When someone speaks negatively about you, you usually feel that you need to retaliate. Every time you react, you create certain neural-pathways in your brain. The more you react, the more you strengthen those same pathways, while weakening others.
Overtime you build the habit of always reacting in a particular way whenever someone is negative toward you. These habitual reactions then lead you into more anger, fear, and hatred. Your need to punish whoever is causing you suffering, so you can find some sense of relief, only makes you suffer more.
Although habits are challenging to break, your mind is capable of changing. You can water the seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love in your inner garden. You don’t have to water the seeds of anger, fear, hatred, delusion, and craving. When you are aware of what you are doing, of how you’re thinking and feeling and perceiving, you won’t react as blindly to the events of your life.
When someone is unpleasant, you want to react. You want to cause them the same amount of suffering that they caused in you. Only then, you believe, will you be satisfied, but you never are for long. While it is common to react when you feel angry, misunderstood, unloved, and so on, there is another option.
You can pause instead.
When you pause, you can use those few seconds to make peace with yourself. You can be mindful of your anger, fear, sadness, and uncertainty. You can be aware of what may happen if you do react.
All you need to do is return to your breath.
Counting deeply, notice what is happening: your heart beating, your head aching, your shoulders tensing. When you stop to breathe in and out, in and out, you can transform your destructive energy into compassionate energy.
Every irritation will be a chance for you to come back to yourself.
When you are angry with someone, you are usually more focused on them than on your own feelings. Your house is on fire, but rather than putting out the flames, you want to burn everything down.
If you can find the inner-space to tend to your own anger first, you will begin to feel relief. When you embrace your feelings, when you do not add fuel to the raging fire, you will gain insight into who you are. Then you can make more skillful choices.
You can acknowledge to yourself, “Breathing in, I feel anger. Breathing out, I feel anger.”
You kill your anger when you smile to it.
When you show compassion to yourself, you can turn what is destructive into what is healing. You don’t need to hide from anger or pretend that it doesn’t exist or judge yourself so harshly. Your tender care of your anger will make you a more peaceful person.
Sometimes when your emotions are loud, you cannot hear what other people are saying to you. When you can sit quietly with yourself — neither judging, expecting, nor condemning — then you can hear the world again. You and the world are one.
As you look at your thoughts, you can let go of your thoughts. As you look at your feelings, you can let go of your feelings. You can see what arises and passes.
When you are in a conversation, you don’t need to interrupt, justify yourself, or blame. You can just hear what someone is saying. Even if they are hateful, greedy, or full of wrong perceptions, you can listen to them deeply.
You can help them, even if only through your presence, your loving words, or your small actions. When you see their humanity in yourself, you want them to be free from their suffering.
Through a regular practice of mindful breathing, you can make peace with yourself.
When you are kind to your suffering, you can relieve the suffering of others.
Often when people listen to each other, they don’t really listen to each other. They only hear their own interpretations, opinions, and beliefs.
When you are not calm, when your mind is muddied by thoughts and feelings, then you are not aware. You react to events blindly then, lost in your stories. When you are present, you sink into stillness, connected to your mind-body. Muddy water clears when you are still.
If you feel upset, you don’t have to speak or act out. Return to your body instead. Breathe in and out. Listen to the other person’s perspective without internally commenting on whether they are right or wrong, good or bad. Speak truthfully, but compassionately, trying to understand what they mean.
Will your speech cause more suffering or will it bring harmony to your relationships?
When you make a mistake, apologize. You don’t have to conjure up excuses to justify yourself. Apologies can relieve a lot of suffering in the other person. At the same time, don’t abuse yourself either.
Practice forgiveness so you can let go of your burdens and begin again.
When you suffer, your suffering will affect others.
When you are peaceful, your peace will radiate out from within.
There is already a lot of violence in civilization. You have to be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, so that you do not contribute to more hatred, fear, anger, greed, and ignorance. Violence only creates more violence. To prevent the next war, you must practice peace now.
We are already at home in this moment. Yet we spend so much of our lives denying what is here. We get lost in all our storylines, believing that we are permanent, that we are separate from other beings in the world.
We chase after ideas of happiness while fearing to lose what we have. We buy a fancy convertible, work in an office with a window, marry our high-school sweetheart, drink alcohol on Friday nights, climb up a mountain, write a book, study for a bachelor’s degree, make money on the stock market, and on and on. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy our growing desire. In the end, no matter how much we resist, we are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. We cannot capture life. It slips through our fingers, drifting away.
Rather than facing ourselves directly, we repress what causes us to suffer. We act out. We project our personal issues onto others. It is so hard for us to sit with our confusion, fear, and loss. It is so hard for us to soften our hearts to our grief.
