The first step toward the solution of any problem is the recognition of its existence. Many troubles, such as physical ailments or financial difficulties, are so obvious that they are almost impossible to ignore. The problems with emotions and feelings, on the other hand, are so hidden in the recesses of the mind that sometimes not even their owners manage to identify them and, when neglected, tribulations may grow up to become thorny evils.
The Buddha’s teachings are summarized in four truths. The first states that anxiety, stress, anguish and other harmful feelings make up suffering. Suffering, according to the Indian sage, is the set of negative feelings generated by cravings for what we lack, and aversions toward what imaginarily or actually surround us.
Definitions alone are useless. The Buddha says: “When I clearly realized the truth of suffering (theory), the need to understand the truth of suffering (acceptance) and the actual experience of the truth of suffering (experience), knowledge, discernment and insight arose within me”. So, the suffering, that we often resist, becomes ‘our truth’ only when we accept it and endure it as our direct experience. Only then we can take action to also make actual ‘truths’ out of the other three teachings of the Buddha’s, which are, (2) the reality of the causes of suffering, (3) the reality of the end of suffering, and (4) the reality of the way to eliminate suffering. The four truths together will open the door for inner harmony to spontaneously enter our lives.
In the sixties, twenty-five centuries after the Buddha, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross develops, as an outcome of her professional experience with terminal patients, the famous model that bears her name and that became the pioneering method for support and care of dying patients. The conclusions of this work soon evolved into the ‘five stages of grief’, an extension of the original approach to people in agony to also help their families in the disappearance of the loved one. The fifth stage of Dr. Kübler-Ross’s model is precisely the acceptance of the painful reality: “I cannot fight anymore so I choose to prepare myself for an inevitable outcome.” The other four steps in the process are (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining and (4) depression.
The problem that the outstanding psychiatrist deals with is not death as such, but the suffering with it associated, either the anguish and despair in those close to the patient, or the physical pains and the metaphysical fears of the dying person. Death, once we accept our impermanence, ceases to be a problem. (In truth, ‘my’ death should never be it; our anthropoid relatives have no such fear “Why I shall be afraid to death if I’ll never meet it”, says Colombian neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás).
The model of Dr. Kübler-Ross has been criticized in several studies that question its stages or consider grieving an unnecessary process for many people. Obviously, there cannot be agreement about the final emotions of us, human beings, since such circumstances are so intricate for most everybody and so unique to each individual. Despite criticism, the usefulness of the model has been significant. Proof of its success is the way how it has spread to other areas of abrupt change, beyond biological disappearance, such as divorces, job losses, and the traumas that result from organizational transformations. In all situations, the key word is ‘acceptance’. If the problem has a solution, acceptance will facilitate its implementation; if it does not, it will help in the handling of the connected suffering.
Tori Rodriguez, a psychotherapist and journalist based in Atlanta, has found in her practice a growing number of patients who feel guilty or ashamed of their negative attitudes or behaviors. Wrote this psychotherapist some time ago in ´Scientific American Mind’: “Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture´s overriding bias toward positive thinking”. She adds: “Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state.” The Buddha, in the first truth of his teachings, and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, in her fifth stage of grief, could hardly agree more with the journalist.
Atlanta, March 6, 2015