energy into trying to control these externals, rather than changing our mental state or attitude, that we become upset, dissatisfied, depressed, etc.
Even the great misfortune of illness and pain need not lay us low, the Stoics insist. Thus, Seneca advises the sufferer to “…turn your mind to other thoughts and [in] that way, get away from your suffering…it is your body, not your mind as well, that is in the grip of ill health…even if one cannot always beat it, one can always bear an illness.” (Letter LXXVIII).
Is the “JuBuSto” perspective on worry and depression easy to achieve? Hardly! It is a daily exercise in self-discipline, and most of us will fall short much of the time. That is no cause for despair, as each of these traditions would teach us. We are fallible human beings, and we will almost always fall short of our philosophical ideals. But we desperately need these ideals, just as the voyager needs a compass.
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