How To Wake Up - Selections
“This is a book for everyone.”—Alida Brill, author of Dancing at the River's Edge
Compassion: Start with Yourself
The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.
Many people find it hard to cultivate compassion for themselves. Recently, a woman wrote to me, saying that she couldn’t be kind to herself because she was too accustomed to—as she put it—“beating myself up.” I reminded her that the Buddha said our minds are soft and pliant and this means we can change our conditioning, no matter how ingrained it is.
I told her that if she couldn’t stop “beating herself up,” that was one more thing about which she could evoke compassion toward herself. I suggested that she address herself by silently or softly repeating this phrase: “It’s hard to try and treat myself kindly when I’m so conditioned to beat myself up.” I said that this kind of gentle self-talk could begin to untie the knot of that painful conditioning.
She wrote back to say that the phrase helped so much, she was using it as her new mantra.
My point is that there’s no limit to what you can feel compassion for yourself over—even your inability to be self-compassionate!
Transforming Your Inner Critic
Recall the story from Chapter Four when the Dalai Lama was surprised to learn that Westerners disliked themselves. This kind of negative self-judgment was foreign to his culture. If you’re like me, you were conditioned from childhood to judge yourself at almost every turn. When my health didn’t return after the viral infection in 2001, I became my own harshest critic. Before I got sick, I made my living in a lecture hall. Now I was the captive audience—the recipient of the most mean-spirited lectures in which I ordered myself around in the second person as if I were a drill sergeant at basic training:
“You look like a fool at the law school for not recovering enough to teach.”
“You’ve ruined your family’s life with this stupid illness.”
“You will get up tomorrow not feeling sick.”
As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield likes to say: “The mind has no shame.” I was trying to force my life to conform to how I thought it should be, even though these were circumstances over which I had no control. At the same time, I was judging myself negatively for being in those circumstances. This was fertile ground for guilt—the feeling that I’d failed my obligation to the law school and to my family.
It took me years to realize that talking to myself in this way not only added unnecessary mental suffering to the physical suffering of the illness but also made my physical symptoms worse. (After all, emotions are felt in the body.) And so, I finally decided to change course by beginning to cultivate compassion for myself. In other words, I resolved to recondition my mind.
I started by working to become mindful of the presence of this “drill sergeant.” I was aiming for mindfulness without judgment. Setting aside judgment meant I had to treat the inner critic as a guest—even though an uninvited one. This neutral stance enabled me to investigate what was behind the painful and stressful thoughts that the critic was generating. It didn’t take me long to see that the source of this stressful thinking was tanha: the desire to have my health restored—a desire so intense that I’d come to believe that fulfilling it was necessary to my ability to ever be happy again.
Recognizing this desire was eye-opening for me. As is so often the case when we’re caught up in desire, I thought my suffering was being imposed on me from the outside—the law school needed me to teach; my family couldn’t get by unless I got healthy. But now I saw that these were nothing more than stories I’d been telling myself. No one at the law school or in my family had been making those demands on me. I was the source of those demands. And even if others had been making demands on me, I realized there was no reason for me to turn their outer critic into my inner critic.
These insights in themselves changed my response to my inner critic because, when I saw the suffering that I was imposing on myself, I thought: “I’m a decent person. I don’t deserve this kind of treatment from myself.” Then, in a calm and gentle voice, I began to intentionally turn those drill sergeant thoughts around. Initially, this new voice of compassion felt fake, but I persisted, following the instruction for cultivating any sublime state: even if it doesn’t feel genuine, do it anyway because so long as your intention is benevolent, you’ll be planting a seed. Sure enough, the sentiments gradually became genuine. When that second-person drill sergeant voice shifted to the first person, I took it as a sign that my loyalty had shifted to myself:
“You look like a fool at the law school for not recovering enough to teach” became “It’s extremely hard to give up a career that I love so much.”
“You’ve ruined your family’s life with this stupid illness” became “Unexpected things happen in life; I’m in a body and, despite my best efforts, sometimes bodies get sick.”
