Searching for easy simplicity, freedom from problems and constant stability in our lives is as futile as buying and keeping goldfish on the basis that they won’t die. Dying randomly and inexplicably is what goldfish do best.
Life is a series of problems to which there are no easy answers. If we want everything resolved and stable, we’ll increasingly become victims of change as the world changes rapidly around us.
Despite repeated awakenings from the fantasy that life should be otherwise, it’s surprising how often we discover as though for the first time, that in reality it involves suffering.
Life is difficult, author Scott Peck observes as he begins The Road Less Traveled. He adds, Once we truly know, understand and accept this truth, then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. In short, get over your fantasies of ease; develop mental robustness and emotional buoyancy to make the best of your life despite its challenges.
If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day. [Leonard Cohen]
As many wise people have pointed out, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of our unhelpful habits of mind and the discomfort of being ruled by them.
We set ourselves up for distress when we ignore or dispute these self-evident truths. In various ways we tell ourselves that life should be easier, that when it’s difficult or complex, something is abnormal rather than ordinary.
Most [people] do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief . . . that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them . . . . I know about this moaning because I have done my share. [M Scott Peck]
Me, likewise. Although I find it easy to accept these perspectives (life is difficult; get over it) at an intellectual level, I’m tested periodically and sometimes find they’re still not sufficiently embedded in my primary beliefs. I’ve been seriously tested with the deaths of a son and grandson, a major physical health issue and with lesser everyday challenges. For example, when I joined a choir I had no illusion we’d always sing in perfect harmony, but when I found some members’ behaviours irritating I became obsessively annoyed. I was holding an unrealistic expectation of perfectly harmonious relationships within a group of perfectly ordinary people. Another re-awakening.
If deep down, we believe Life should be something other than the challenge it often is; or I can be happy only if most of it goes right most of the time – or if my body doesn’t do what it inevitably will do as I age; or It’s someone else’s responsibility to shield me from the pain of living, we value something unattainable and set ourselves up for frequent disappointment. We’ll have an unnecessarily bumpy ride and may look for something or someone to blame. But blaming ourselves for our negative habits or blaming others for the consequences of them both lead to victim-hood and greater unhappiness.
I’d rather be fishing . . .
The usual basic error is the belief that there is something outside of ourselves on which our mood depends, some other place where happiness exists, or someone else who will or should make us happy; that once we’ve got through all our duties and responsibilities we can enjoy life but in the meantime . . . heavy-hearted wish-we-were-somewhere-else-ness. We create this conflict by ourselves and entirely within ourselves, mostly without noticing the process. We wish we were not who we are.
I once saw an illustration of this in a small town’s main street. A couple had just parked their car displaying a BHAPPI registration plate set within a I’D RATHER BE FISHING frame. Shoulders up around his ears, hands deep in pockets, he was spluttering resentment towards her, sighing heavily and rolling his eyes. An argument was brewing or continuing. The personal fantasy that I imagined was engaging him in misery went something like, I’m trapped, here. If only I could be fishing, I’d be happy.
We repeat the error in various ways. For example, by basing our level of contentment on how fairly people treat us; on how equitably they negotiate around their differences with us; on how satisfying and durable our chosen careers turn out to be; on progress we make through our To Do lists; on how happy are our family members; on how well our bodies (or those of family members) withstand general wear and aging; or on whether others like and approve of us. We may even put ourselves in situations and circumstances for which we continually resent and blame others. For example, we might –
- Take employment with an organisation arranged hierarchically and feel upset about its failure to operate as a consultative, consensual collective providing unlimited or even reasonable personal freedom of choice.
- Establish a business that deals in boom and bust commodities on the basis that the inevitable bust phase of the cycle won’t recur.
- Feel bad about not getting through everything within the time-frame set for a meeting, as if calculating the time and effort required to discuss, problem-solve, reach agreement and make plans is a precise science rather than an art involving guesswork and chance.
- Choose a livelihood involving frequent involvement with inevitable events (e.g., traffic jams) or with people of predictable characteristics (e.g., stressed-out clients, hormonally-charged adolescents, or professionals famous for their huge egos), then complain about the unfairness of those phenomena rather than accept them as aspects of our own choosing.
- Establish a relationship with the expectation that either the other will change or that the other will not change (or that they’ll behave better around differences and challenges than our and their parents did), and hold grudges when they decide to be themselves anyway.
We gain insight into the real source of our suffering when we truly understand how much we personally contribute to it. When we pay attention to these personal choices, examine and understand them, we naturally move toward a kinder, more emotionally intelligent and useful engagement with our lives as they are. We can allow adversity to build character, rather than simply reveal it. We can learn to become more emotionally agile and resilient under pressure and challenges, and better able to remain composed amidst turbulent, unstable or chaotic situations.
If we examine how we constantly personalize everything, we’ll see that the real source of our misery is our failure to manage, educate, and transform our mental states.[Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche]
Our attitudes towards adversity are the harvest of the mental habits we cultivate. There are good reasons to believe that increasing numbers of people everywhere, need support to improve their coping strategies to navigate through and recover from suffering, crises, setbacks and other difficulties of ordinary life as the next phases of externally-imposed societal change take hold. The urgent questions become, What practices can we introduce to our everyday lives for greater personal resilience when we need it most? How can we learn to better manage, educate and transform our unhelpful mental states?
My new book, EVEN UNDER PRESSURE, provides some practical answers and guidance: