Life is Tough. Here Are Six Ways to Deal With It
While trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable, it actually doesn’t work. We think it makes sense to protect ourselves from pain, but our self-protection ends up causing us deeper pain. We think we have to hold on to what we have, but our very holding on causes us to lose what we have. We’re attached to what we like and try to avoid what we don’t like, but we can’t keep the attractive object and we can’t avoid the unwanted object. So, counterintuitive though it may be, avoiding life’s difficulties is actually not the path of least resistance; it is a dangerous way to live. If you want to have a full and happy life, in good times and bad, you have to get used to the idea that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it.
This is not a matter of grimly focusing on life’s difficulties. It is simply the smoothest possible approach to happiness. Of course, when we can prevent difficulty, we do it. The world may be upside down, but we still have to live in this upside-down world, and we have to be practical on its terms. The teaching on transforming bad circumstances into the path doesn’t deny that. What it addresses is the underlying attitude of anxiety, fear, and narrow-mindedness that makes our lives unhappy, fearful, and small.
Transforming bad circumstances into the path is associated with the practice of patience. There are six mind-training (lojong) slogans connected with this:
One—Turn all mishaps into the path. Two—Drive all blames into one. Three—Be grateful to everyone. Four—See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness. Five—Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help. Six—Whatever you meet is the path.
- Turn All Mishaps Into the Path
The first slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path, sounds at first blush completely impossible. How would you do that? When things go alright we are cheerful—we feel good and have positive spiritual feelings—but as soon as bad things start happening, we get depressed, we fall apart, or, at the very best, we hang on and cope. We certainly do not transform our mishaps into the path. And why would we want to? We don’t want the mishaps to be there; we want them gone as soon as possible.
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We are not talking about miracles. We are talking about training the mind.
Yet, the slogan tells us, we can turn all of this into the path. We do that by practicing patience, my all-time favorite spiritual quality. Patience is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of strength, endurance, forbearance, and dignity rather than fear, anxiety, and avoidance. None of us likes to be oppressed or defeated, yet if we can endure oppression and defeat with strength, without whining, we are ennobled by it. Patience makes this possible. In our culture, we think of patience as passive and unglamorous; other qualities like love or compassion or insight are much more popular. But when tough times cause our love to fray into annoyance, our compassion to be overwhelmed by our fear, and our insight to evaporate, then patience begins to make sense. To me it is the most substantial, most serviceable, and most reliable of all spiritual qualities. Without it, all other qualities are shaky.
The practice of patience is simple enough. When difficulty arises, notice the obvious and not so obvious ways we try to avoid it—the things we say and do, the subtle ways in which our very bodies recoil and clench when some- one says or does something to us that we don’t like.
To practice patience is to notice these things and be fiercely present with them (taking a breath helps; returning to mindfulness of the body helps) rather than reacting to them. We catch ourselves running away and we reverse course, turning toward our afflictive emotions, understanding that they are natural in these circumstances—and that avoiding them won’t work. We forestall our flailing around with these emotions and instead allow them to be present with dignity. We forgive ourselves for having them, we forgive (at least provisionally) whoever we might be blaming for our difficulties, and with that spontaneous forgive- ness comes a feeling of relief and even gratitude.
This may strike you as a bit far-fetched, but it is not. Yet it does take training. We are not, after all, talking about miracles; we are not talking about affirmations or wishful thinking. We are talking about training the mind. If you were to meditate daily, bringing up this slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path, in your sitting, writing it down, repeating it many times a day, then you could see that a change of heart and mind can take place in just the way I am describing. The way you spontaneously react in times of trouble is not fixed.
Your mind, your heart, can be trained. Once you have a single experience of reacting differently, you will be encouraged, and next time it is more likely that you will take yourself in hand. When something difficult happens, you will train yourself to stop saying, “Damn! Why did this have to happen?” and begin saying, “Yes, of course, this is how it is. Let me turn toward it, let me practice with it, let me go beyond entanglement to gratitude.”
Because you will have realized that because you are alive and not dead, because you have a human body and not some other kind of a body, because the world is a physical world and not an ethereal world, and because all of us together as people are the way we are, bad things are going to happen. It’s the most natural, the most normal, the most inevitable thing in the world. It is not a mistake, and it isn’t anyone’s fault. And we can make use of it to drive our gratitude and our compassion deeper.
- Drive All Blames Into One
The second slogan on transforming difficult circumstances is famous: Drive all blames into one. It, too, is quite counterintuitive, quite upside down. What it is saying is: whatever happens, don’t ever blame anyone or anything else; always blame only yourself.
