Thursday, January 12, 2012
Blinding pain, simple truth: a professor of mathematics heals himself through Buddhist meditation
Husband, father, grandfather, and teacher, Richard S. Ellis is a professor of mathematics and an adjunct professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And, for the past few years, a promoter of Buddhist meditation through his book, Blinding Pain, Simple Truth.
How did a professor of mathematics end up writing a book on Buddhist meditation? It’s a fascinating story, one that I was lucky enough to hear in person since I’ve known Richard for over ten years now, and I was thrilled when he graciously accepted to share it here on Chimeras.
EEG: I know you’ve always been writing: papers, essays, novels, and more. Do you find that the writer in you is an essential part of the scientist, or are the two completely separate?
RSE: I love writing, and I’d like to put it in a wider context. My area of research in mathematics is the theory of large deviations, which studies random events having small probability and often significant effect. More broadly, a large deviation is any event defying expectation: a surprise, a revelation, a miracle. My activities as a scientist and as a writer have their roots in this theory because my life has been a large deviation in numerous ways, Jewish, literary, spiritual, and mathematical. A major example is the casual conversation at a bat mitzvah in 1981 that inspired my family and me to spend a sabbatical the next year in Israel, a visit that changed my life by putting me on a spiritual journey through Judaism, Torah, literature, and Buddhism that still continues.
The writer in me is definitely an essential part of the scientist. I don’t see a big difference between writing about mathematics and writing about literature or spirituality because in essence it’s all text. As I continue to write and discover new fields and new connections, I feel as if I am building a palace of mirrors in which everything reflects back on everything else. In this sense writing is an act of creation that brings light where there was darkness, order where there was chaos, and connections that previously were not seen.
EEG: You have so many interests. You are a professor of mathematics, an adjunct professor of Judaic studies, and you have published and taught courses in mathematics, literature, and Bible studies. What inspires your writing the most?
RSE: Let me answer by referring to the poem “so you want to be a writer?” by Charles Bukowski. In it he gives one view of the writing process: “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you / in spite of everything, / don’t do it.” This poem certainly expresses the initial, exhilarating inspiration that I have always felt while writing, the sense that I have something new and important and even life-altering to say. However, the poem minimizes the painstaking work required to polish a piece. I first felt “it” bursting out of me when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, writing an honors thesis on the figures of Apollo and Buddha in the New Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Under Rilke’s inspiration, I filled notebooks with my own poetry and published a few.
I continue to be inspired by the same feeling of exhilaration whether I discover a beautiful solution of a difficult problem in mathematics or understand a resonance between a poem of Emily Dickinson and a passage in the Torah or so quiet my mind that the deep spirituality of a Psalm of David reveals itself to me. The inspiration bursts forth, and I start to write in ever-widening circles, each new section putting previous sections in a new light, and I revise, motivated by the insight that language is inherently linear while what I am trying to capture is nonlinear. Finally, after much work, it crystallizes as I finally see how all the pieces interconnect and find the words to express these interconnections.
EEG: Please tell us how you discovered Buddhist meditation and how your book, Blinding Pain, Simple Truth, came to be.
RSE: The short answer is that I discovered meditation because of pain. In 1980 a therapist introduced me to relaxation techniques based on Buddhist meditation to deal with tension headaches. These techniques were miraculously effective. However, as soon as the headaches were healed, I stopped meditating and stopped listening to the wisdom of the headaches as I threw myself into an ambitious project of a research-level math book. Headaches returned twenty years later, in February 2000, and this time they were much worse, nearly destroying my career. Desperately seeking help from doctors but unable to find relief from the many pills they prescribed, I dealt with the pain by anger, avoidance, and fear, which only compounded my suffering.
After suffering for two and half years, in September 2002 I sought help from Jean Colucci, a psychologist who based her therapy on meditation and Buddhist teachings. My work with her set the stage for a transformative experience in the summer of 2003. At a meditation retreat I experienced the truth about the headaches and the suffering they had caused. This truth is so simple, yet so deep: it is not the pain that causes suffering, but the mental state associated with the pain. Through meditation I learned not to push the pain away, or to react to the pain with anger and fear, but rather to accept it. Accepting the headaches allowed them to become my best teacher, a wise guide who constantly reveals new insights about life and pain and suffering and letting go and love.
The wisdom about pain, suffering, and healing that the headaches revealed is the subject of my recently published book, Blinding Pain, Simple Truth: Changing Your Life Through Buddhist Meditation. My goal in writing it is to empower people who suffer from physical and emotional pain to heal their suffering and embrace their lives with equanimity, gratitude, and joy.
I started writing the book at the suggestion of a literary agent, who found me on the internet in 2003. My experiences with the headaches had been so profound that, as Charles Bukowski describes, the inspiration for the book burst out of my heart and my mind and my mouth and my gut. However, revising and polishing the manuscript took years. In 2007 the literary agent announced, without explanation, that she could no longer represent the book. After much effort and further revision, I was able to place the manuscript with Rainbow Books, which published it in 2011. As I have often joked, the quest to write a book on Buddhist teachings and find a publisher requires the full wisdom of Buddhist teachings to lead one through the labyrinths and past the ego-traps that make this quest such a challenge.
As the book describes, every day I am blessed by the gifts of infinite worth that meditation has bestowed upon me: it calms my mind, enables me to connect with the wisdom of my body and the wisdom of the present moment, allows my body’s natural healing powers to flourish, and has freed me from the prison of chronic pain into a vast landscape of equanimity and peace. The book is also an invitation to begin meditating. It is a practice with potentially infinite rewards that can become an all-encompassing approach to people’s lives as it has become with mine.
EEG: That is truly amazing. Thank you, Richard, for sharing your story with us and for spreading the word through your book.
Richard S. Ellis has published numerous papers in mathematics and is the author of two research-level math books. He has also published poetry and articles on the Torah, literature, art, and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. To learn more about his recently published book, Blinding Pain, Simple Truth: Changing Your Life Through Buddhist Meditation, check out his website at RichardSEllis.com. You can also email Richard at rsellis (at) math.umass.edu. Information about his work and interests is available at his webpage.