Are “Bad” Things Really “Good” Things?

In his article Love the Bombs, the popular personal development blogger Steve Palvina asks,

“Do you feel that poverty, war, famine, disease, imprisonment, etc. are all negative experiences that we should avoid as much as possible? Are these scourges that we must rid the planet of? Are they terrible things for anyone to have to experience?”

The vast majority would answer “yes” – don’t you think?  I bet Palvina would probably add global warming into the mix too.  He  goes on to explain his logic,

“These experiences have been with us for a long time for a very good reason. They help us grow. And so we’re going to continue creating them as long as they continue to serve that purpose so well.”

According to Palvina, there’s no point in trying to change the world,

“You’re not going to change these aspects of reality, not because you don’t care about people, but because deep down there’s a part of you that recognizes the intrinsic value of such experiences, even if you’re not ready to consciously acknowledge that.”

He concludes that “the world is perfect as it is”.  Palvina says that what really needs attention is your relationship to it.

What About Prayer?

Andreas Mortiz takes this line of thinking a step further in his book Lifting the Veil of Duality.  He says:

“It is not in our or anyone’s best interest to pray to change anyone or anything…”  Praying, he says, “moves us into the limitations of what has already come to pass.”

Moritz discourages lending a helping hand to anyone who is suffering unless they request it.  He believes that we unconsciously choose our particular forms of suffering as a means to grow. By trying to help people who are suffering, you are interfering with their growth.  Helping may seem like a selfless act, but he sees it as your ego’s expression of your own fear or pain.

In the last year, I’ve met many people – on and offline – that ascribe to New Age or New Thought philosophies.  I love and appreciate these individuals immensely. So I’ve wanted to understand more about their way of thinking.  I’m also curious about these ideas because they are very different than my own beliefs about life.  Did I somehow miss the boat and get it all wrong?

Thus today’s exploration.

The Buddhist Take on Suffering

The Buddha also understood suffering as an impetus to spiritual realization.   It was the focus of his first teaching after realizing enlightenment, which was called The Four Noble Truths:

  • the truth (or reality) of suffering which is to be understood,
  • the truth (or reality) of the origin of suffering, which is to be abandoned,
  • the truth (or reality) of cessation, which is to be actualized, and
  • the truth (or reality) of the path, which is to be relied upon.

He didn’t necessarily proclaim that suffering is good or necessary.  He observed that it exists, that there is a cause (karma – resulting from own negative actions – and negative emotions), an end to suffering, and a way to achieve that end.  He devoted his life to teaching and helping others find the way to end suffering in their life.

In contrast to the views espoused by Palvina and Mortiz, in Mahayana Buddhism the aspiration is to dispel the suffering of all sentient beings.

“For as long as space exists
And sentient beings endure,
May I too remain,
To dispel the misery of the world.”
-Shantideva

Indeed, there is the tradition of the “compassionate warrior” known as the “bodhisattva“.

“…the being who takes on the suffering of all sentient beings, who undertakes the journey to liberation not for his or her own good alone but to help all others, and who eventually, after attaining liberation, does not dissolve into the absolute or flee the agony of samsara (the world of suffering), but chooses to return again and again to devote his or her own wisdom and compassion to the service of the whole world.” – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

Of course, this aspiration of selfless service is not exclusive to Buddhism.  In the words of St. Francis,

“Lord make me an instrument
Of thy peace, where there is hatred
Let me sow love;
Where is there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that
I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we
Are pardoned, and it is in dying
That we are born to eternal life.”

The compassionate warrior is not a neurotic perpetual helper.  His or her wish to help others springs from a profound realization of the nature of reality.  Naturally, he or she focuses on cleaning up their own act too.

Back to the question of prayer – good or bad?  I guess no one told the Dalai Lama that it’s actually harmful to pray for people.

Last July, he presided over a 10-day ritual ceremony in Washington D. C. called The Kalachakra for World Peace, where at least a zillion prayers were said.  Not to mention the fact that he prayers every single day.

Honestly, I’m not trying to criticize Steve Palvina (and he doesn’t care whether you agree with him or not) or Andreas Moritz.  I resonate with some of their ideas.  And they certainly are trying to help others in their own way.  But when I come upon statements like the one’s quoted at the beginning of this article, I’m at a loss as to how to understand them.

