Through spiritual practices, take hold of life’s changes and turn them into positive experiences.
Dear Lama Surya Das,
When I first asked my 18-year-old goddaughter, Tricia, what her life’s big questions were, she said that she didn’t think much about spiritual things, and instead stewed about colleges, clothes and dating. But a short time later, over lunch not long ago, she came up with a big one: “Why is everything always being taken away?” And to go along with this conundrum comes the question “How do you stay positive in the midst of constant loss and suffering?”
Here is my response to Tricia and everyone else.
Change is the law. The more we resist that universal fact, that reality, the more we suffer. The harder we try to grip and hold onto that which is passing through our fingers, the more we get rope burn. That is simply the truth. It is in our higher self-interest to learn to loosen our grip, unwind, and learn to “Kiss the joy as it flies, and live in eternity’s sunrise,” as William Blake sang.
Things come and go. All that are born die. The seasons pass, arriving and disappearing. The good news and the bad news at once is that the old gives out and gives way to the new. We too follow the same course. Let’s think about what we do while here, and what we make of whatever hand we happen to have been dealt. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross said, “If you truly want to grow as a person and learn, you should realize that the universe has enrolled you in the graduate program of life called loss.” So, how can we gain through loss, making stumbling blocks into stepping stones, while learning the virtue of adversity? The Jewish wisdom of the Talmud reminds me that whenever a door closes, a window opens elsewhere. This helps me keep going and remain optimistic, as well as realistic.
I always say that the secret of self-mastery, inner freedom and peace of mind is to realize our own innate power and inherent freedom of being, for it is not what happens to us but what we do with whatever comes that determines our character, our fate, karma and destiny. The winds of karma and past conditioning may be blowing, but we can learn how to set our sails, use the tiller and navigate better, rather than just being blown away by the prevailing winds and currents. Even strong habits and conditioning, such as addictions, can be reconditioned and eventually de-conditioned. This is the secret of working with karma, cause and effect.
One old Buddhist saying tells us that pain is inevitable in life—but suffering, on the other hand, is optional. How much we suffer depends on us, our internal development and our spiritual understanding and realization. Our pain and suffering point out to us where we are most attached, and what we’re holding onto the most; likewise, they point out how free we are. By recognizing this, we can learn to use loss and suffering in ways that help us to grow wiser and become more at peace with ourselves and the universe. Through meditation practice, we come to see that the necessary losses in life—aging, separation, sorrow and death—are inevitable. And when we learn to accept the inevitable changes, through a more graceful letting go called the wisdom of allowing, we will tremendously lessen our suffering and leave room for happiness to arise. Helen Keller puts it this way: “The world is full of suffering, and it is also full of people overcoming suffering.”
Life is tenuous, impermanent, and fleeting—not unlike a dream. I think we all must look into this reality at some point, and make some kind of peace with it. Everything is always slipping through our fingers; yet the answer is not to hold on tight or to push away.
B. Alan Wallace, Buddhist scholar, writes that when our sense of balance goes astray, loving-kindness can augment an even temper. These qualities of the heart—lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity—are known as the Four Immeasurables. They all work together. Wallace writes: “Working with the heart qualities can be a means for overcoming emotional distress or instability and achieving genuine happiness.”
Learning to love and let go is truly in our own higher self-interest. When we can let it all in, saying “yes” to all of life, meeting whatever befalls us with equanimity, we will grow deeper and wiser and happier; not in spite of life, but, rather, because of it.
So how to set one’s sails, to stay positive amidst so much loss and change? First and foremost, the pain and suffering, misery and unhappiness—which I feel and experience as well—inspires and drives me to look deeper, further, beyond the material, the visible, the temporary conditions and circumstances—seeking something more reliable, timeless, transcendent. That is why I do spiritual practice. This practice includes cultivating gratitude and equanimity, surrendering to the higher power or the ineluctable law of karma, and arriving at some kind of faith and trust through developing a deepening experiential understanding, conviction, and inner wisdom. Genuine spiritual practice of any kind brings joy, inner peace and calm, clarity and centeredness. In my own spiritual practice, I keep positive through six attitude trainings and inner practices:
I practice meditation, which concentrates the mind, calms the heart, and keeps things light, open and free, while brightening my awareness for consciousness is the subjective filter which determines everything.
I practice yoga and breathing exercises, which keeps my energy bright, and effects moods and actions too.
I practice forgiveness and have strong faith in the basic goodness of human nature, beneath it all.
I practice seeking the way out of the darkness, and seeing the bright side and potential in things. I look for the light in every thing and every one. This takes a conscious effort in order to recondition the tendency to overlook it (as so many of my ancestors tended to do when I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, not that they didn’t have their reasons). I also practice seeing what is here now, through mindfulness, so as not to become too Pollyanna-ish.
I practice seeing the humor in situations, contemplating the cosmic absurdity and mystery of life. I try to keep an open mind and touch lightly in opinions and dogmas. It is just so hard to find out the genuine truth about anything. So who can hold hard and fast opinions? “Humor is the best meditation!” as the Buddha never said.
