“Life has taught me, Swamiji,” my father said to me the other day, “that, one must go through one’s journey alone.”
He was a bit unsettled, even distraught, as he had recently fallen prey to a fraudulent phone call telling him that his bank card was blocked. (Mis)leading him through a series of steps, the caller managed to extract the right details and spent my parents’ entire one month’s pension on various websites in under two minutes. The bank concluded that it was my father’s negligence for he’d shared the transaction password with the caller and understandably, the police couldn’t do much because the call was traced to another state in India.
In the big scheme of things, it’s nothing: to lose one month’s pension when you’ve been earning for more than four decades. But, as is the way of loss, it is rarely about the absolute nature of the loss itself or its magnitude and more about how victimized we feel. An unexpected, undesirable incident can catch even the wisest completely off-guard. It took him more than two weeks to come to terms with the fact that he was tricked. My mother on the other hand, was cool as a winter breeze and didn’t so much as even blink at this monetary loss. Two people under the same roof, bearing the same loss, are affected differently. What a beautiful and intriguing world we live in.
“I’ve seen,” Father added recounting his difficult childhood, “that no one is there when you are suffering. Only your grit and God’s grace helps a person sail through, no one else can help.”
I knew where he was coming from because many people I meet feel utterly lonely when they are down. They are usually not alone but even with all the help around, loneliness seems to seep in like water through cracks. Cracks in our consciousness, in our understanding of ourselves and our view of life. That’s why Buddha deemed, samyaka dṛṣṭi(right view of life) as one of the most important elements of self-realization. Krishna too repeatedly reminds Arjuna about the impermanent nature of everything and that one must navigate through the duality of life with courage (mātrā-sparśhāstu kaunteya śhītoṣhṇa-sukha-duḥkha-dāḥ…BG 2.14.) He goes on to say that forget things, even all the people you love or hate, they too one day won’t be there in your life or you in theirs (avyaktādīni bhūtāni vyakta-madhyāni bhārata…BG 2.28) so what are you brooding over.
Loss in (and of) life is not a question of if but when.
Whatever we are attached to or hold dear in our hearts, losing it is only a matter of time. It is inevitable.
“Of course,” I said to him, “No one can partake of our suffering. I agree. It’s a personal matter. Just like no one else will feel full or hungry if you have a hearty meal or are deprived of one.”
He nodded, relieved that I, whom he also looks upon as his guru, validated his view.
“However,” I continued, “they can share your loss, they can share your pain. You may not pass on the fulfilment of a good meal but you can share your food with them. Thereafter, whether they feel full or foul is up to them. And, that’s what suffering is: it is not what is happening to us but how we see what is happening to us. It is not the actual situation but our interpretation which then governs our feelings. Change the interpretation and feelings change on their own.”
You can’t change your feelings by just wanting to change them, no matter how desperate or strong-willed you maybe. You need to find out what is evoking these emotions in you. Go to the source. It could be an incident or a set of incidents, certain people and so on. Then ask yourself if you wish to feel differently. If so, begin with the assumption that nothing or no one else is going to change. They are where they always have been, they are exactly where they are supposed to be. Develop a broader view, distract yourself positively, look at the brighter side, practice loving-kindness towards yourself and others, and gradually, your perspective will begin to shift. When it does, everything else will shift with it.
Once the Buddha was confronted by a monster called Suciloma, whose name translates as “Needle-hair.” He was a prototype punk with needles for hair! He wanted to find out if the Buddha was really enlightened. So he sat down next to the Buddha and leaned toward him to prick him, but the Buddha leaned away.
“Aha!” said Needle-Hair. “You don’t like pain. You’re not really enlightened. An enlightened person would maintain equanimity no matter what. He wouldn’t have any likes or dislikes.”
The Buddha said: “Don’t be stupid. There are things that are going to cause problems for my body. It’s going to hurt it and make it unhealthy” (SN 10:53).
This is just common sense. You don’t step on snakes, you don’t run into fires, and you don’t allow needles to poke you. You move away. It’s common sense, not attachment. That’s loving-kindness toward your body: keeping it healthy, keeping it safe.
(Bear Awareness by Ajahn Brahm)
Often blinded by our experiences, conditioning, and set in our ways, though, that’s exactly what we do: we step on snakes, run into fire and allow needles to poke us. Snakes of attachments, fire of desires and needles of jealousy and covetousness. They bite, burn and hurt. We call it suffering and we think that this is the way of life. We mistake our pain for our suffering. We have little control over the former but the latter is almost entirely in our hands. We can take things in our stride or be tossed in the tide. This choice, we must remember, is in our hands. At all times.
A man went to a pizzeria and ordered a large whole-wheat pizza with a diet Coke.
“Should I cut it in six slices or ten?” the owner asked.
“Ten! Ten!” the man winced. “Someone’s trying to lose weight here! Cut it in six!”
It’s the same life, if you want it all to yourself then whether you divide it in six or ten, it doesn’t matter. As I wrote in Mind Full to Mindful: “Nothing Matters. Eventually.” The sooner we realize this, the quicker conflict or challenges will stop bothering you.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Loss is unavoidable, grief isn’t. Death is certain. And life, well, life isn’t certain. Its uncertainty, unpredictability, even irrationality, is what makes it what it is: worthwhile, a blessing. You can see its attributes as appalling, boring and cunning or as adventurous, beautiful and captivating. Your choice. That’s the ABC of life.
As in a game of scrabble, what letters end up on your rack is not in your hands but what words you coin and where you place them is a matter of skill and knowledge. The less ignorant you are in vocabulary, the more chance you have of scoring. The faster you empty your rack, the higher are the odds of getting better letters and more options. If you are not going to let go of the existing letters or crib about how unfortunate you are, you lose your chance of scoring. Life is no different.
The alphabet is the same, it’s just what words you construct with the letters available to you that makes all the difference to what you feel about everything,. Yep, absolutely everything.
Fill your heart with loving-kindness, your time with noble actions, your mind with good thoughts and suffering will disappear from your life like sadness from a content heart. You will realize your soul, your self. Needles can’t prick your soul nor fire can burn it. Water can’t rot it and heat can’t dry it. (acchedyo ‘yam adāhyo ‘yam akledyo ‘śoṣya eva ca…BG 2.24) And snakes you ask, what about the snakes of attachments? Well, that a yogi wraps around his/her neck and yet remains unharmed.
This is the path of lasting peace. Walk with me.