I realize the importance of living – as best we can – without judgment.  At the same time, in my view, this does not preclude seeing reality as it is and lending a helping hand.

What do you think?  Should we love the bombs?  Should we give up trying to change the world?  How do you understand these ideas?

Image:  Public Domain.  The 1,000 Arms of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

If you liked this article, please share the link with others.  Thank you! You can also connect with me on Google+ or the Always Well Within Facebook Page.  With love, Sandra

Comments

  1. Linda Worthington says

    I pray constantly for my friends and their families – but I only pray for God’s best. Since I do not know what that might be, I try not to limit His power by being too specific! I believe that prayer is very powerful, so I am careful about how I use it!

    • says

      Linda,

      I agree that prayer is very powerful. And since we can never know precisely what’s in another person’s best interest, this is really intelligent advice. Thanks for taking a moment to share your thoughts. I appreciate your comment.

  2. says

    I agree with Palvina and have lived long enough (62 years) to realise that we are naturally always seeking to redress the balance…I think this also equates with things like fairness and justice. Something good will always eventually come from a bad situation..we need patience and a balanced “mindful” approach to our thinking to let that happen.

  3. says

    I think that it’s relatively easy for people of privilege (and I include myself in that category, for the most part) to say the world is perfect as it is.

    I think the real practice and real work for those of us in that position is to remember that there are many ways of being in the world and that for those who have to deal directly with poverty, violence, illness, etc. there is more of an imperative to change the conditions.

    So how can we be allies and help alleviate suffering, rather than stand apart and make a proclamation that suffering is ennobling?

    I love Suzuki Roshi’s observation that we are perfect just as we are — and we can also use some improvement. I believe the same holds true for the state of the world.

    • says

      I think you have the secret here, Maia, in Suzuki Roishi’s words. The absolute and relative co-exist. In my tradition, it is said that we can loose the action (the relative) in the view (the absolute), when we think “everything is perfect as it is”, misunderstand, and as a result don’t engage in “right” action. Thanks for this.

  4. says

    I pray for God’s will to be done as well as try to live out that idea as compassionately and graciously as I can. Prayer is faith and the things I do in this world is faith in action. I believe everything happens for a reason and work on accepting I may never know the reasons. That doesn’t stop me from asking for courage to change the things I can, which is part of the Serenity prayer I love so much. Very thoughtful post, Sandra. Thank you. :)

  5. says

    Sandra – your post raises 2 thoughts. Is suffering good? Should we help others? Personal suffering is helpful to spiritual growth. In his book, How to know God, Deepak Chopra says, “the more turbulent you are inside, the faster you are moving…the whole notion you are a fixed entity is a great illussion, and the sooner you see how varied and complex you are, the sooner you will drop the masks of your ego”. So personally, suffering helps us grow (especially spiritually)

    As far as helping others, most religions and spiritual practices remind us to help others in suffering and to be compassionate. And to love your neighbor. Which I believe is to help them alleviate pain and suffering in their lives.

    So I can appreciate personal suffering but think we should still try to change the world (by helping others in need). Finally, prayer is for strength and courage. It’s been proven to help people cope with the world and with life.

    • says

      Vishnu,

      This was the perfect quote for me today! Thank you for sharing it. I like the way you divided this up and your clear view on all accounts. I resonate with your thoughts.

  6. says

    Your post title reminds me of the quote from Shakespeare, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” There is also the Buddhist story about the farmer who goes through the series of events saying “Who knows if it is good or bad?” So in that sense, Buddhism seems to support Pavlina’s view.

    And my own life teaches me that there is some truth in it. Earliler this year, I used the farmer’s question to keep myself centered when my teen daughter told me she was pregnant. It seemed like a negative event. However, I’m here to say that this baby boy born just a week ago has already brought so much joy into our lives and healing in our families that I can’t imagine how sad our lives would be without him!

