The Suffering of Our Privilege


Cameron Conaway suffered from a few days of culture shock when he arrived in Thailand, and a few months of it when he arrived back home to Pennsylvania.

It’s a form of culture shock, I’m told.

Since returning home to the States after nearly three years in Asia, I’ve felt deep within me an agitation, an anxiety, a swirl of muddled thoughts. It bubbles up in the quiet of home or in the ruckus of a supermarket. It has erupted both during meals alone and when I was surrounded by loved ones during our Thanksgiving feast. At times the confusion manifested itself as anger when I couldn’t explain my thoughts, or when I explained them fairly well but the listener looked entirely dumbfounded and entirely incapable of relating no matter how hard they tried. I saw some shit while I was abroad. Groups of boys with HIV. Disabled children sold as sex slaves. Men dying at the shipbreaking yards. On a daily basis my personal matters were made trivial by the perspective all around me. When I came home the constant perspective was lost. The result was that I found myself in calmer place in the world but with far less calm within. In a coffee shop I overheard a couple arguing for an hour about the precise type of Christmas tree they wanted and from which store to buy it. At the grocery store I saw a woman with a Gucci purse stand beside an unbelievably vast tea section and say, “Their variety here sucks.” These moments shook me and I couldn’t let go of them, couldn’t even articulate why they shook me or what that “shook” feeling felt like.

One way of many I’ve been trying to find a guiding light is through listening to various podcasts on Stitcher while I meditate in the morning. A major breakthrough came this morning, and I wrote it down as much for myself as for the potential readers who may find it beneficial.

The following is a collection of quotes from the recent dharma talk given by Joan Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Show me how deep your befuddlement is…

“In time, obstructing thorns flourish everywhere.” So let’s back a little bit into the verse. The first line:

“A splendid branch issues from the old plum tree.”

So plum trees do something really interesting. They don’t necessarily have thorns, but this is about our lives, and the paradox we live in. But there’s something deep and paradoxical within the actual relative plum tree itself…

It blooms when it’s snowing. I expect it to bloom any day now. So we know that the flower that blooms in adversity is the most beautiful flower of all. You go into a tropical garden where it’s 365 days a day year and we almost take the flowers for granted. “Oh yeah, hibiscus. Oh, that’s nice.” But if you’re standing in the starkness of winter and you see pushing out from an old gnarled branch that really looks dead, no leaves, no life, no promise, nothing. And then what pushes through this hard skin is a tender bud and a bloom that catches snow.

So many of you know I’ve gone to the Himalayas for decades, and it’s so hard there. You know, in the mountains there’s not one overweight person. People are functionally starving. That’s why I said “We have 9 special diets? And the kitchen is trying to cook 9 different dishes, plus for 60-some more of us?” And I went, “No, no. No. We can’t do this.”

We have to really cut through to see what is essential, what is important, and to simplify. My backyard up at the refuge is beautiful mountains. You know, I can walk out my little hermitage door into such radiance. I don’t need to travel halfway around the world. I go because I learn about resilience, I learn about tenderness, I also learn about what is essential and really important. Whatever is put before those mountain people…they eat, with gratitude. When I see where some of those children sleep…see all of those children with ringworms… and think about our kids and their crusty scalps and think about our clean heads and we’re worried about one hangnail or another. It makes me want to weep, and not so much for them but, really, for us.

Yeah, that’s a kind of suffering they’re in and it’s raw. But the suffering of our privilege is another level of suffering. And what it is called in the literature is “adventitious suffering.” Unnecessary suffering. We don’t really have to do it this way. I feel we have in a certain way an inspiration from the Buddha, who sat deeply, who probably actually didn’t live too much differently than the mountain people we visit in Nepal. We say “Prince” but in actuality it was some little clan up in North India/Southern Nepal in a very funky area. I’ve been there. Still is. Malarial. Stinking hot. Not beautiful in the least.

And I look at our life and I say, “Hey, time for us to use the great and good karma we’ve been given to get over our biases now. And that is why we are practicing. So we can perceive not only those who are privileged and blind, but the mountain people and all beings as already awake, and to work for their realization of exactly that. I often think of Viktor Frankl in this regard, in the death camps saying, “We have one choice and that is the attitude with which we bring to our lives. To choose to not dwell in our biases, which are fed by our fears.”

So this is why we practice.

We don’t practice social Buddhism, we’re not practicing entertainment or even really narrative Buddhism. We are practicing imperative Buddhism. The sense that it is an imperative when we look how befuddling it is considering our future. What are our priorities? What is the greatest priority that we have? And it is the priority to awaken. Not to continue to feed our own delusion and the delusion of others, but to wake up. Now the truth is that we are deeply conditioned to our privilege. It’s another reason I cherish going to the Himalayas. You know my little hermitage is small but it’s got a nice little jotul stove in it and I can kind of work it, get up two or three times a night to feed the fire but basically I’m pretty comfortable, physically. But just the rawness of sleeping often on wet ground, a wet mat, and just being in this more essential state and watching the mind produce, “I want this. I don’t really need that. I don’t really need it….”

The truth is about letting go of your preferences. “I like this room; I don’t like that room. I like this bed; I don’t like that bed. I want white rice, not brown rice.” Our biases tie us up in knots and turn our lives into little horizons…

What we’re doing here is creating a vessel where the water can become really still. Where all the particulate matter that’s clouding our mind begins to settle. Where our narratives are rushing about…we’re pushed to get here, to settle in here…to learn the forms. We’re invited to observe the theater of the mind as this adjustment takes place. To watch our biases strangle us and to sit through the biases until we move to the other side…into this place of being really settled, or not. Because, as Keizon says, “obstructing thorns flourish everywhere.” You’re given plenty of opportunities for arousal, for irritation. Sometimes the zendo is so still, so beautiful and then somebody goes [sniffing sound] and then you go, “Oh yeah, roll it into my practice.” And then drop the bias. Settle back into the openness, into the silence.

This is a different space. Your preferential mind is not being acknowledged. Or it won’t be. It’s really interesting. The “I, Me, My Mine” is being asked to be let go of. The self-referentiality that is characteristic of our society. It’s an extraordinary time, where we’re actually asked to leave distractions behind and to practice an inner state and an interpersonal state that conduces to a change in our nervous system. Because “obstructing thorns flourish everywhere.”

We have a thousand upon thousand ways to get hooked. And we enter into this collective body to unhook ourselves.

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–Photo: Ronel Reyes/Flickr

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Gurdeep Singh says:

    Thanks for this piece.

    I think that reading Jaya by Devdutt Patnaik may help you understand that agitation.

  2. Dillan DiGiovanni says:

    Great stuff, Cameron! Thanks for sharing your light and wisdom.

  3. Hi Cameron
    Beautiful !

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