In The Book of Joy, His Holiness the Dalai Lama declares, “If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it. Alternatively, if there is no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you cannot do anything about it anyway.”
An excerpt from the Anguttara Nikaya sutta (4:192) records the Buddha’s teaching about the eight worldly winds:
When one is living in the world, when one has taken on becoming a self, eight worldly things turn along with the world, and the world turns along with eight worldly things: gain and loss, fame and infamy, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Being beset by the loss of a relative, or being beset by the loss of wealth, or being beset by the loss of health, one does not grieve, one does not get worn out, one does not lament, one does not clamor, beating one’s breast, one does not fall into despair.
Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki comments that when a loved one dies, it is natural to feel deep sorrow, but we don’t need to amplify the pain of loss by taking the person’s death personally or by yearning for past happiness.
Jack Kornfield points out that in mainstream Western culture we learn that the way to achieve happiness is to change our external environment to fit our wishes. But this strategy fails to work. All human beings encounter gain and loss, fame and infamy, praise and blame, and pleasure and pain. In every life, these eight worldly winds ebb and flow, no matter how hard we struggle to hold onto only enjoyable experiences of pleasure, praise, gain, and joy. Buddhist psychology offers a different approach to happiness, noting that states of consciousness are far more crucial than outer circumstances.
The way we experience life is created by the particular states of mind with which we meet it. Jack gives an example: If you are watching a soccer game and your daughter is the goalie, your consciousness will be filled with worry, sympathy, and excitement. If you are a hired driver waiting to pick up someone else’s child, you will see the same sights, the players and ball, in a bored, disinterested way. If you are the referee, you will perceive the sights and sounds in still another mode. Pure awareness becomes colored by our thoughts, emotions, and expectations.
In between every sense impression and the consciousness that receives it, qualities of mind arise such as anxiety and excitement. Because they add color to experiences, these mental qualities affect our happiness.
To work with our mental states, we have to acknowledge how rapidly these states can change, often disappearing without our noticing. If we are not aware of our inner states, we feel controlled by outside influences. The world will alternately please or disappoint us, and we will be caught in habitual grasping or frustration.
Like most people, I need to train my reactive mind to develop steadfastness and equanimity amidst reversals of fortune. If I can observe how I am affected by inevitable changes, I can find a still point of calm amidst turmoil instead of losing myself in emotions. When I can adapt and flow with life’s changes rather than resist them, I suffer less.
The eight worldly winds have blown through my own life in unanticipated ways. When Mark and I moved to his hometown of Houston in 2011, after living in Puebla, Mexico for 15 years, I mourned leaving a place where I had felt fulfilled as a music therapist and a meditation teacher with a loving and appreciative sangha. With sadness, I assumed that my fluency in Spanish would no longer be useful. I worried about finding new friends and productive work.
Now eight years later, I feel at home right where I am. When I was searching for a new sangha, Insight Meditation Houston needed a Community Dharma Leader with my kind of experience. As our meditation group has expanded and moved to new venues, I have met kindred spirits and people who are interested in music therapy sessions. At Omega House hospice, I found a clinical internship site where I am realizing a long-deferred dream of training to be a Buddhist chaplain. My Spanish language skills come in handy with patients who are immigrants from Latin America. Through the lens of the eight worldly winds, I am experiencing cycles of pain and pleasure, loss and gain, and failure and success. My ongoing lesson is to be unattached to any of these shifting circumstances.
A capacity for self-reflection is central to Buddhist psychology. Training in mindfulness, we learn to be aware of our own mental states without being caught in them. When we look at our own mind, we can follow Jack’s suggestion to notice the mental states that predominate, as if we were noticing the weather. Just as a storm can bring rain, wind, and cold, we can observe the clusters of unwholesome states that appear on difficult days. We may encounter resentment, fear, anger, worry, doubt, envy, or agitation. We can notice how often they arise and how attached we are to their points of view. We can also notice the wholesome states in our most spontaneous and openhearted periods. By noticing how love, generosity, flexibility, ease, and simplicity are natural to us, we build trust in our original goodness, known as our innate Buddha nature.
Lama Yeshe advises, “All you have to do is examine your own mind every day. You already examine material things every day—every morning you check out the food in your refrigerator. Why not check out the state of your own mind? Investigating your own mind is much more important!”
When you bring the kind attention mindfulness to your inner states it will open up new possibilities. Seeing clearly the varied states of mind gives us choices. With practice, we can acknowledge difficult states with compassion and then incline the mind toward positive qualities like loving-kindness and peace. In the midst of even the most challenging circumstances, we can bring compassion to ourselves.
After establishing some self-compassion, we can reflect upon our common humanity. We can remember that many other people around the globe are experiencing similar struggles. We are part of a web of life, so we don’t need to hold on so tightly to old, outdated habits. With compassion, we can build an empowered, healthy, loving life.
Sometimes we limit our own freedom because we think it will overwhelm us or because we don’t think that we deserve it. We may fear that our ego will lead us astray or that we may suffer an embarrassing defeat. But we all stumble. Zen Master Dogen used to joke that life is “one continuous mistake.” In the regular rhythm of life, we falter and then learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we have inflated visions for our future, and other times we feel inadequate, afraid of making a wrong choice.
Despite the continuously shifting winds that buffet our lives, I try to follow Jack’s recommendation to listen to my heart and my body as well as my head. Then I can experiment, take a step into the unknown, learn, discover and grow. I am learning to accept my mistakes as part of the process. All I can do is to act with my best intentions, recognizing that I can’t control the outcome.
Now take a moment to reflect upon how any of the eight worldly winds are affecting your life. Close your eyes and connect with any feelings that arise in response to considering your own experiences of pleasure and pain, praise and blame, success and failure, or joy and sorrow. Be aware of any impulses to grasp, avoid, or push away the particular wind that is moving through your life.
Slowly open your eyes and turn to a partner to share what you learned.