    Love the bombs? I don’t know about that. But we can use whatever happens to open our hearts and awaken compassion. Everything, as we learn in Shambhala, is “workable.” I thought about this a lot on the anniversary of 9/11. What was the opportunity for growth there? Did we, as a nation, miss it?

    Very provocative post. (Hard NOT to be provocative when talking about Steve Pavlina!)

    • says

      Galen,

      I agree with you that “labeling” and “judgment” are not the way to go. I think Palvina and Buddhist thought are in accord in that regard. But he takes it all quite a bit further where I think there is some divergence and perhaps lack of clarity.

      I think I’ve heard a monk version of the “farmer’s” story and it is a favorite of mine. In this version, whatever the monk is accused of he says, “Is that so?” And, it changes over time.

      You always add so much to the conversation. Thank you!

      Congratulations on your new family members and all the healing and love he has brought along! May he always be well, happy, and safe.

      • says

        The farmer story is great. There was a poor old farmer with one son and one horse. One day, his horse ran off. His neighbor said, Oh what misfortune. How will you plow your field? The farmer replied, Who knows if it is good or bad? The next day the horse returned leading a herd of wild horses. The neighbor said, Now you are rich. You are so lucky! The farmer shrugged and said, Who knows if it is good or bad. The next day, his son broke his leg while trying to tame one of the wild horses. The neighbor sympathized, Oh this is terrible. Now your only son is crippled. The farmer said, Who knows if it is good or bad. The next day the army swept through the village taking all the young men to fight in a war far away. But they did not take the farmer’s son because of his broken leg….

        What is the monk version??

  7. says

    Pavlina raises some very thought provoking points. I do not know that we even need to agree or disagree with them. Maybe that is the sole purpose.

    I do agree that there is no good in praying for change of people or circumstances. I just ask that the highest good be done – whatever that may be. I know from my own experience, it may look as if circumstances are not anywhere near OK, but if I just let things unfold, the reasons will become evident. What looked not so good, turns out, usually, for my benefit.

    It was a huge aha moment for me when I realized that, by helping people, I was denying them of their opportunity for growth. My helping was more about my uneasiness with their situation. I think each case has to be considered individually. Balance.

    As for loving the bombs…perhaps it could be interpreted as him asking us to have compassion and understanding for those who resort to using them and the fear and lack in their hearts.

    • says

      Dear Debbie,

      It’s all very situational isn’t it? Just as you say. From our own personal experience, we know that suffering can bring insight and transformation. But that only occurs when we apply awareness to suffering. People can go on suffering needlessly for eons if they are lacking in awareness.

      Yes, sometimes helping people comes from our own unease and takes away their opportunity for growth. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s the magic hand or idea the person needed to propel them out of suffering.

      I agree, it’s all circumstantial. Thanks for your insights, Debbie.

  8. says

    Interesting thoughts presented here. My initial reaction is to reject Steve Pavlina’s idea and assume he has not experienced the pain of those who live in war-torn areas. I can see the argument that one’s life is deeply enriched for having lived through and survived war or any other of those egregious circumstances. But the glory is diminished by the amount of trauma these incidents cause. PTSD? Broken families? Or are we too attached to people, and we should just let them suffer and die?

    I’m cautious about accepting his point of view, as that makes it seem acceptable to go to war, to cause famine and poverty. It also makes it seem as though we don’t have to do anything about it. Don’t be angry at injustice, it’s just a part of life.

    I believe that we create the reality we want to see. Anger at injustice is an expression of our humanity, a connection to global family. If we want to live in a world with war, then we would believe such a statement. If we want to live in a peaceful, compassionate world, then we would reject war, disease, and poverty.

    Holding Pavlina’s point of view almost seems like a way to reduce the amount of discomfort that arises from really looking at these issues deeply.

    Also, I have recently come to learn that praying has physical effects. By praying, it is not through the God entity that physical effects come about, but rather via the “belief becomes biology” sort of route. If you have the intention, that can change your reality. I don’t really practice this as I’ve never really prayed consistently before, but it’s something I’m learning to incorporate into my life. So I don’t reject the ability of prayer to have real effects.