“When we find ourselves in a situation in which our buttons are being pushed, we can choose to repress or act out, or we can choose to practice. If we can start to do the exchange, breathing in with the intention of keeping our hearts open to the embarrassment or fear or anger that we feel, then to our surprise we find that we’re also open to what the other person is feeling. Open heart is open heart. Once it’s open, your eyes and your mind are also open, and you can see what’s happening in the faces and hearts of other people. If you’re walking down the street and way off in the distance — so far away that you can’t possibly do anything about it — you see a man beating his dog, and you feel helpless, you can start to do the exchange. You start out doing it for the dog, then you find you’re doing it for the man. Then you’re also doing it for your own heartbreak and for all the animals and people who are abusing and abused, and for all the people like you who are watching and don’t know what to do. Simply by doing this exchange you have made the world a larger, more loving place.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can react to suffering by hardening or softening our hearts. When we are genuine with ourselves, we can look deeply at our sorrow, our fear, our irritation, and transform that energy into compassion. Every moment, we are being tested.
“If we are wholehearted about wanting to be there for other people without shutting anybody or anything out of our hearts, our pretty little self-image of how kind or compassionate we are gets completely blown. We’re always being tested and we’re always meeting our match. The more you’re willing to open your heart, the more challenges come along that make you want to shut it.” (Chödrön, Pema)
There is no true distinction between what is within us and what is outside of us. When we cause other beings to suffer, we are suffering. When we love others, we love ourselves. When we are aware of life, we can use all of life as a humble lesson for our growth.
Our mistakes are opportunities for us to be more vulnerable and honest and kind. An irritating person is our teacher, a mosquito is our teacher, a crying baby is our teacher. We cannot be in this world without encountering the suffering of others. Rather than reacting, we can mindfully tend to where we are and who we are. We are gardeners who are planting seeds of compassion and love and peace. We can turn our compost into a bloom of flowers.
“We make a lot of mistakes. If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.” (Chödrön, Pema)
When we understand our own suffering, we can understand another’s suffering as well. We practice not only for ourselves, but for all the beings who have felt pain, sadness, hatred, envy, and anger, because we have been them. We are them.
When we blame and repress and protect our hearts, we alienate ourselves from the world. We stick to limited notions of who we are, categorizing existence into conceptual frameworks. We water the seeds of suffering in ourselves, which harm everyone around us. Rather than moving toward what is true, we resist what is unpleasant. We cling to our expectations and suffer through our ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
“It seems that we do attack our own image continually and usually that image appears to be ‘out there.’ We want to blame men or we want to blame women or we want to blame white people or black people, or we want to blame politicians or the police; we want to blame somebody. There’s some tendency to always put it out there, even if ‘out there’ is our own body. Instead of working with, there is the tendency to struggle against. As a result, we become alienated. Then we take the wrong medicine for our illness by armoring ourselves in all these different ways, somehow not getting back to the soft spot.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We are not separate from nature. We are not separate from other beings. Rather than pushing others away, we can share who we are, even from our presence alone. We often want to escape from being aware of who we are, of where we are, distracting ourselves with TV and drugs and jobs and sex. We miss the sacredness of our ordinary experience when we look outside ourselves for happiness, truth, permanence, and security.
“Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment — there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!” (Chödrön, Pema)
We begin to heal when we stop hiding from ourselves. When we are right here, right now, we are no longer resisting our confusion, our fear, our pain. Our tendency is to cling to certainty while hiding from uncertainty. We waste so many years of our lives running after achievements and rewards and goals, never feeling entirely satisfied.
“This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky — that’s called enlightenment, liberation.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We do not have to eliminate our thoughts and feelings and perceptions. We can accept them as they are and then let them go. Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”
We can kindly be with our vulnerabilities. As we learn more, we open up more. Life is a dance, an ever-changing movement. We are “willing to give, willing to open, willing not to hold back. It is described as letting go of holding on to yourself, letting your stronghold of ego go. Instead of collecting things for yourself, you open and give them away.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can be gentle with ourselves. We can be curious about the moment we’re in. Our maturity comes from being with what is unfolding, while releasing it. Giving without holding on. We don’t have to judge ourselves as winners or losers, right or wrong, good or bad. Our practice is to be ourselves completely.
