Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

– Kahlil Gibran

We can read this in many ways. However, it takes on a specific meaning when read in light of another quote. Read in this way, it is dharma.

The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.

– D.T. Suzuki

Ignorantly we cling to our ego-shell as a protector. Safely within lies our understanding, our world view, our meaningful dichotomies that order our experiences. As we experience new situations, as we learn new things – we process these events through the protective shell of our ego- interpreting events (and initiating our responses to them) always from the primary position of protecting our precious ego. We must eye our ego-shell with suspicion – its job is not to allow us to see things are they are – but to see them in a way that causes the least tension with our current understanding.

However, some experiences are such that they are unfathomable to the ego-shell. That is, they cannot be easily or comfortably assimilated through it. It is during these times that (gross) suffering occurs. We do not have to look far for such events; senseless violence, death of a loved one, divorce, estrangement to name a few. However, arguing with a colleague, not getting what one was ‘due’, feeling unappreciated or ignored- these too qualify. Some may simply require a shifting, adding, deleting of certain beliefs – a slight readjustment of the ego-shell before one can continue on as before. But in extreme, the ego-shell cannot bend to the experience but instead shatters and is usually built anew. Such events lie on a continuum, the severity of the response necessary by the ego-shell dictating the level of pain or suffering felt.  This is the process that Gibran is describing. There are times throughout life when our ego-shell is so challenged that are common enough in society that we have named them; we can so classify “teenage angst” and “midlife crisis”. Interpreted in this way, such ‘pain’ seems inevitable to life.

However, in a Buddhist context, we are quick to see that the suffering is caused by the response of the ego-shell. Ironically, this shell creates the dichotomy (‘I’ vs. ‘Other’) which is then used to protect the rich dichotomous understanding of the world that this ‘I’ creates. And it is in this way that we set ourselves up to suffer. Why do we do it? Well as Dr. Suzuki points out, outgrowing the ego-shell is a very difficult thing to do. Buddhism would offer the reason for this difficulty ultimately being the ignorant view of reality that we have. So we must practice to ‘outgrow’ this ego-shell. And perhaps what this means functionally, is to make it less and less useful or necessary. We do this by practicing. It seems to me that whenever we are practicing – whether it be mindfulness, the ten precepts, or the four immeasurables etc. – we are working toward making the ego-shell less necessary.