A sunburn and some thoughts about suffering
I’m standing in the bedroom slathering a clear gel, from a white and green tube, on my very red left foot, left knee, and left thigh. I repeat the process with a creamy lotion, from a white and pink tube, on my very red right foot, right knee, and right thigh.
About ten minutes ago, we returned from a beautiful afternoon on the beach at Manzanita. 80°. Sunny. And, unlike much of the time on the coast, zero sand-pelting wind.
Regrettably, I had miscalculated my application of sunscreen.
When I sprayed the yellow aerosol can on my feet and legs in the sunshine at about 12:30, I thought, “It takes 30 minutes for this stuff to work, so I’ll get a half-hour of sun. No worries.”
However, it didn’t work like that.
At about 1:30, I noticed reddening.
What I didn’t do is rub the stuff in.
I’m not certain, but I think this caused the fine droplets to act like tanning oil, not sunscreen.
In any case, It’s now 6:30 and I’m standing in my bedroom conducting an experiment to see which burn-relief product works better.
“Left side the Benadryl, right calendula,” I tell Jane.
Pain & Suffering thoughts
My legs and feet are swollen and puffy, and they feel hot.
But it’s far from not noticeable.
Nagy, my Buddhist teacher, taught me a phrase and reinforced it by his actions—laughing while on the phone telling me that doctors messed up a fifth surgery on his knee—“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Physical discomfort is separate from our mental state.
Or can be.
Practicing being a witness to pain without lament is not inevitable. We seem pre-programmed to do otherwise.
The word “inevitable” makes another quote spring to mind—“The proper response to the inevitable is relaxation.”
The proper response to the inevitable—like miscalculating sun exposure—is relaxation. Calm. Not suffering.
The proper response to the inevitable—like traffic where you didn’t expect it—is relaxation.
The proper response to the inevitable—like the doctor not being able to mitigate a knee problem—is relaxation.
The proper response to the inevitable—<insert something chafing to you here>—is relaxation.
If the thing is going to happen (or has happened), and there ain’t anything we can do to stop it, then, well, yes, I guess, it is true: the proper response to the inevitable is relaxation.
The pain on my extremities also reminds me of a quote from Chuang Tsu, a brilliantly-fun, 4th-century philosopher/clown of the Tao:
Unawareness of one’s feet is the mark of shoes that fit.
Unawareness of one’s waist is the mark of a belt that fits.
Unawareness of right and wrong is the mark of a mind at ease.
Before the burns, I didn’t notice my feet.
Why would I?
We hardly notice things that are right. (Which might be a whole different spiritual lesson to consider.)
That’s why, at this moment, you probably are not thinking about your right elbow.
It’s Chuang Tsu’s third line. That’s the one that gets you—“unawareness of right and wrong is the mark of a mind at ease.” That one needs a little unpacking.
To rephrase it: the more we pay attention to ideas of right and wrong, the less happy we will be.
If we think—“the sunscreen ought to do what I think it should do” or “the traffic oughtn’t be here” or “<insert your own here>”—then we set ourselves up against reality.
And cause ourselves extra suffering.
I’m suggesting that we can get ourselves into trouble—and we can get ourselves out of trouble—by minding how strongly we hold to the notions of “right” and “wrong.”
Finally, a quote from the Talmud: “Is your suffering dear to you?”
I hope not.
I really hope not.
And for the results, the clear Benadryl gel and the creamy calendula were equally effective.
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box oldrotb.wpengine.com, an internet-based, global group of 3.3K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.