Last week we discussed how cultivating mindful attention can bring more contentment to our daily lives.
Tonight let’s explore the possibility of opening up to suffering as a path towards happiness.
We know how difficult it can be to incline the mind in a positive direction when we’re confronting difficulties, and we’ve learned the futility of trying to force ourselves to be happy.
But it is possible to acknowledge our feelings honestly without resisting or contracting against what’s happening.
By maintaining balance in a challenging situation, we are creating the conditions for contentment to arise.
As we’ve seen, the first Noble Truth of the Buddha is that suffering is part of everyone’s life.
Sooner or later, we all experience the loss of loved ones, good health, youth, work, money, and possessions.
What is important is how we relate to the losses and challenges in our lives.
When we take time to care for ourselves tenderly during inevitable periods of sorrow and to let them pass through us, we can return gracefully to moments of contentment.
But if we deny and repress grief, it will express itself unconsciously in ways that block authentic happiness.
This week I received an unexpected e-mail from one of my music therapy students in Spain. Alberto wrote that his vision had been blurry, so he couldn’t do his homework. A medical exam showed that he has a cerebral tumor, and his doctor is recommending brain surgery as soon as possible. Alberto admitted how sad, shocked and scared he is feeling. In the space of a few days, he’s been perceiving all that he’s taken for granted—wife, children, community, home & teaching career—as fragile and impermanent.
I wrote Alberto to express my concern for his health and my appreciation for his many good qualities, including honesty about the complex emotions that are surging through him.
Now he knows that the circle of teachers and students in his GIM training is sending him prayers. Those of us who care about Alberto are facing our own sadness and impotence about the sudden crisis in his life. His situation awakens compassion in our hearts and reminds us of our interconnection.
People who are content aren’t happy all the time, but they have learned how to open themselves authentically and skillfully to difficult emotions and situations without feeling overwhelmed.
At the age of 87, a saxophonist named Maurice Washington had a stroke, which impaired his physical coordination. He adapted to his circumstances and said, “Without my saxophone in my mouth, I’ve learned how to sing.”
There are benefits when we open ourselves to suffering with acceptance.
Every religion has its version of the possibilities of transcending suffering.
The Buddha spoke about enlightenment, and Jesus talked about resurrection.
It’s possible to use any circumstance to deepen our understanding of the human condition.
Suffering awakens many people from their complacency and gives them motivation to seek a deeper meaning in their lives.
When we admit, “I have no power to change this circumstance,” the ego surrenders its control and the struggle against reality.
By recognizing our fears, we find courage and an inner strength that we didn’t recognize beforehand.
The Buddha taught that suffering can be a factor in the development of faith, or trust that our lives have meaning.
And faith can lead to joy.
A friend of ours just met an athlete named Van Phillips whose left leg was amputated below the knee after a waterskiing accident in 1976. When he realized the limitations of artificial limbs at that time, Van pursued a career as a biomedical design engineer and invented a c-shaped “Flex-foot” that allows him and other amputees to run rapidly for long-distances. In 1999 he established “Second Wind,” a non-profit organization to provide inexpensive and resistant prostheses to amputees around the world, and is now working to create a prosthetic leg for land mine victims in developing countries. This life of service brings Phillips satisfaction and contentment.
Peacefulness doesn’t have to do with continually tranquil experiences, but with our ability to be wholeheartedly with changing circumstances.
Then, in the spaciousness of the heart, happiness can arise naturally.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have both transformed suffering into joy. For decades they have spoken out peacefully and bravely about human rights. His Holiness had to flee from his native land and come to terms with the death of over a million Tibetans. Instead of feeling bitterness, he has a daily practice of sending compassion to Chinese soldiers whose hearts are so closed that they harm others. During his campaign to end the injustices of apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu was jailed, but not silenced. Neither man focuses on what he has suffered, but instead on their positive vision for a peaceful and harmonious world. Both were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes, and whenever the meet, they celebrate each other’s integrity. They are beacons of light and hope in our troubled world.
The Indian sage Sri Aurobindo said, “You carry in yourself all the obstacles necessary to make your realization perfect. Always you will see that within you the shadow and the light are equal. If you discover a very black hole, a thick shadow, be sure there is somewhere in you a great light. It is up to you to know how to use one to realize the other.”
Beneath our pain and confusion lies the potential for compassion and happiness.
When we face suffering, we may deepen our compassion, which indicates a wise and open heart, a true source of our own contentment.
Compassion is one of the Brahma Viharas or sublime states in Buddhist philosophy.
In March of 2003, when the Iraq war began, I was on a meditation retreat. Although the teachers had promised to protect the silence of the retreat with no news, I sensed the moment when the bombs began to fall. At that point I had been dealing with some personal grieving, gently allowing myself to feel the sensations evoked by past memories. Now it seemed inconceivable that human beings were still acting so primitively and destructively towards one another. My heart felt as if it were broken open in grief. I felt compassion for the people who were being killed, for those who were doing the killing, and for the animals and plants that were being destroyed. No longer caught up in my own process of grief, I sensed a connection with all beings in the world. I realized that the practice of staying with my own sadness in a conscious and kind way was key to the capacity to be present for the pain and suffering of others.
How can we open ourselves to moments of joy in the midst of suffering?
A while ago I gave a music therapy session to a friend who had suffered from prostate cancer for eight years and who was preparing for a second surgery. He expressed gratitude for his young grandson’s smiles and affectionate hugs. In the middle of his illness and his worries about the upcoming surgery, my friend could appreciate the blessings in his life.
Here are some excerpts from Jack Gilbert’s poem A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere.
If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine.
The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well….
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.
We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world….
We must admit there will be music despite everything….
The message is simply this: Amidst the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of life, mindfulness can help us cultivate true contentment.