Notes on a Buddhist path

The Way Out

February 3, 2013 By | 5 Comments

Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.” ~ Emily Dickinson

cellIn August 1973, four bank employees were taken hostage in Norrmalmstorg, Sweden. Through the six-day ordeal the captives began to identify with their captors, even resisting rescue assistance from the government. Ultimately they were released, yet continued to defend the bank robbers who showed them kindness during their imprisonment. This incident led Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist,  Nils Bejerot, to coin the phrase Stockholm syndrome to describe a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy toward their incarcerators, sometimes to the point of supporting them and their actions.

The way I see it, suffering, dukkha, is a lot like that. For most of my time on this planet, I’ve labeled my longings to land a great job, buy shiny objects, and secure an adoring mate as life support systems, things and situations as necessary as air to live. When aversions rose up like a cobra setting to strike, I cringed at the prospects of losing that job, not being able to afford more pretty baubles or breaking up with Mr. Love of My Life. I believed that I couldn’t live without them, or if I did survive my marginal existence would be tantamount to a starving beggar sentenced to the barren streets of oblivion. 

The thing we want more than any other in the world, the thing that will fix all the ills of our dismal lives eventually tarnishes and starts to look rather shabby. So we go in search of the next great infomercial, the magic elixir that will be the salve to soothe our pain from the thousands of things that haven’t worked before. Through it all we are just following the same chain, the same ring through our noses, connected to an impossible goal of permanent bliss that we believe is based on finding the right key to a lock just out of reach.

The truth is those cravings are more akin to the bank robbers in Sweden than to any freedom of choice we think we are exercising. As much as we feel the pain of anger, loss, grief, and disappointment towards each worn out craving, we still choose to follow the same misguided steps we’ve scuffed into the floor in our old and well-appointed cell. Sometimes we’ll sit down to play a hand of cards with our captors, lulled into a sense of secure ease and happiness, and moments later we’re beaten with nightsticks of shame and fear. Our cravings, our tormenters, treat the wounds they’ve inflicted with the promise that none if it will happen again, that we must trust them to care for us and all our needs. Yet if the prison doors were to fling open, if we were handed the key to that locked cell and could walk away from all our cravings, the sight of true freedom and the end of suffering would terrify most of us to the marrow of our being.

Diagnosing most of the Earth’s inhabitants as survivors of Stockholm syndrome may seem a bit dire, but imagine this scenario. You’ve lived your whole life under a sky of perpetual grey, storms and clouds moving over your head like conveyor belts of dark flannel. There are no plants, no flowers, nothing but hard landscapes of buildings and long lines for pellets of food and water. There are times of sadness, yet also periods of intoxicating happiness. It’s all you and everyone you love has ever known.

One day you’re walking on a crowded street and something strange startles the corner of your eye. You turn and in the sky for the briefest moment you see a bright sphere of light, brighter than anything you’ve ever witnessed before. As quickly as it appeared it is gone, but the sight of it doesn’t leave you.  You ask your friends the next day if they saw it, describing the warmth, the brilliance, the joy that swept over you when you looked at it. Each of them dismisses your story, looking at you with a strange, distant wariness. Yet you know you’ve seen something that is true, something that is more fulfilling than anything you’ve ever felt in your entire life.

That is what nibbana, the end of suffering, is like. There are glimpses along the way, slivers of insights and patches of rapture that shine a light on the hiding place of the key to that perpetual chain of suffering. It’s in seeing our cravings as the captors they truly are and knowing that we can leave our cell whenever we choose, that our existence is not tied to our job or our home or the pellets of temporary sustenance we are handed. Trusting that even though there are blankets of clouds tucked into the far corners of the heavens, there is also a light, a dawn brighter than anything we can imagine, just waiting for us to swing open that dark door. Waiting for us to step from our parched prison into drenching, boundless joy.


by Jim Harrison

After days of darkness I didn’t understand
a second of yellow sunlight
here and gone through a hole in clouds
as quickly as a flashbulb, an immense
memory of a moment of grace withdrawn.
It is said that we are here but seconds in cosmic
time, twelve and a half billion years,
but who is saying this and why?
In the Salt Lake City airport eight out of ten
were fiddling relentlessly with cell phones.
The world is too grand to reshape with babble.
Outside the hot sun beat down on clumsy metal
birds and an actual ten-million-year-old
crow flew by squawking in bemusement.
We’re doubtless as old as our mothers, thousands
of generations waiting for the sunlight.

“Sunlight” by Jim Harrison, from Songs of Unreason. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011.

Image credit:

via Morguefile


  1. Blessed be — this is a good one honey! Thank you.

    • Thank you, dear Dhamma Sister! Blessings to you on your retreat; I will be sitting with you. Here’s to dipping your sweet toes into the stream.

  2. Wow, another BRILLIANT insight from the desk of Tess! What a clear and easily understandable explanation of Dukkha/Samsara. Sometimes you can hear all the Dhamma talks in the world, then one clear, simple analogy brings it all into focus. Thank you. I’ll keep that one in my back pocket to use when the need arises (on myself, as well as others!)

    Does answer that age-old question, “Would you rather have all your desires fulfilled, or removed?” — “Would you rather stay in your cell eating cake with your captors, or leave?”

    Although I do protest at your description of my childhood in Vancouver: “life under a sky of perpetual grey, storms and clouds moving over your head like conveyor belts of dark flannel”. It’s true, I just don’t want to be reminded. Vancouver Rain Festival: September 1 to August 31.

    • Oh, David, I am humbled by your kind words. Thank you for the kudos and I will do my best to set aside any sense of pride in favour of having my delusions removed, along with any cravings for cake.

      You know, I think the dates of the Victoria Rain Festival coincide a bit with Vancouver’s event. Hmm…

  3. That’s the best description of the weather here I’ve heard yet!

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