I have given up on guilt and shame, and should-ing on my own head. I try to keep my built-in setting on my internal emotional thermostat, or my inner carburetor, running high and smooth and making me an extroverted, optimistic, foolish, happy-go-lucky kind of guy!
One of my childhood sports heroes was Wilma Rudolph. Her story of triumph over adversity and persevering with heroic courage and energetic effort to become a world-class athlete fueled me during many a grueling football, basketball and soccer training season in my youth. Later while I was climbing in the Himalayas and on long treks, while in yearlong silent meditation retreats, I would remember her perseverance in overcoming all odds. Her indomitable will and courage helped me reach deeper into my own reservoir of energetic effort. Wilma was one of 22 children at home and as a poor and sickly child; she was prone to every illness and had many diseases, including double pneumonia, scarlet fever, mumps, chicken pox and measles. After being crippled by polio, she was diagnosed as being unable to walk for life. For two years, her mother drove her 50 miles, twice a week, for physical therapy, while she also maintained daily strenuous exercise at home, unwilling to accept what doctors called her “fate.”
Through unremitting constant perseverance, by age 12, Wilma could walk without a brace, crutches or corrective shoes, astounding the medical experts. She went on to become a teen track and field star, representing the U.S. at the Olympic games at age 16. In Rome, September 7th, 1960, at her second Olympics, Wilma became the first American woman to win three gold medals. She won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and ran the anchor on the 400-meter relay team. This achievement led her to become one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time ultimately helping to break down gender barriers in the previously all-male track and field events. In 1960, she was named the United Press Athlete of the Year as well as the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year.
Wilma Rudolph taught me that if she could overcome such adversity and eventually triumph, so could I, and so could others. I like to think of Wilma Rudolph. Hers is a story of achieving against the odds. She maintained her View, her own meditation—through physical endurance—and action. She faced her losses and moved through them. One of my favorite singing groups is Sweet Honey in the Rock. One of their beautiful songs, “Wade in the Waters” sends the message that when there is a promise of a storm, if you want change in your life, walk through it, walk on. On the other side, you will find yourself changed.
In this way we can each find our way toward attitude transformation and inner practice. Sounds True Audio interviewed American spiritual authors with this question: “It’s one thing to feel grateful and at peace when everything is going your way. But what about when you encounter difficult times? When unexpected horrible things happen that feel outside of your control, then what?”
Tara Brock, Buddhist therapist and Insight Meditation teacher responded: “When I’m feeling separate, I often reach out in prayer. It helps me realize an enlarged belonging. I call on Prajna Paramita, the mother of all the Buddhas, the expression or personification of wisdom and love, that I visualize as radiating throughout all of creation. I call out, inhabiting longing and pain, and allow myself to feel held in her infinite embrace. Gradually I realize that I am one with this boundless love and awareness, that I am both the holder and the held.”
Dr. Andrew Weil, the alternative medic responded: “When the going gets tough…I make sure I keep up the routines that are important to me, especially meditation, exercise, and good nutrition. I try to do things that make me feel good, like spending time with special friends, listening to music, playing with my dog, watching funny movies.”
Natalie Goldberg, author, teacher, and Zen practitioner said “I first panic, then take charge in the way an old horse would, slow and measured. I keep going, step by step, through the deepest snow. At the same time I try to keep my heart open, and let myself cry rivers if necessary. And I call on my friends. We can’t do it alone even though we’re always out there in the Alone.”
Peter Levine, author of Healing Trauma: “I look for that place in my body where I feel the most at home, where I am the strongest. I focus on that part in my body until it feels stable. I then scan for the parts of my bodily experience where I am registering the difficult experience. I don’t try to fix it, or even to understand it, but to feel it and experience it in my body, in my experience. Then without judgment, as best I can, I shift my attention between the places I feel the strongest and those where I feel the distress. I do this ‘pendulation’ until a rhythm begins to emerge. I follow that rhythm. This is what helps me to find my orientation, and from that, a new direction.”
These are ways that other spiritual teachers respond when the ‘shit hits the fan.’ Isn’t it interesting how all of these teachers answered in such different ways? So collectively we might say: Lean into it, take a deep breath, sit down, concentrate, pray and as Dr. Weil said, laugh. My father-in-law took this approach during his six-year bout with cancer at the end of his life. He was a very accomplished man who spent the last five years of his long and productive life watching funny videos, cackling most of the time, with anybody he could rope into watching with him. This laughter therapy proved helpful to him, as it would for any of us. Laugh the cosmic laugh and be en-lightened. Br. Wayne Teasdale, a man of great spiritual vision and insight believed “The sense of humor is the seventh sense. Life is incomplete without it.”
And so Tricia, yes, things are always being taken away. Impermanence is the name of the game. Consider exploring your own inner practices for keeping positive and living into life. May we all strive to find the Joy, find the Laughter. Let us learn from the wisdom of Philo of Alexandria—a founder of religious philosophy, who said that the goal of wisdom is laughter or play. Become laughter itself! So let us bring joy into the most fundamental spaces of our lives, while developing our attitude trainings and inner practices, remembering there is no real path to joy—Joy is the Path.