There is praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Did you think this would not happen to you? The Buddha
Sometimes, life gives you a raw deal, and you feel stuck, like you can’t breathe. What do you do during those difficult times?
2,500 years ago, a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama asked the same questions. He saw that life was full of suffering, and that even the joys of life were fleeting. He was deeply troubled by the fact that, no matter how powerful you were, nobody could escape the pains caused by illness, aging and death.
To find out how to overcome suffering, he left his palace and wandered through India, looking for answers. One night, while deep in meditation, he saw life in its exactitude, and became enlightened.
With his new understanding, Gautama taught that while life was fraught with unavoidable suffering, the cause of suffering could be discovered, it could cease, and happiness could be enjoyed in the here and now.
For his achievements, Siddhartha Gautama was honored with the title of the ‘Buddha,’ meaning ‘the awakened one.’ His teachings eventually became known as Buddhism, and they have lasted more than two millennia and spread across the world.
So, Buddhist psychology is intimately concerned with the problem of suffering and how to overcome it. And as a budding Buddhist, I want to know what Buddhists do when things fall apart.
Accept This Moment as It Is
For Buddhists, the first step towards resilience comes from accepting this moment as it is, because no bad it may be, it is the only moment we’ll ever have. You can’t go back to the past, and the future isn’t here yet, so fixating on either doesn’t help.
There is no moment other than this one, and to fight against what’s actually happening adds to the suffering we’re already experiencing.
On the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha saw this truth: that human life by its very nature contains loss and suffering. Human experience is woven out of joy and sorrow, praise and blame, gain and loss, light and dark, hot and cold, pleasure and pain, birth and death. Buddha saw that this is so, that this is the dharma. And as he saw the river of life and its impermanence, he knew that no moment could ever be repeated, and that every moment was always new and that it would quickly end and be replaced by another moment that was also new and would never be repeated, and that it too would be replaced in its turn. And when he saw this and released any desire for life to be different from the way it is, he came to rest in the reality of the present moment. Jack Kornfield
Let Go of the Idea That Life Can Ever Be Perfect
In our heads, we know that life isn’t perfect and that nothing lasts, but in our hearts, we don’t like it one bit.
Things falling apart, relationships ending, people dying, these things naturally make us unhappy, but it’s this emotional battle against impermanence and imperfection, that we want things to last, despite all odds, which creates even more unhappiness.
And the cycle repeats, when we think that maybe the next new thing, that shiny watch, a new car, a new lover, will finally make our lives perfect, and make us happy forever.
The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact, that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable. Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly. The very first noble truth of the Buddha points out that suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last — that they don’t disintegrate, that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security. From this point of view, the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep. Pema Chodron
Buddhism teaches that we have to let go of our ideas about how life must turn out before we can finally be happy, to actually be happy. The thing you believe you must have to be happy is what’s keeping you from being happy now.
Sometimes you think that having a certain career, diploma, salary, house, or partner is crucial for your happiness. You think you can’t go on without it. Even when you have achieved that situation, or are with that person, you continue to suffer … If you come to look deeply into your fearful attachment, you will realize that it is in fact the very obstacle to your joy and happiness. You have the capacity to let it go … Our tendency is to think that if we let go, we’ll lose the things that make us happy. But the opposite is true. The more we let go, the happier we become. Letting go doesn’t mean we let go of everything. We don’t let go of reality. But we let go of our wrong ideas and wrong perceptions about reality. Thich Nhat Hanh
Suffering Shows You a Way
So far, everything sure makes Buddhism sounds masochistic. Despair, heartbreak, loneliness — Buddhism is asking us not just to accept it, but to turn towards our suffering. However, Buddhism does so not to wallow in suffering, but to transform it.
One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering. This doesn’t mean that we should despair. Suffering can be transformed. Thich Nhat Hanh
When things fall apart, the last thing we want to do is to face our pain. But as anyone who’s dealt with difficult emotions knows, the only way to heal them is to pay attention to them.
Buddhism asks us not to numb what we feel with distractions, like food, TV, Facebook, alcohol, porn, sex, or with ideas about how things ‘should’ be different. Unavoidable suffering is part of life, and while unpleasant, it can show you a way to become a wiser, stronger person. Suffering can become a teacher.
When something hurts in life, we don’t usually think of it as our path or as the source of wisdom. In fact, we think that the reason we’re on the path is to get rid of this painful feeling … At that level of wanting to get rid of our feeling, we naively cultivate a subtle aggression against ourselves. However, the fact is that anyone who has used the moments and days and years of his or her life to become wiser, kinder, and more at home in the world has learned from what has happened right now. Pema Chodron
Use Mindfulness to Give Yourself Space
Sometimes our fear, anger and regret feel so tightly pressed against our skin it feels like we’re suffocating. To give ourselves a chance, Buddhists use mindful attention to create space to breathe. A space to see what’s happening without holding tightly to it.
If we let the suffering come up and just take over our mind, we can be quickly overwhelmed by it. So we have to invite another energy to come up at the same time, the energy of mindfulness. The function of mindfulness is, first, to recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering. The work of mindfulness is first to recognize the suffering and second to embrace it. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the child into her arms without suppressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgment. Thich Nhat Hanh
We’ve all experienced this mindful space at some point in our lives, when we’ve felt a surge of negative emotions, be it anger, or fear, or despair, but were able to breathe it out and respond calmly to what was happening.