This is tricky, because it is not exactly blaming ourselves in the ordinary sense. We know perfectly well how to blame ourselves. We’ve been doing it all of our lives. We don’t need Buddhist slogans to tell us to do this. But clearly this is not what is meant.
Drive all blames into one means that you can’t blame anyone for what happens. Even if it’s actually some- one’s fault, you really can’t blame them. Something happened, and since it did, there is nothing else to be done but to make use of it.
Everything that happens, disastrous as it may be and no matter whose fault it is, has a potential benefit, and it’s your job to find it. Drive all blames into one means that you take full responsibility for everything that arises in your life.
This is very bad, this is not what I wanted, this brings many attendant problems. But what am I going to do with it? What can I learn from it? How can I make use of it for the path? These are the questions to ask, and answering them is entirely up to you. Furthermore, you can answer them; you do have the strength and the capacity. Drive all blames into one is a tremendous practice of cutting through the long human habit of complaining and whining, and finding on the other side of it the strength to turn every situation into the path. Here you are. This is it. There is no place else to go but forward into the next moment. Repeat the slogan as many times as you have to.
- Be Grateful to Everyone
Be grateful to everyone: this is very simple but very profound.
My wife and I have a grandson. We went to visit him when he was about six weeks old. He couldn’t do anything, not even hold up his head, much less feed himself. If he was in trouble, he couldn’t ask for help. Unable to do anything on his own, he was completely dependent on his mother’s care and constant attention. She fed him, cuddled him, tried to understand and anticipate his needs, and took care of everything, including his peeing and pooping.
We were all at one time precisely in this situation, and someone or other must have cared for us in this same comprehensive way. Without one hundred percent total care from someone else, or maybe several others, we would not be here. This is certainly grounds for gratitude to others.
There could not be what we call a person without other people.
But our dependence on others did not end there. We didn’t grow up and become independent. Now we can hold up our heads, fix our dinner, wipe our butts, and we seem not to need our mother or father to take care us—so we think we are autonomous.
But consider this for a moment. Did you grow the food that sustains you every day? Did you make the car or train that takes you to work? Sew your clothing? Build your own house with lumber you milled?
You need others every single day, every single moment of your life. It’s thanks to others and their presence and effort that you have the things you need to continue, and that you have friendship and love and meaning in your life. Without others, you have nothing.
Our dependence on others runs even deeper than this. Where does the person we take ourselves to be come from in the first place? Apart from our parents’ genes and their support and care, and society and all it produces for us, there’s the whole network of conditions and circumstances that intimately makes us what we are. How about our thoughts and feelings? Where do they come from? Without words to think in, we don’t think, we don’t have anything like a sense of self as we understand it, and we don’t have the emotions and feelings that are shaped and defined by our words. Without the myriad circumstances that provided us the opportunities for education, for speech, for knowledge, for work, we wouldn’t be here as we are.
So it is literally the case that there could not be what we call a person without other people. We can say “person” as if there could be such an autonomous thing, but in fact there is no such thing. There is no such thing as a person—there are only persons who have co-created one another over the long history of our species. The idea of an independent, isolated, atomized person is impossible. And here we are not only speaking of our needing others practically. We are talking about our inmost sense of identity. Our consciousness of ourselves is never independent of others.
This is what nonself or emptiness means in Buddhist teaching: that there is no such thing as an isolated individual. Though we can say there is, and though we might think there is, and though many of our thoughts and motivations seem to be based on this idea, in fact it is an erroneous idea. Literally every thought in our minds, every emotion that we feel, every word that comes out of our mouth, every material sustenance that we need to get through the day, comes through the kindness of and the interaction with others. And not only other people but nonhumans too, literally the whole of the earth, the soil, the sky, the trees, the air we breathe, the water we drink. We don’t just depend on all of this; we are all of it and it is us. This is no theory, no poetic religious teaching. It is simply the bald fact of the matter.
So to practice Be grateful to everyone is to train in this profound understanding. It is to cultivate every day this sense of gratitude, the happiest of all attitudes. Unhappiness and gratitude simply cannot exist in the same moment. If you feel grateful, you are a happy person. If you feel grateful for what is possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are, if you feel grateful that you are alive at all, that you can think, that you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk—if you feel grateful, you are happy and you maximize your chances for well-being and for sharing happiness with others.
( Slogans 4,5,6 next week)