“You will get up tomorrow not feeling sick” became “My sweet body, working so hard to support me.”
Each time I opened my heart to my suffering was a moment of peace because it was a moment of acknowledging my life as it was and engaging it with understanding and compassion. The intention to relieve my suffering grew stronger and stronger, and eventually the inner critic faded away (although it still occasionally pops in for a visit).
I hope you’ll try transforming your inner critic. Begin by making a list of the self-critical thoughts you’ve directed at yourself in the past few days or weeks. Take your time. You may not think you remember very many, but they’re stored in your brain. Many of us harbor—deep down—a sense of unworthiness, but this is due to past conditioning and we can change how we see ourselves.
As you make your list, leave space between each item. I’ll use this self-critical thought as an example: “I can’t do anything right.” Look at the first thought you wrote down and imagine that a loved one said that about himor herself. In other words, imagine if your child or your dearest friend were to say to you, “I can’t do anything right.” Think about how you would respond to that person and jot it down in the first person. Following my example, under “I can’t do anything right” you might write: “It’s hard to do everything right, but I’m doing my best.” Note that you’ve just said to yourself what you’d say to a loved one in need of your support.
Go through your list and repeat this process with each self-critical thought you’ve written down. It’s okay if, as you turn the thought around, the new version doesn’t feel genuine. Recognize that you’re breaking a habit by reconditioning your mind to respond with kindness and compassion, and that this takes time and patience.
If you find yourself thinking, “But I don’t try hard enough to do things right,” or “But I don’t do my best,” treat it as chatter in the mind that comes and goes and need not be believed. Sometimes I keep myself from falling for my self-critical stories by saying lightly to myself, “That’s what the mind does—think and emote, think and emote!” In this way, I don’t let storytelling dukkha torpedo my efforts to treat myself with compassion.
Keep your list close by. Reading through it every day will remind you to think differently about yourself. You can even add self-critical thoughts to the list as they arise and then turn them around. If your inner critic makes it hard to turn a critical thought into a noncritical one, remember to think about how you’d respond if a loved one had spoken that way about him- or herself. With practice and what Buddhists call patient endurance, you’ll become that loved one.
Compassion for Sadness Brought About by Loss
All of us have our share of the ten thousand sorrows. Many of them are related to loss—loss of a loved one, loss of a job or career, loss of a home, loss of health, loss of physical or mental functioning due to aging, loss of direction in life, a perceived loss of dignity or usefulness to others. Sometimes life can feel like an endless procession of losses. The sadness that accompanies loss can be so painful to bear that we may fight against letting ourselves feel that sadness by responding in any number of unskillful ways: resignation, anger, solace in sensual indulgences, even anesthetizing ourselves with substance abuse.
We get stuck in these unskillful distractions because we don’t want to feel the emotional pain. The skillful response to our sadness would be compassion for ourselves. But compassion cannot arise until we’re able to acknowledge that emotional pain is present in the form of sadness. If you sense that you’re distracting yourself from feeling the pain of sadness brought about by loss, you might try the four-step approach we’ve been working with throughout the book: recognize it, label it, investigate it, let it be. This can soften your heart and be the beginning of your ability to treat yourself with compassion over the many losses that are an inevitable part of life.
Crafting Compassion Phrases
When I first learned to cultivate compassion, my teachers suggested that we repeat phrases that were nonspecific, such as “May my suffering ease.” From years of practice, I’ve learned that self-compassion practice is more effective if I craft phrases that speak to the particular circumstance over which I’m suffering.
To try this, call to mind some source of suffering for you at this moment. The easiest way to find that place of suffering is to focus on something you want and aren’t getting, or on something you’re getting and don’t want. It could involve your finances, your job, your relationship with certain people, the state of your health, and, of course, sadness and grief due to all the losses I just discussed.
Now speak to yourself about this source of suffering by thinking of compassionate phrases that address your specific situation.