“The truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.” (Chödrön, Pema)
With every breath, we can return to life as it unfolds. We can be aware of our emotions and thoughts and bodies and minds. We can gently smile to where we are. When we wake up, when we sip our tea, when we drive to work, when we shower, when we eat, we can be fully here. We offer our presence to each moment. Time is a precious gift that we shouldn’t waste with regrets about the past and anxieties for the future. Sometimes we’re so used to our habits of compulsive thinking that we are unaware of anything else. But if we practice our mindfulness daily, we can free ourselves. Rather than watching TV while scarfing down our breakfast, we can savor every bite and smell. Rather than worrying about our lost romances while washing the dishes, we can feel the warm soapy water against our skin. When we walk mindfully, we can feel the soft soil under our every step. We can breathe into the stillness our minds. We can feel alive where we are and don’t need to rush off to anywhere else. Mindful breathing harmonizes us. We are brought back to the home inside ourselves. As we breathe in and out, we are as spacious as an open sky, as solid as a mountain, and as fluid as an ocean. We can breathe with loving-awareness. There is no need to blame and praise. Our breath is our foundation for dealing with all areas of living. When we are mindful of our breath, we can develop our concentration. When we develop our concentration, we gain insight. We may feel a lot of anger, fear, confusion, and other negative emotions during our practice. Sometimes these emotions rise within us like storms. They may only be temporary, but they feel so intense and permanent. Rather than ruminating too heavily on what we are feeling, we can pay attention to the energy behind our feelings. We can notice when our face flushes, when our shoulders tighten, when our heart beats rapidly. We must offer the gift of compassion to our suffering. We can look deeply into ourselves and care for our feelings and thoughts and sensations. From looking deeply at ourselves, we can let go of our suffering, watching as it comes and goes, comes and goes. Then we can care for other living beings with the same loving-kindness that we have shown to ourselves. We can see ourselves at different stages of our lives: when we are born, when we are babies, when we are young, when we are adults, when we are elderly, when we are dying, when we are dead. We can view other people in the same way, not perceiving them only as they appear in the moment, but looking at who they were and are and will be. All humans were once vulnerable and innocent. Everyone needed to be cared for and loved. Not everyone was. Just as we are the continuation of our ancestors, those around us are the continuation of their ancestors too. Sometimes they carry their family’s violence from childhood all the way into adulthood. Sometimes they’re devastated by their traumas. Sometimes despair passes through many generations. We must meet people with the intention to lessen their suffering, to help, to embody peace and justice. When we engage others only for what we can get out of them, whether in the form of power, status, or money, we cause those around us to suffer. We become unhappy as well. It is easy to conform to what is around us. If what we consume daily, such as in the form of meals, newspapers, television, radio stations, websites, and so on, comes from negativity, then we’ll be greatly influenced by that negativity. We should mindfully pursue what is nourishing and wholesome. To avoid consuming negative sources is hard, especially when we’re forced to live in environments where there is a lot of despair, hatred, ignorance, and greed. Nevertheless, we can always water the seeds of generosity, compassion, and kindness in ourselves and in other living creatures. We can care for people, animals, plants, trees, oceans. We can love who we are so we can love the world. The two are not separate. Our lives are here or never. Often we look for our happiness in ideas of the future, and dwell on memories, not wanting to look deeply at our suffering. Even when we do get what we want, we aren’t satisfied for long, and we fear losing what we have. Our expectations are never our realities. When we chase after our desires, we only want more, noticing what we lack more than what we have. All that we have is temporary. We are subject to illness, old age, and death. Everyone we care about will deal with these same issues of existence. While we are capable of being happy, we often ignore where we are, who we are, and what is around us. There is nothing for us to gain. We are able to be peace now, happiness now, joy now. We already are where we we want to go. We already are who we want to become.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh” is a collection of his teachings for 365 days. Each of his passages, while short and simple, are meant to be studied with care. For those who practice mindfulness and compassion, “Your True Home” is a book of transformation.
Often when we see people, we don’t really see them. When we hear people, we don’t really hear them. We only know of others through our prejudices, preconceptions, and projections. Our ideas limit us to the ideas themselves, but not to other possibilities. When we are filled with beliefs, opinions and views, we are no longer here.
We must be as still as a lake before a white mountain. When we are upset, we can watch our upset. When we are sad, we can watch our sadness. Instead of reacting, we can notice our breathing, our minds, our bodies, our environments. Then we can be as still as a lake and as solid as a mountain.
We can be mindful of our minds.
We can watch our thoughts and feelings. Coming and going, coming and going.
They pass through us like clouds.
We can look at our perceptions without getting caught up in them. Our minds can open to what is here. Instead of assuming that we know all the answers, we can question ourselves. “Is my perception really true? Do my ideas encompass the entire universe or are they only a fraction of what is happening?” Instead of judging others, we can look within ourselves compassionately. There is no resistance or holding on, only letting go.
When we look into the conditions that make us who we are, we find that we are not separate. We are interwoven in the changing cosmos. We cannot exist on earth without our ancestors. Our descendants cannot exist without us either. We are dependent on the air, the water, the sun. We are dependent on the plants, the trees, the soil beneath our feet. Without the clouds, there would be no rain. Without the rain, there would be no plants. Without the plants, we cannot be here.
There is no birth, no death. Only a continuation of ourselves in another form.
Life is full of suffering, but it is also full of wonder. In our distracted society, we often forget about the simple joys of being on this planet. We can step on the grass and brush past the silky petals of blue flowers. We can sigh with the breeze. We can look up at the trees as they sway together in silence.
We can drive, eat, wash the dishes, and go to the bathroom mindfully. Everything can be a spiritual practice when we are aware enough to notice. From mindfulness, we develop concentration. From concentration, we gain insight. There is no wasted moment.
When we look up at the mountain, we see ourselves. When we look at ourselves, we see the mountain. There is no mountain without our perception, but no perception without the mountain. Both depend on the other to inter-be.