That is mindfulness. Not an otherworldly, mystical state of mind, but an ability to stand in the river and not be swept away by the tide. And the tool Buddhists use to train this mindfulness is the breath.
To come back to this present moment, focus on your inhalation, and know that you’re inhaling. Focus on your exhalation, and know that you’re exhaling. When a thought comes, just know that it is a thought, and bring your focus back to your breath. When a feeling comes, just know that it is a feeling, and bring your focus back to your breath.
When you’re overwhelmed by illness or loss, by the conflicts around you, when you feel you are lost in the darkness, sometimes all you can do is to breath consciously and gently with your pain and anguish and know that with this simple gesture you are resetting the compass of your heart, no matter your circumstances. By taking that one simple, mindful breath, you will return again to compassion and realise that you are more than your fears and confusions. Jack Kornfield
Through this meditation on the breath, you expand your awareness, and develop the capacity to notice what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling, without being ensnared by it. Meditation is a practice of becoming conscious.
We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives. Pema Chodron
Be Kind to Yourself and Others
Mindfulness opens up space and clarity to face our difficulties, but it’s incomplete without kindness.
When we see a child get hurt, we use mindfulness to keep worry at bay, so we can take care of the child’s wounds. But the child needs more than just medical care for her physical wound, she needs kindness too, the warmth only another human being can give, to heal her emotional suffering.
So, along with clear seeing, there’s another important element, and that’s kindness. It seems that, without clarity and honesty, we don’t progress. We just stay stuck in the same vicious cycle. But honesty without kindness makes us feel grim and mean, and pretty soon we start looking like we’ve been sucking on lemons. We become so caught up in introspection that we lose any contentment or gratitude we might have had. The sense of being irritated by ourselves and our lives and other people’s idiosyncrasies becomes overwhelming. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on kindness. Pema Chodron
When we suffer, we are that child. But instead of waiting for others to give us care and compassion, we can start by being kind to ourselves.
Practicing loving-kindness toward ourselves seems as good a way as any to start illuminating the darkness of difficult times. Pema Chodron
Compassion towards yourself can make you stronger, and so can compassion towards others. Sometimes, when we find it hard to be kind on ourselves, we can still be kind to others — and that helps to soften our inner hardness. And the more we can be kind to ourselves, the more we can share that compassion with others.
Self-compassion and self-forgiveness are not weaknesses, but the roots of our courage and magnanimity. Sometimes compassion for ourselves and others seems hard to find. But even if you lose touch with those feelings during your most intense suffering, compassion is an essential part of our true nature. In fact, it is in this self-compassion and self-love that you find the strength to carry the lamp through your darkest nights. And it is by first practicing self-compassion that you find not only a way to hold your own struggles and sorrows in your heart — but through them you learn how to connect with the sufferings and sorrows of all those around. Jack Kornfield
Today is a New Day
Whatever’s happened to you so far, as long as you’re reading this, it hasn’t killed you. You’re still here, alive and breathing. Buddhists focus their minds on the present moment, not just because it is the only moment we’ll ever have, but because every moment is a new one that offers open possibilities.
When you wake up in the morning, the first thing to do is to breathe and to become aware that you have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. This is a gift of life … You want to live the twenty-four hours that are given you in such a way that peace, joy, and happiness are possible. You’re determined not to waste your twenty-four hours, because you know those twenty-four hours are a gift of life, and you receive that gift every morning. That is mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh
Life’s Core is Joyful
Life can suck. We can do everything right, and still have our best plans wrecked. We face hard times, and our dreams sometimes look far away. And no matter how hard we work, we can’t escape getting sick, growing old and dying.
Buddhism doesn’t shy away from all that. Siddhartha Gautama affirmed that, “Yes, life is suffering. There is all this hard stuff. Pain is a natural part of being alive.” And yet, he also declared that happiness can be found in this very life.
As Pema Chodron writes, “ … there’s nothing wrong with impermanence, suffering, and egolessness; they can be celebrated. Our fundamental situation is joyful.” I find it refreshing how Buddhism can be so pragmatic, yet remain optimistic at its core.
The very first teaching the Buddha gave after his enlightenment was about suffering. It’s called the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are: there is suffering; there is a course of action that generates suffering; suffering ceases (i.e., there is happiness); and there is a course of action leading to the cessation of suffering (the arising of happiness). Thich Nhat Hanh
- By accepting our present reality
- Letting go of our ideas about how life ‘should’ be before we can be happy
- Learning from our suffering
- Using mindfulness to give us a clear space
- Practicing kindness to give ourselves and others a chance
- Remembering that every new moment we get contains new possibilities
Path Notes from a Novice Buddhist
I wrote this post, just like I wrote all earlier posts, not because I’m good at Buddhism and resilience, but because I want to become better at it. These are my notes on the path.
Words like ‘mindfulness’ and ‘compassion’ look good on the page, but when I’m face to face with people and situations I hate, and my patience is shattering, practicing those words takes on a whole new depth.
But so far, when I’m able to put these words into practice, I’ve found that Buddhism illuminates a path that has made me better, wiser, and stronger.
I gained a great deal from Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Mud, No Lotus, and Jack Kornfield’s A Lamp in the Darkness, far more than I could encapsulate in this one post. These teachers have a knack for making Buddhism real in everyday terms, and I highly recommend these books.
Starting Mind will continue to traverse Buddhist ideas from time to time. If that intrigues you, great — sign up for my free newsletter to stay in touch.
Buddha head in the banyan tree at Wat Mahathat, Thailand. Photo by McKay Savage. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.