A good way to check if your words show care and compassion is to think about whether you’d say them to a loved one who shared with you that he or she was suffering due to a similar circumstance. It may take time to find the right phrase that speaks to your suffering, but you’ll know when you do; it will feel right and may even bring tears to your eyes. But these will be tears of compassion for yourself. In the words of Lord Byron, “The dew of compassion is a tear,” and so these tears are likely to leave you feeling relieved and at peace with your circumstances. Your phrases might take this form:
- “It’s hard to struggle with money every day of my life.”
- “My job is stressful, but it’s not my fault; I’m doing the best I can.”
- “This relationship is really tough, but I’m working hard at it.”
- “It hurts that I’m too sick to go to the wedding.”
- “I’m so sad that, due to aging, I can’t do some of my favorite things anymore.”
As you say your phrases, you might stroke one arm with the hand of the other. I do this often and find that when my phrases are accompanied by this physical touch, the words penetrate my heart.
Compassion in Action
Treating ourselves with compassion can go beyond using phrases that speak to our suffering. We can also cultivate self-compassion by taking action to alleviate our suffering. Compassionate action can be as simple as pampering ourselves on a day when we’re feeling blue or disappointed over something, or it can be as major as leaving a job because we’re too sick to continue working.
Compassionate action also includes knowing when not to act—when to give up a fight that’s a continual source of stress and frustration. My friend Michael has decided, for now, to give up his ongoing battle for disability benefits. Despite suffering from a debilitating pain condition, under the laws of his country, he has to apply for benefits each year anew and go through the entire process from square one each time. Some days his pain is so severe that he’s not even able to make the trip to see the government caseworker.
When he decided not to reapply for benefits, he felt guilty about it at first. But I thought it was an act of self-compassion. With some budget-tightening, he and his partner can get by on her salary, and she supports his decision to give up the fight for now. With the help of his partner and his friends, he’s come to see that the stress and suffering that accompany this annual battle take too great a physical and emotional toll. Yes, he’s still upset at the government, but he’s decided that self-compassion comes first.
From Self-Compassion to Compassion for Others
If you’re still struggling to treat yourself with compassion because you think of it as too self-absorbed, recall the Buddha’s words, “If you search the whole world over, you will find no one who is dearer than yourself.” In fact, self-compassion can become the seed for being able to reach out to others with compassion because, when we take care of ourselves, we’re better able to take care of others.
In the fall of 1992, I learned the hard way that treating myself with compassion was not selfish but, on the contrary, was the key to being able to effectively help others. I had left the comfort of the classroom to become the dean of students at the law school. Student after student came into my office and poured out his or her life troubles to me, partly because I already had the reputation of being approachable as a faculty member.
I thought I owed every student 100 percent of my time and effort, even if it meant skipping lunch or working into the night. Some of them should have been taking their personal problems to the counseling center because I wasn’t a trained therapist. This is often where I sent them, but not before listening to them for as long as they wanted. (This work was in addition to the many administrative tasks I’d taken on—supervising the financial aid, placement, and registrar’s offices—to name just three.)
After a few months on the job, I was physically exhausted and emotionally spent from trying to give students every ounce of my understanding and compassion. I could tell that I was losing my ability to be effective on the job. Any of you who are caregivers or who work in pastoral care, including hospice, may recognize this phenomenon as compassion burnout. At the time, though, I didn’t know this expression, but I did know the Buddha’s teachings on suffering, and so that’s where I started.
By looking deeply at what was going on in my mind, I saw that I was suffering because of my desire to please everyone, compounded by my fear that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I also saw that this suffering was intensified by self-judgment—the feeling that I should be able to handle the demands of the job with ease. Until I examined what was going on in my mind, I assumed that the suffering was being imposed on me from the outside. This was the same erroneous assumption I made with the inner critic when I got sick and convinced myself that the demand to get better was coming from others instead of from my own mind.
Having recognized the source of my suffering, I reached out to myself with compassion. I changed my storyline from “I should be able to give everyone 100 percent of my attention all the time” to “This job is really hard; I’m doing the best I can.” This change in perspective transformed me into my own ally. I immediately realized that to do my best for the students, I had to take care of myself. And so, I made some changes in the way I performed my duties—self-compassion in action—and this enabled me to more skillfully handle the demands on my time.
