Violence against Self
Some years ago people used to wear a T-shirt printed with the slogan, "Life is difficult, and then you die." I once asked a group of people at a yoga retreat what they thought when they read those words. One person found it funny—a way to laugh at the hard truth of life rather than be overwhelmed by it. Another read it as justification for taking what pleasure you could out of life, while still another saw it as cynical and nihilistic, an excuse to give up. Someone who was active in a spiritual group said it was a call to action much like the Buddha's teaching of suffering contained in the Four Noble Truths.
I asked for their thoughts because I wanted to see if anyone would say it wasn't true, which no one did. My own experience was that the slogan is composed of a half truth and also a full truth, but one that obscures rather than clarifies. The half truth is that indeed "life is difficult," but it is not just difficult, it is also incredibly wonderful, puzzling, and routine, all in an ever-changing cycle.
"Then we die" is also true, but stating the truth in this manner implies that death is simply a personal failure. To me death is not a failure but rather a necessary part of the life cycle of being incarnate. Imagine if plants didn't die, or if the note of a piano didn't fade into oblivion, or if a thought didn't arise and pass. Life would come to a standstill; it would drown in its own accumulation. Therefore, rather than viewing life and death as separate, I see them as part of one continuous, mysterious experience of redemption and renewal. Spiritual practices provide a means to relate to this experience in its mystery and vastness.
Still, there remained in my mind the all-important issue that the words on the T-shirt implied: If life is difficult and brief, how do we cope? How do we find meaning or happiness? I had already repeatedly explored these questions using different spiritual traditions and later came to devote my life full-time to this inquiry. Though not always finding answers, my explorations slowly led to certain discoveries about what makes life a struggle.
One of these discoveries is the degree to which we make life difficult for ourselves by being violent or violating to the body and the mind in the routine of our daily lives. Through the way in which we schedule our time, push our bodies, and compare and judge ourselves against others, we repeatedly create an inner environment that is filled with violence. If you can understand that this is so, it may have a profound impact on your experience of life being difficult.
Initially, you may not identify some of your daily thoughts and decisions as moments of violence to self, but most likely they are. If someone was hitting you in your stomach, squeezing your neck, or not letting you breathe, you'd quickly call such behavior violent. Yet when these same painful sensory experiences arise in reaction to your own thoughts or actions, you fail to recognize your behavior as violent. In your daily life, have you not repeatedly experienced these bodily sensations or others like them?