    I understand the concept of suffering helps one grow, but does the suffering of others help me grow? What if I don’t feel their suffering the way they feel it? Does it help us as a collective grow? Perhaps it allows us to see the fragility and sanctity of human life. Beyond that I think allowing war and disease to continue only perpetuates a culture of fear.

    I would understand having love for the misguided people who start wars, but that’s different from the act itself.

    Thanks for a provocative piece!!

    • says

      Dear Lynn,

      You’ve asked many insightful questions in your comment to get us thinking even more. Thank you.

      I am also cautious about accepting Palvina’s views. As I mentioned above, it’s easy to misunderstand the absolute view in spirituality. The absolute and relative are interconnected. If we think “everything is perfect as it is”, this can be misunderstand and lead to engaging in harmful actions or at least not the best actions. This kind of view is becoming more prominent these days, so I think this is a healthy debate to have.

      Prayer is powerful and many scientific studies have shown this. Buddhism is not a theistic religion, but prayer is one of its skillful means.

      That’s a very interesting point of how holding Palvina’s views is a way to reduce the discomfort we might feel from seeing the suffering of the world. It also releases us from taking responsibility.

      Thanks for your provocative thinking!

  9. says

    A little knowledge (esp. poorly stated and presented) is a silly thing. Steve’s tortured explanation and interpretation of spiritual wisdom might explain why The Buddhist take on suffering has brought comfort to many over the centuries and Steve’s post will soon be yesterday’s news.
    Riley

  10. says

    Well! That certainly is food for thought, requires much meditation to find the center of the answer, and much coffee to articulate it.

    I agree with you re the co-existence of the relative and the absolute. On one plane, the world is what it is, and whatever change we want to make or not-make, we deal with the world as is really is: full of conflict, suffering, and savagery within an amazingly beautiful vastness. On another plane, we don’t like suffering and take great pains to avoid it, yet without experiencing it we cannot grow in knowledge and compassion.

    But truly understanding our shared dislike of suffering is the key; a child that does not (or cannot) learn that others feel pain when hurt remains in an autistic or narcissistic bubble, and that is a form of sociopathy. It’s the kind of thinking that enables governments to wage wars that are not actually defensive, grabbing up young people and turning them into cannon and drone fodder. They want us to stop worrying and love the bomb, because the instrument of death that causes suffering for others over there is intended to give us a better shot at life without suffering over here (access to more oil).

    Pavlina is saying essentially the same thing: we wouldn’t be where we are today without having gone through wars and suffering. In one sense he is right. In another he is flat out wrong. There are many examples in history where the forces of war and nature have destroyed civilizations, and it took centuries to get back to some semblance of what had been achieved before. Our current version is screwing up the environment so badly, we’re ruining our own supply of food, water, and air. I fail to see the “intrinsic value” of that.

    Moritz, on the other hand, seems to say that intercession in the Divine Will–or in the subconscious will of the person who has chosen their form of suffering–is placing ourselves in a parental, if not godlike, role, and we’re just getting in the way of the Will, more of a hindrance than a help.

    This implies that we would be arrogant and presumptious if we tried to intercede on the behalf of the individual or the world that is suffering.

    Bollocks.

    We do not know Divine Will nor do we not know Divine Will. We only know what we feel when we see others suffer as we would not want to suffer ourselves. If we are made to suffer, we are also made to heal. We destroy, we also grow.

    Even Dr. Strangelove had a plan of sorts to repopulate the planet after the effects of his Doomsday Machine wore off.

    Perhaps, in the end, the result of all of this suffering will be a small group of enlightened humans who know to make the most of each other and the planet without exploiting either. It won’t happen, however, without balancing the suffering with relief from suffering.

    Thus, I am with you, Sandra, on the wisdom of the Buddhist approach, developing consciousness of the relative and the absolute, developing awareness that we do not and cannot know everything about another’s suffering. The balance between compassion and detachment is essential. So I think we should pray if we are motivated to pray, but to keep learning about the world so that our prayers become wiser. We should ease suffering as we are motivated to do, but to learn about the world so that we are truly easing suffering and not enabling it.

    Some wrongs can never be righted, or suffering eased, and we need to accept that, but only some. Stepping back from our role in prayer and compassion is just as narcissistic as thinking we are somehow saviors. There is a balance.

