“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is truly optional.”
Sister Dang Nghiem
The title of my forthcoming book is Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment. Why Jane Austen and the Buddha instead of Austen and mindfulness?
After all, mindfulness is the buzzword today. Think of all of the magazine covers touting mindfulness staring at you in the checkout line of the grocery store.
Mindfulness can be hard to do but is actually simple: be present in the here and now. That here and now could be (as it is for me currently) sitting at my desk, writing on my laptop, and drinking coffee, a neutral feeling verging on pleasant. Or it could be mile 22 of a marathon (which I’ve managed a few times): grueling, painful, and enough to make me question my sanity.
Mindfulness does not equate with bliss. However, science tells us that mindfulness can help us to regulate our emotions, leading to more peace and happiness, something the Buddha discovered thousands of years earlier.
While mindfulness is completely secular, it is a key component to Buddhism, but there’s more to Buddhism than mindfulness, hence Austen and the Buddha.
Mindfulness has become trendy and in danger of being marketed to us by companies as a cure-all in the same way that all of those face creams are supposed to keep me from looking like I’m getting old. Yet mindfulness isn’t an escape from reality in Buddhism nor for Austen.
Rather, mindfulness trains us to be in that moment of joy, love, fear, or pain. And pain is inevitable in life.
Buddhist psychology makes clear that we are powerless to escape pain just as an Austen heroine is powerless to propose or to choose a career. We are of the nature to get sick (as the headlines remind us of daily), age, and die.
What we can do is understand the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s first and most central teaching. Suffering is inevitable. We must discover the cause of our suffering. We can end our suffering. We end it via the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
In other words, we inevitably will face pain as human beings, but we need not add to it through all of the stories that we create around that pain. That is suffering.
Austen understood this. Elizabeth Bennet creates her own suffering through holding onto a grudge. Emma Woodhouse’s misreading and desire to be a matchmaker make for much suffering.
Like the Buddha, Austen saw that suffering was part of everyday experience. Her own lived experience of being a single woman without a lot of money in a patriarchal culture proved that. She didn’t need to write a War and Peace to explore suffering but could depict life in a village to show how we humans contribute to our own misery, making her stories ones we can still relate to centuries later.
She also, as the Buddha did, could see that the suffering of one creates suffering for others so that how we address our suffering has ethical implications.
Importantly, Austen (like the Buddha) knew that suffering can be transcended as we see in her last complete novel, Persuasion.
Reading Austen, therefore, can lead not only to pleasure but to authentic happiness. Like Buddhism, it is a practice with potentially wonderful results.