A personal view of suffering and the causes of suffering

This is a rather hard post to write, because it contains deeply personal information that I find hard to share with someone else. However, I feel that my situation is common, and I hope that this story helps at least one person break the bonds of suffering (even though I haven’t done so myself).

A Buddhist monk told me recently that America is an example of how good “_samsara_”:http://buddhism.about.com/od/keyconcepts/a/RebirthKarma_2.htm gets. As we get more technological breakthroughs, _samsara_ will get a little better. However, technological breakthroughs, social policies, and governments cannot eliminate suffering. Why, and why does this little bit of ancient philosophy matter, anyway?

If you have read the success literature or listened to motivational speakers, then perhaps you’ve heard of the _success trap_. This face of _samsara_ looks beautiful from far away, but if you get closer to it, it gets very ugly. The success trap involves a game of one-upsmanship of your lifestyle and your income. If you make enough money, you get more pretty trinkets. However, those trinkets (house, car, nice clothes, etc.) cost a lot to maintain, and require more investment of money. People who make a lot of money, especially those in the middle class, tend to have to work long hours at it, and even when they are not at work, their work follows them home. What is at the end of the path of acquisition? I don’t know, but right now it seems like a circular path. I recognize my footprints on the road, and, quite frankly, I’m pretty tired of it. I’d rather travel a rocky road that leads somewhere, _anywhere_, but in this vicious circle.

Except that I _don’t_. There is a lot of security here. I have health insurance, enough money to pay the mortgage, a nice bed to put my head on at night, a nice shelter from the ravages of weather, and, to sum it up, a sense of security. _If_ I didn’t have a family I _might_ just walk away from this life and live the one I want. I _might_ do that even if I were married but didn’t have a child and another on the way. _If_ the balance of work and family were a lot easier, perhaps I _could_ persue several of those money-making hobbies I’ve been wanting that give me the freedom to make my own schedule and break out of the office environment, and especially this industry (see later). But they’re not, and I don’t see an easy out from this circular path I call the success trap.

Sometimes I don’t even want to leave. After all, I studied hard to get the position I did, and recently went through an anxiety-ridden but otherwise uneventful change of jobs. Even though not much has seemed to change—my position here is almost exactly like the one at my former job, the change did have a lot of hidden stingers. For one thing, my new workplace is about 5 miles further from home than my old job, which will translate into several hundred dollars in gasoline a year unless I can find some alternative transportation. (Not likely given that I live in a town without buses. Oh sure I could probably drive 10 miles, pay to park, pay to ride a bus for an hour to get another 10 miles, but what the hell is the point?) I can’t enroll in my new 401(k) plan for another few months, leaving me without some necessary contributions. And the “hidden costs”:http://edition.cnn.com/2005/US/Careers/02/23/hidden.costs/ go on and on.

Now, what if I made a bigger change? You see, I chose a lucrative career in the pharmaceutical industry. But I’m finding out that this career has a big price tag. For example, I spend a significant portion of my time and money dealing with mental health. (In fact, part of this posting is managing mental health.) This career is also quite sedentary, and exercise is an effort outside of work rather than an integral part of my life. I’ve made efforts, as evidenced by some previous posts, to integrate yoga as part of my life, and to some degree I’ve been successful. However, my job mainly consists of sitting behind a desk typing, and the pull to the desk chair is very strong. What is the cost of this against my future? How much higher are my medical bills going to be when I’m 60?

And then there’s the spiritual cost, which is an even thornier subject. A friend of mine recently noted that this industry is a soul-sucking industry. Long hours? We have 'em. Unreasonable deadlines? Situation normal. Piles of money? Yep, they’re there. The work I do potentially influences how millions of dollars are spent. (Note that I’m not alone in doing this work. The conduct and analysis of a clinical trial requires the cooperation of many people, sometimes even hundreds. Processes are set up so petty mistakes usually don’t get through.) But the potential costs of mistakes are even higher, as shown by the recent Vioxx™ fiasco. And what about Vioxx? This was a compound that should have been sold to a relatively small market, namely those suffering from chronic pain from conditions like arthritis and could not take older pain-killers (aspirin, ibuprofen) for reasons of safety or efficacy. Scientists, statisticians, and clinicians put long hours into getting that compound approved, and now 20 million people have taken it and had some damage done to their bodies that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. If I had been a statistican with a lot invested in the Vioxx project, I might be in a different field now.

But we _help_ people, too. That and the challenge of the work are the reasons I got into this career in the first place. I worked on a project that investigated the benefit of _reducing_ the course of antibiotic therapy. Other projects I’ve worked on have the potential to benefit premature babies, cancer patients, and even multiple sclerosis patients. So what’s the big deal? Why should a project that I was nowhere near leave a bigger scar than the benefits of the smaller projects I’ve worked on?

Because it’s part of the _system_ I’m working with. It’s a system that says that our health depends on the drug around the corner, that more drugs are better than fewer, that all we need is Panacaea and we’ll be healthy. If Medicare covers it, of course. It is the system that the erstwhile Pope “spoke against”:http://www.ibiblio.org/smiley/blog/pivot/entry.php?id=232. And it is the system that holds beliefs that are “counter to reality”:http://www.ibiblio.org/smiley/blog/pivot/entry.php?id=259. Would you exchange $30,000 for around two months more of sickly, painful life as you would if you were to take “Erbitux”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5481339/?

The healthcare industry is just another face of _samsara_. On the face, it looks like we’re helping people. However, life expectancy is probably on the “downturn”:http://www.cass.city.ac.uk/media/stories/story_17_18491_46080.html because of our habits. Our _habits_. And I’m straight in the crosshairs of heart problems and other health issues that arise from habits. And spending a life crunching statistics to add a few low-quality months onto the lives of people when an ounce of prevention would alleviate a lot of those problems is, in a word, regrettable.

And what if I went outside the healthcare industry? Well, I could do financial statistics with a little more training. Oh boy, I get to figure out the best way to make someone else rich. Maybe I could follow my original training and figure out the optimal amount of stuffing for Ho-Hos or, perhaps more meaningfully, the optimal composition of rubber in tires that reduce the likelihood of blowout on the next SUV. Now, I *could* perhaps work for an alternative energy company and try to find ways to reduce dependence on oil—foreign or otherwise—and perhaps that will have some real benefit.

And so, we come to the first two of the “Four Noble Truths”:http://www.buddhanet.net/4noble.htm, which are the existence and causes of suffering. And believe me, everybody has their own vicious circles that cause problems, whether it be poverty that leads to inability to earn money or affluence that leads to greed or compulsion to support a particular lifestyle.

Really, what would happen, if today I simply left it all behind? I really have been feeling the drag of my material possessions and my attachment to them. Some days I feel like kicking them to the curb, but the Buddha reminds us that extreme austerity isn’t any better.

That the suffering of _samsara_ can be alleviated is comforting, but the eightfold path is difficult when you have a vortex sucking you back in.

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