When we trap ourselves in categorizations, we forget our humanity. Then we can only see a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a male, a female, a Republican, a Democrat, a boss, an employee, a father, a daughter, and so on, without looking any deeper. These may be important parts of our identities, but they are not all of who we are. When we can peel away these labels, we can recognize each other as human beings.
We must be careful about what we consume. This doesn’t only apply to what we eat and drink, but to the music we listen to, the television we watch, the newspapers we read, who we spend our time with, and what thoughts we focus on. There are negative influences all around us. We don’t need to consume despair, hatred, fear, and violence. We don’t need to seek out the things that harm us. We can look for what heals us, what nourishes us, what helps us to awaken.
We can help to relieve other people’s suffering as well. If someone has a wrong perception, we don’t need to punish them. We can listen to them deeply, show them compassion, care for them, practice loving speech with them. These simple actions can help us to form harmonious communities and remove discrimination.
Our ideas about our happiness are often obstacles to our happiness. We believe that we’ll be happy in the future when the conditions are sufficient enough, such as when we get a new promotion, when we buy an expensive car, when we get married to the perfect spouse, when we buy liquor on a Friday night, when we hold a diploma in our hands. Our desire for happiness removes us from the present moment. We fear losing what we have and want what we do not have, but do not realize that we are alive now.
Even if we do gain what we desire, it never lasts, and our reality is never the same as our expectations. To be truly happy, we have to let go of our ideas of happiness. We have nothing to attain but ourselves.
We can treat our in-breath and our out-breath with tenderness. In meditation, we are not straining to show how much we can endure from our sitting. We are caring for ourselves as if we are holding a baby in our arms. We cradle our anger and happiness and fear and disappointment. We are lovingly aware of our joys and sorrows.
We don’t need to meditate in a cave or on a mountain top. There is nothing to attain. We already are who we want to be in the future, but do not realize it. There is nothing lacking in us. When we can be at peace in the present moment, feeling the warmth of sun on our skin, tasting the juice of an apple, listening to the birds in the leaves, we have already arrived. Nirvana is nothing more than the sound of rain.
“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”
Hope is an expectation of a positive outcome. To be hopeful is to be confident, to be optimistic. It is to desire a favorable event and believe in its likelihood. It is to see the possibilities for future change.
Charles R. Snyder, an American psychologist who specialized in the study of Positive Psychology, developed Hope Theory. For Snyder, three interrelated elements comprise the idea of hope: goals, pathways, and agency.
Hopeful people use different pathways to reach their goals. They are realistic about the challenges they face, motivated to overcome them. After training in Hope Theory, individuals develop practical plans, set deadlines, and visualize how they can succeed.
Hope can be beneficial when it motivates people to be in the right mindset to achieve their goals. Even when negative situations happen, a hopeful person can examine what they can do and can’t do, before acting on what is possible.
Hope can be dangerous, however, when beliefs about positive outcomes are too unrealistic. People may imagine a perfect future, but if their thinking is deluded or fallacious, they will suffer when confronted with real barriers.
Pragmatic optimism, however, can often be valuable. Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic philosopher and author, once said in Eye in the Triangle: “Optimistic people outlive pessimistic people consistently if you compare them by sex, by eating habits, by diet, by lifestyle, by race, by all sorts of things. The optimists live longer. Also, optimists have more fun. And besides, maybe things are going to turn out okay, in which case, the pessimists are killing themselves and being miserable for no good reason at all. And the final reason is that if everything is going to turn out terribly, the optimists are having more fun before the final tragedy comes.”
Wilson wrote that optimists look for possibilities, while pessimists are blind to them. Pessimists have concluded that there are no more solutions, even when other options are present. For Robert Anton Wilson, intelligence is the ability to “receive, decode and transmit information efficiently.” To be stupid is to block information from coming in. Those who ignore, or resist, or deny the possibilities of life cannot function efficiently. They are stuck in robotic reality-tunnels.
Buddhists look at hope in another sense. People often strive to do more, to be more. They want to achieve, achieve, achieve. They believe that they will finally be happy only after they drive around in a fancy convertible, get promoted to office manager, marry, raise children, read the canon of Western literature, win a game, or whatever else they can think up. Once they get what they desire, they desire more, while fearing that they will lose what they have. As they possess more, they still feel unfulfilled. They’re often disappointed when what they strived for didn’t bring them lasting satisfaction.
Ordinary hope is unskillful. People crave what they do not have. They cling to abstractions of happiness, unable to let go. They expect to be a certain way, to produce a certain result, to maintain a certain persona, but are secretly afraid of uncertainty and impermanence.
For people to be honest with themselves, they must first be mindful of what they can and can’t change. For Oren Jay Sofer, author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, “The wisdom of equanimity understands that we choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. Both are beyond our control. What we can choose is how we relate, and how we respond.”
To accept what is happening in the present moment is to be alive. There is no denial, no resistance. Through awareness, people can transform themselves. They can look at the possibilities of their choices and how those choices will impact the world.
Those who practice the Dhamma are hopeful. They are confident that they are walking the path toward liberation. Rather than attaching themselves to dualistic ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure, they accept the fleeting nature of the world. They’re mindful of each moment, guided by wisdom and compassion.
In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
Those who endure hardships often find value in hope. Even when they are subject to abuse, injustice and death, they remember the small kindnesses of life. They desire a better future for themselves and those they care about. A path may not exist for them yet, but they believe that there is more, much more, than what is known.
Albert Camus, existentialist philosopher and author, wrote a book called The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. In it, he said that people look for purpose in an indifferent and chaotic universe. They’re often confronted with the absurdity of their own existence, desperate for an objective meaning that doesn’t exist.
They can choose to commit suicide, but then, the point of their lives would only seem more absurd. They can refuse to examine and question and think for themselves, conforming to different belief-systems, which promise them answers. Through this second choice, they are surrendering their inner freedom for the dictates of others.
Camus proposed a third option after not being able to accept the former two. People are free to subjectively create their own meanings and values and purposes. While they have the tremendous freedom to choose, they are ultimately responsible for their choices.
Camus rejected the idea that people should have hope for an afterlife, but considered each person’s meanings (or lack thereof) to be made by them in each moment. When people prepare for another life after their death, but do not embrace their fleeting time on earth, they minimize the value of their existence.
Hope should be highly personal for each individual. People cannot ignore the fact that they will change, that they will die, that they will pursue meaning in a universe, which is not objectively meaningful.
They must be aware of these underlying tensions. They must decide how they will live, who they will be, before they perish.
There is a close connection between hope and despair. When people avoid looking honestly at their suffering and seek only pleasure, they do not find happiness. Even those who have a lot of money and power are not immune. They can only transform themselves once they are aware of their suffering.
When people understand themselves as they are, they can cultivate compassion. Like a gardener, they can plant seeds of kindness, seeds of happiness, seeds of peace, in every moment. When they are compassionate toward themselves, they can be compassionate toward others.
Roshi Joan Halifax, hospice caregiver and Zen teacher and activist, wrote an essay called Yes We Can Have Hope. In it, she suggested that people can be wisely hopeful rather than unskillfully hopeful. Whereas ordinary hope is based on a person’s desires and expectations, wise hope develops from an acceptance of life.
Through this perspective, people can embrace the impermanence of their joys and sorrows. To be hopeful is not to deny reality, but to be fully alive, helping others to awaken out of their suffering.
Halifax said, “Wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them, addressing them, and remembering what else is present, like the shifts in our values that recognize and move us to address suffering right now.”
In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote his own advice about acceptance and choice. He had told Lucilius, the then procurator of Italy, that people should adapt themselves to the present rather than projecting their wishes too far into the future. To live for the future is to be anxious in expectation. “Fear keeps pace with hope” because people not only want to fulfill their desires, but fear not getting what they desire, and losing what they have.
Seneca cautioned against having too many desires. When a person limits their desires, however, they can still be hopeful. They are grateful for what they have been given, and appreciate who they are, while not craving what is unnecessary. Many people wish for more than they have, worried that their expectations won’t be fulfilled. They “suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
Potential dangers may not have happened, but they fear that they will happen. They anticipate terrible futures so much that their anticipations become habits. Their minds exaggerate their sorrows. Every moment that they worry is a moment of lost time.
Seneca wrote in his thirteenth letter, On Groundless Fears, “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”
Seneca advised that people should not worry about what hasn’t happened or will not likely happen. Misfortunes don’t always last or remain misfortunes. Sometimes the unexpected happens too. Rather than despairing, individuals can meditate on what choices are available and then act wisely. When people indulge their hearts on fears of the future, they prevent themselves from living.
The only way to live is in the present. Tomorrow has no meaning except in the eternal now. Pasts and futures are abstractions, but people are conditioned to live for conceptualizations of time, until they can’t relate anymore to the time they’re in.
In the Money and Materialism section of Just So, Alan Watts lectured, “So only people who live in proper relationship with the material present have any use for making any plans at all, because then if the plans work out, they’re actually capable of enjoying them. But if you aren’t fully here and your mind is always off somewhere else, you’ll remain starved and always rushing to get someplace else. And there’s nowhere to go except here.”
“Our schools don’t prepare us to relate to the material present. Instead, we’re educated to become bureaucrats, accountants, lawyers, and doctors, who are all good at making money, which is said to be incredibly important. And the children who aren’t considered fit for the college education that these careers require are encouraged to take reluctantly offered courses in trades and manual skills. You hear these jokes about being able to receive your bachelor’s degree in basket weaving from any American university, but that would actually be an improvement on our current state of affairs. The larger point is that we are encouraged to become obsessed with the life of abstractions, with problems of status, and with problems of the world as symbolized rather than the world to be symbolized. This explains our hang-ups when it comes to money. When it comes down to it, most of us are incapable of relating directly to physical existence at all.”
It is easy to mistake the finger for the moon. The finger may point the way, but it doesn’t cast an illumination. In order for life to reveal itself, people must let go of what they think they know. They can only tend to the future when they tend to each moment. While they may forget, their practice is to return to life, again and again.
“Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. Vintage, 2012.
“In [meditation] leave your front door and back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
— Shunryu Suzuki
When we first begin our meditation practice, we often want to meditate to attain a goal. That goal may be happiness, inner-peace, well-being, security, health, or whatever else our minds can conjure up. Then we may practice for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months, consistently and inconsistently, until our practice drops off.
Many people expect to gain immediate results, chasing ideas of enlightenment or permanent happiness. They may even have experienced a sense of peace in the past, now clinging to the idea of peace in every session. When they don’t get what they want, or get what they don’t want, they don’t practice as much as before. Some people quit entirely.
Overtime, meditating only for our own happiness feels a little self-centered. As our practice deepens, however, we soon begin to realize that our happiness will not last. Our security will not last either. Our grasping after ideas will only make us suffer more. Only when we can let go of these ideas can we be open to our joy and sorrow.
Our peace cannot be peace if it is only for ourselves.
There is no genuine happiness in our lives unless we work for the happiness of others.
What underlies all Buddhist teachings is the wish for all beings to be free of suffering.
This is because we aren’t separate from our environment. From other living creatures.
It is one thing to know this intellectually, but quite another thing to experience it directly.
Through our meditation practice, we can learn to see what is. Over and over again.
Even if we forget ourselves — lost in our daydreams and distractions — we can return to where we are.
Whenever we experience a thought, a feeling, or sensation, we can let it come and go. There is no need to follow it. We don’t have to get caught up in our stories, our dramas, our complex thought-patterns.
We can treat our inner-processes like guests. They can come inside, walk round in our house, and then leave. While we’re not inviting them to stay forever, we don’t need to kick them out the backdoor, or lock them in the basement.
It is important to allow space into our practice. Our space can embrace our anger, sadness, anxiety, and fear — without letting these states take over. We can lovingly be aware of when we are feeling tight in our chest, cramping, on the verge of crying, breathing shallowly, and so on. There is no shame in how we think and feel and sense. We don’t have to shut ourselves down, repressing who we are, and we don’t have to identify with every emotion that arises.
As Tsoknyi Rinpoche wrote in How Mindfulness Works, “We also gradually cut through the habit of identifying with each emotional wave that passes through our awareness. We can be angry, jealous, or scared without having to act on those emotions or let them take over our lives. We can experience joy or love without becoming attached to the object that we think is the cause of our joy. All too often, the emotions we experience, along with the thoughts and behaviors that accompany them, become part of our internal and social story lines. Anger, anxiety, jealousy, fear, and other emotions become part of who we believe we are, creating what I would call a ‘greasy’ residue, like the oily stuff left on a plate after eating greasy food. If that residue is left on the plate, eventually everything served on that plate starts to taste alike; bits of food start to accumulate too, stuck to layers and layers of greasy residue. All in all, a very unhealthy situation!”
Through our meditation, we can see ourselves as we are: human. When we create space in our lives, in that space, there is freedom. Our aliveness comes from being intimately connected to each moment, not judging, not condemning, but being open to the mystery. What comes is not expected to stay forever. That includes our heartbreaks, our friends, our professions, our physical capabilities, our memories.
We don’t own our life as if we owned a bank account.
We are life itself.
An energetic process, transforming. We are passing through “whatever this is” as visitors.
We cannot take our time with us.
We cannot stop ourselves from growing old, sick, and dying.
Every moment is so precious. Only we forget.
Meditation helps us to realize that we are interconnected with everything in this universe. In all our infinite relationships, there is no true division. We create division in our discriminating minds, in our judgements and opinions, in our intellectualization.
Our daily practice lets us be more aware. We start to feel a sense of responsibility, because we see another person’s joy and sorrow within ourselves. As we suffer, they suffer. As we wish for peace, they wish for peace. When we harm the world, we harm ourselves, when we harm ourselves, we harm the world. Meditation is a way for us to return to who we are, and where we are, in the miracle of each moment.
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”
“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves. “It made a difference to that one.”
We have traded our intimacy for social media, our romantic bonds for dating matches on apps, our societal truth for the propaganda of corporate interests, our spiritual questioning for dogmatism, our intellectual curiosity for standardized tests and grading, our inner voices for the opinions of celebrities and hustler gurus and politicians, our mindfulness for algorithmic distractions and outrage, our inborn need to belong to communities for ideological bubbles, our trust in scientific evidence for the attractive lies of false leaders, our solitude for public exhibitionism.
We have ignored the hunter-gatherer wisdom of our past, obedient now to the myth of progress.
But we must remember who we are and where we came from.