  11. says

    Meg,

    You have offered some truly fascinating points here.

    For example, “But truly understanding our shared dislike of suffering is the key;” I guess that’s why Buddha named the truth of suffering as the first noble truth. There is something powerful to understand about suffering.

    I also found this interesting: “We do not know Divine Will nor do we not know Divine Will. We only know what we feel when we see others suffer as we would not want to suffer ourselves.” The first line is an interesting paradox. The whole idea speaks to knowing on a level that is beyond words.

    I agree that balance is essential – caring and compassion must be balanced with wisdom and clarity. Otherwise, we can just make more of a mess!

    I love your confidence and sprightly way of expressing yourself as in “bollocks”!

  12. says

    Sandra,
    First off remember bloggers like to say controversial things for attention. It’s the old ‘any publicity it better than no publicity.’ I’m not saying he doesn’t believe it. You get the point.

    Are bombs good? If I dropped one on his house I wonder if he would still feel that way. I have a non-new age friend who says, It’s BS to think people in third world countries chose their lessons, parents etc. I get his point.

    That all a side. I’ll love bombs. It’s all energy right? So I’ll send the bombs some love and light.

    I do pray. However I pray for Divine Order. I don’t know what’s best for people so I let go of what I think is best.

    Not help the suffering? If Steve’s child, wife etc. got hit by a bomb my guess is he’d help.

    The help I don’t believe in giving is unasked for advice. I learned the hard way that people don’t want it. When someone wants me to listen I say, “Would you like advice or would you like me to just listen?” Guess what their answer is.

    I love it when you get us all thinking! xo

    • says

      Tess,

      It’s true, some bloggers will say controversial things to get attention. But I think Steve Palvina and Andreas Moritz believe what they are saying.

      These are all humorous but pointed questions! Interesting.

      I agree about unasked for advice, but we all give a lot on our blog…not sure it’s always asked for! So there are squishy lines there too in one way. But you are right, it’s almost always like a lead balloon.

      Thanks for your perky thoughts. love to you.

  13. says

    What a can of worms you’ve opened! I have to say that Palvina’s idea of accepting everything on the grounds that it helps us grow really doesn’t rub me the right way. I’m not saying that we don’t learn from our experiences, but that positive ones can teach without leaving bitterness, anger, and hate — which things like famine and terrorism tend to leave. It may be completely western of me to say so, but I do think we should do what we can to minimize the amount of avoidable suffering in this world. We’ll still suffer and grow plenty. Environmentalism is one area in which I feel strongly that we should use our knowledge of what’s happening to mitigate future suffering and loss of biodiversity. I see no value in letting our world wither around us , nor any reason in not wanting to be part of the solution.

    I am not spiritual and do not see the value of prayer, except to oneself. In every aftermath of a natural disaster, I see calls for prayer on Twitter and wonder how much more effective it would be if everyone who used that hashtag donated a few dollars instead of retweeting. I don’t pray, but I do subsidize my desire for less suffering in the world.

    • says

      I fully agree with you, Jennifer. I think Steve Palvina may have good intentions but I think he is misguided in this particular idea realm. But that post got 53 tweets. People listen to him – at least some! I find it helpful to look around and see what’s going out on the communication channels out there, and what might confuse people and lead them them in a confusing way. I think it’s good to question and debate in the spirit of positive inquiry.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Yes a dollar with every prayer, now can’t go wrong there. Why not double the benefit and impact!

    • says

      J. D.

      You ability to respond in one remarkable sentence amazes me. It’s all about how we perceive, so yes changing our relationship to “it” always helps.

  14. says

    The fallacy is in these writers’ assertion that famine, war and disease are inevitable or insoluble because they are problems with long histories. They ignore the inarguable fact that all the problems they list have improved. Fewer people starve, die from pandemics and are killed in war than used to. It’s because we act to solve them, and our efforts have continued for many centuries, and will continue.

    There is value in learning detachment, in order to view problems dispassionately and devise better solutions to them. You can expend your energy in protest or sympathy. You can also learn to see something as it is, and work to improve it.