We are animals born into mystery, looking up at the stars. Uncertain in ourselves, not knowing where we are heading. We exist with the same bodies, the same brains, as Homo sapiens from thousands of years past, roaming on the plains, hunting in forests and by the sea, foraging together in small bands.
Except now, our technology is exponentially increasing at a scale that we cannot predict.
We are overwhelmed with information; lost in a matrix that we do not understand.
Our civilizational “progress” is built on the bones of the indigenous and the poor and the powerless.
Our “progress” comes at the expense of our land, and oceans, and air.
We are reaching beyond what we can globally sustain. Former empires have perished from their unrestrained greed for more resources. They were limited in past ages by geography and capacity, collapsing in regions, and not over the entire planet.
We have grown arrogant in our comfort, hardened away from our compassion, believing that our reality is the only reality.
Yet even at our most uncertain, there are still those saints who are unknown and nameless, who help even when they do not need to help.
They often are not rich, don’t have their profiles written up in magazines, and will never win any prestigious awards.
They may have shared their last bit of food while already surviving on so little. They may have cherished the disheartened, shown warmth to the neglected, tended to the diseased and dying, spoken kindly to the hopeless.
They do not tremble in silence while the wheels of prejudice crush over their land.
Withering what was once fertile into pale death and smoke.
They tend to what they love, to what they serve.
They help, even when they could fall back into ignorance, even when they could prosper through easy greed, even when they could compromise their values, conforming into groupthink for the illusion of security.
“Mindfulness requires letting go of judgement, returning to an awareness of the breath and the body, and bringing your full attention to what is in you and around you. This helps you notice whether the thought you just produced is healthy or unhealthy, compassionate or unkind.”
When we breathe mindfully, we communicate. We know we’re breathing in, breathing out. In this awareness, we are in tune with our body-mind, with feelings and thoughts, with the environment.
“Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”
When we’re mindful, we’re free. When we’re consumed with anger, anxiety, and fear, we’re trapped. Instead of holding on to our storylines, and avoiding the present, we can release our suffering and return home, again and again.
A lot of our thinking comes from dwelling on the past, controlling the future, imagining scenarios that have never happened. We worry so much. We worry about ourselves, about what other people think of us, about meaning, about money, about everything that we can. We get caught in our ideas, talking, talking, talking, thinking, thinking, thinking. Distracting ourselves with constant amusements and dramas.
Instead of realizing that our perceptions are only perceptions, we mistake them for reality.
When we mindfully breathe, we can return to where we are.
“It’s enjoyable to breathe in, to breathe out; it’s enjoyable to sit, to walk, to eat breakfast, to take a shower, to clean the bathroom, to work in the vegetable garden. When we stop talking and thinking and listen mindfully to ourselves, one thing we will notice is our greater capacity and opportunities for joy.”
Mindfulness lets us open up to our fear, our pain, our sorrow, our love. We don’t run away from life. We become aware of life, nurturing the present, letting go of what causes us to suffer.
We are no longer afraid to be with ourselves.
“We can just continue to follow our in-breath and our out-breath. We don’t tell our fear to go away; we recognize it. We don’t tell our anger to go away; we acknowledge it. These feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves. Pick them up and hold them tenderly. Acknowledging our feelings without judging them or pushing them away, embracing them with mindfulness, is an act of homecoming.”
When we know our own suffering, then we can learn to see the suffering of the world. Exploitation, discrimination, racism, poverty, homelessness, war, and so on, cause a lot of suffering to us and those around us. We cannot help others until we look at our own sorrow and fear, pain and anxiety, depression and anger.
We need to listen deeply to ourselves. Only then can we release our burdens. Only then can we stop the destructive patterns that we’ve inherited from our ancestors, from our parents, from our past.
“If a lotus is to grow, it needs to be rooted in the mud. Compassion is born from understanding suffering. We all should learn to embrace our own suffering, to listen to it deeply, and to have a deep look into its nature. In doing so, we allow the energy of love and compassion to be born.”
To be effective at communication, we need to know ourselves. Then we can practice mindfulness, deep listening, and loving speech. Other people may complain, insult us, manipulate, whine, and judge. When we listen deeply with compassion, we can look at people as they are, and not be stirred up emotionally. We can love them without judging them, care about them without giving in to anger and resentment.
As we listen, our purpose is to help others to suffer less. We want ourselves to suffer less too. Instead of judging and blaming, we can be mindfully aware.
When we are not mindful, we will not see our own suffering. Then we will make everyone around us suffer as well. We may believe that we know the people around us, such as our family members and friends and colleagues, but maybe we have never truly listened to them. Maybe we’ve never truly listened to ourselves.
We must be skillful with how we communicate. Do we use words of kindness, compassion, and truth, working to reduce another person’s pain and anxiety? Are we gentle or harsh in our tones? As we begin to understand more about ourselves, we can understand others. We can listen and speak kindly and choose the right words for the right situation.