    • says

      Ahhhh, the voice of sanity comes for a visit. Thank you, Mike. The Dalai Lama agrees that there’s more compassion in this world than ever. He says that the media distorts our perception of the world.

      I agree with your thoughts on detachment, which I don’t see as being unfeeling but giving yourself space to see things clearly.

      Thank you for your wise contribution!

  15. says

    Dear Sandra,

    I am a little late to this conversation but I bookmarked it to come back to at a later time. I am choosing not to read the previous comments, as I don’t want to lose my courage in what I am about to share, or to be influenced in any way, I am just going to share my answer to your questions.

    And so, I have to honestly and openly say that I do agree and understand where both Pavlina and Moritz are coming from. It has been one of the hardest truths for me to share with people publicly, as I know it is not a popular opinion, and I am only in the beginning stages, although I have felt it as my truth for some time now. I wrote about this in some form as a guest on another site and got some criticism for saying it. However, that is my truth as I have come to experience it, when I share that I do feel there is a certain perfection to all that is, and that there is a fine line between helping someone and interfering by imposing our will on them. Both of those ideas need a much longer explanation to not be misunderstood and even then may be, but the point of this is that I did not always feel this way. I remember struggling with the idea when I first heard it and thinking, it just could not be so, that it was just crazy! Slowly, but surely things chipped away at me and I came to a completely different realization and experience in how life and this Universe work. In the end, I allow each person to express themselves, as I hope they allow me to express myself. My thoughts are not right, just as others are not wrong and vice-versa. They are simply right for me at this time.

    Today, in the simplest most summarized way, why I feel as I do is that when we see the world through a lens of “bad” and “good” it is hard to step back and see that everything that happens has a bigger meaning and it is all for the best. The way the Universe is created I believe, is too efficient to create any “wasted” energy or energy, actions, people or events that should not be happening. Everything has a reason, it is just beyond us to know it most of the time while in this physical incarnation.

    So now comes the idea about helping others. So do we just live our lives and not care what happens to other people, or animals, or the environment? Not quite. There is a an onus that falls on the one perceived to be suffering and the one observing the suffering wanting to help (this is a lengthy explanation). But again to summarize and not make an article out of this, I think there is nothing wrong with help for the sake of personal expression. I think as with all actions, it isn’t what is being done, but the underlying reason for it that matters the most. Are we helping out of guilt? out of thinking we know what is best for another? out of trying to put on a show for others? Or are we helping because we feel a call within our hearts to demonstrate the love and compassion that we are? If we want to know and express ourselves as compassionate beings, we definitely have lots of opportunity in this world, but we should never think we know what is best for another person or that we need to “save” others or the world. Beyond this physical reality, there is no one and nothing to save. In this reality, of course lots of ways to express oneself. This is not meant to say that famine for example may be best for another in the literal sense, but we simply cannot take it upon ourselves to guess or assume what each person’s spiritual evolution entails, and more importantly what they chose to create as experiences coming into a particular physical incarnation. For example, if a person shows up hungry at my door, or comes into my experience, I will not hesitate to offer them food. However, would I go around trying to feed every hungry person? No. I think you state this so well above in the compassionate warrior vs perpetual helper comparison. A lot of people, especially today, derive their identity from living for others or from helping others. It appears noble, but in the end, simplistically speaking, helps neither party. (Of course there is a lesson in that as well.)

    There is a beautiful story I read once about children watching 2 butterflies trying to emerge out of a cocoon. They saw the first one struggle and finally emerge in a condition what seemed like to them, weak and frail. They decided to help the other one by cutting its cocoon to make its emergence easy. The first butterfly survived, the second one did not.

    This is why in the end, I think it takes great consciousness and discernment in knowing when to help another, and when to step back and allow. And knowing when we are doing from a space of pure love and when we are doing it to strengthen our Ego’s identification. I see a lot of people wanting to be activists today for this or that, and while so much of that excites me as there are so many causes near and dear to my heart, we just have to be sure we are not doing it from a personal agenda, but doing whatever we do for an agenda-less personal expression. Is that even possible… next article’s topic ;)

    Thank you for opening up this topic and allowing each of us to share so openly (and sorry for being so wordy) :)