We can use peaceful language instead of abusing, condemning, judging. We don’t need to exaggerate. We don’t need to speak one way to one person and another way to another person, attempting to manipulate. Our truth can be gentle, consistent, and loving.
Not everyone has the same perception or understanding. When we talk, we can adapt ourselves to each person, learning about how they think and feel. Not everyone will be receptive to the same stories, the same messages, and the same knowledge.
Our speech should be used for well-being and healing. When our speech causes ill-being and suffering, then that is wrong speech. We can make those around us feel loved through our presence, through our gentleness and care.
As we look into ourselves, we know that we’re not perfect. We have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. We feel pain and joy and compassion and fear and anger and on and on, just like everyone else.
We don’t have to judge ourselves as bad, because we have positive qualities too, but we don’t have to swell with pride either, because we make mistakes too. No one sees us for who we are in totality. They are only partly right. We don’t see everyone else for who they are in totality either. People may have many experiences, feelings, and thoughts that we will never be aware of.
When we feel angry, we neither need to act nor suppress our anger. Anger may have a sense of urgency to it, but when we act, we often escalate the situation.
Rather than falling into the same habitual patterns, we can treat our anger with tenderness. We can embrace our energy and breathe and let go. Even a small pause can be beneficial.
We can ask ourselves whenever a thought arises, “Is that thought right? Are we really sure?” Instead of committing to a wrong perception, we can slow down and question our certainty.
Unless we can communicate mindfully with ourselves, we cannot improve the quality of our relationships. With mindfulness of suffering, compassion arises. When we see the suffering in others, we want to help. We cannot force others to become who we want them to be, but we can change ourselves.
When we are compassionate to ourselves, our desire to help our communities grows.
Our love grows.
Our lives are interwoven. We are dependent on each other for survival and well-being. If our communities can listen to each other, communicating with loving-kindness and non-judgmental awareness, we can systematically change our civilization.
Satisfaction or pleasure over another’s misfortunes.
Feeling happiness when someone fails, makes a mistake, or is humiliated.
There are people who make us suffer. We often feel that our lives are more difficult, stressful, painful, and so on, because of what they have said and done. These people may harm those we care about, help our enemies, or support ideas we disagree with.
It is easy to wish those difficult people misfortune and then take pleasure when they fail. It is easy to water the seeds of judgement, comparison, and sadism.
We must be mindful of how we think and not reinforce ideas of division, resentment, bitterness, and discrimination. Instead we need to look at ourselves and see our own suffering, so that we can find compassion for everyone. Even those who do us harm.
When we take pleasure in another’s misfortune, we lower ourselves. We fall into darkness in our condemnation, in our judgement, of another’s suffering.
What kind of human beings are we when we wish suffering on others?
We may feel a temporary satisfaction over a false sense of revenge, but we are degrading ourselves. We are watering the seeds of hatred, separation, and envy. Instead we need to water the seeds of compassion and loving-kindness.
Instead of looking outward in comparison, we need to know ourselves intimately.
We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.”
We’re not separate from this universe. We’re interwoven in the cosmos, apart of the energetic patterns of spacetime. We’re like waves in an ocean. Always changing, transforming, connected to more than merely ourselves.
The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
We strain ourselves in our search for ourselves, in our pursuit of an ultimate meaning, believing that we need to be more famous, more successful, more talented, stronger, smarter, better-looking, in love with the perfect spouse, owning a bigger house, and so on.
We cannot enjoy the present moment because we’re consumed with our stories, regrets, future ambitions, dramas. If we do finally achieve all our dreams, we’re left unfulfilled.
Rather than discovering the miracle of life every day, we have ignored life, attaching ourselves to abstract ideas of meaning and success and purpose.
We often sacrifice what is here for what isn’t.
Rather than being truly alive, aware of our joys and sorrows, we lose ourselves in thought. We’re worried about our futures, ambitious for recognition, avoiding what is unpleasant, clinging to more desires.
If we’re always chasing after meaning, we will waste our lives until our lives are over. The point of life is to live life. What matters is the journey itself.
But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.
True wisdom is in knowing what we don’t know. Rather than judging, forming opinions, claiming that only we understand, we need to deeply listen and open ourselves to what is mysterious, uncertain, beyond our current paradigms.
Instead of clinging to notions of Absolute Truth, we can live our questions.
Our models of reality are not reality themselves. Our symbol-systems are only representations of limited knowledge. There is so much in this universe that we don’t know.
Sometimes what we learn is too painful to hear. Sometimes we are too emotionally immature, ignorant, and uneducated to understand fully. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.
We’re only human beings — organizing experience into comprehensible models with our nervous systems, filtering what is “essential” to us from what’s “not essential” (socially, biologically, physiologically), taking in a limited number of signals unconsciously, while not being aware of other signals, while we exist on a tiny planet, in an ever-expanding universe.
We don’t need to form definite conclusions. When we humble ourselves, opening to what is unfamiliar, uncertain, and mysterious, we can grow.