By treating myself with compassion, I not only began to enjoy the job but I was able to be a more compassionate presence for the students I was trying to serve. To me, treating ourselves with compassion is just plain good—and practical—common sense.
Using Tonglen to Evoke Compassion for Yourself
The compassion meditation practice known as tonglen is generally thought of as a practice for evoking compassion for others, but it’s equally as effective for evoking compassion for ourselves. It comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Tonglen is practiced on the inand on the out-breath. The general instruction is to breathe in the suffering of others and then, as we breathe out, release that suffering and offer to them whatever measure of kindness, compassion, and peace of mind we have to give, even the slightest bit. We are, in effect, breathing out the sublime states of mind.
I practice tonglen when I become aware that I’m suffering due to something in particular, like my inability to attend an event due to poor health. I bring to mind all the people who might be suffering in the same way I am. Then I breathe in their suffering. As I do this, I’m aware that, because I share the same struggle with the people whom I’ve brought to mind, I’m also breathing in my own suffering over that struggle. As I then breathe out whatever measure of kindness, compassion, and peace of mind I have to give at the moment, I’m also offering those sentiments to myself.
Tonglen practice helped me through a particularly difficult period after illness forced me to give up my career. When I left the lively, stimulating environment of the law school and took up residence in my bedroom, I began to suffer from deep loneliness.
Loneliness is a painful emotional state, often accompanied by sadness, rejection, and self-blame. I’m using it as an example because it’s not uncommon for people to feel lonely. Even those who work around others all day can have loneliness descend on them when they get home—or even experience it while with others.
Spending most of the day alone in my bedroom, I came to regard loneliness as an enemy. I mustered all the willpower I could to defeat it, but the battle I was waging only created double suffering for me: aversion dukkha and storytelling dukkha. Recall that aversion dukkha arises when we resist the way things are, instead of openly acknowledging the unpleasantness of an experience. I was resisting that loneliness with all my might. Then I was adding storytelling dukkha to the mix in the form of stressful thoughts that had no basis in fact, such as: “This dark feeling will never lift”; “No one cares that I’m by myself so much”; “I’m a weak person because I can’t handle being alone.”
Although I’d used tonglen many times, it didn’t occur to me to try it with the suffering of loneliness until I read a blog post one day. It was written by a woman who was chronically ill and was also suffering from terrible loneliness. Her story resonated strongly with me because she was describing just how I felt. Wanting to reach out to her in some way, I imagined breathing in her suffering due to the loneliness. Then, as I breathed out, I genuinely wished that her suffering would ease. To my surprise, my own suffering eased.
I continued with the practice, at first using it only with this woman. Eventually, I expanded it to include everyone in the world who was lonely. Tonglen became a powerful self-compassion practice for easing my suffering. Whenever I called to mind the millions of people who were feeling lonely like I was, I felt a deep connection to them. That connection in itself made me feel less lonely. In addition, whenever I breathed out whatever kindness, compassion, and peace of mind I had to offer them, I was also breathing those sentiments into my own heart. I found myself saying: “It’s okay to be lonely. Yes, it’s painful, but it will change and isn’t a permanent part of me.”
I encourage you to try tonglen. You can practice it in regard to something that’s an ongoing source of suffering for you, like loneliness or chronic worrying. Or you can practice it when something short term is causing you stress or anxiety, like waiting to hear the results of a medical test or of a job interview. For example, if you just interviewed for a job, you could breathe in the suffering and anxiety of everyone who is waiting to find out the results of an interview, and then breathe out whatever kindness, compassion, and peace of mind you have to offer—to them and to yourself.
If you find it difficult to breathe in other people’s suffering, then modify the practice. Rather than taking in their suffering on the in-breath, just breathe normally and call to mind the people with whom you wish to connect. Then, in whatever way feels natural to you, send them thoughts of kindness, compassion, and peace. You need not breathe in others’ suffering in order to feel connected to them or in order to enfold both them and yourself in your heartfelt wish to ease suffering in this world.
It may take time to learn to treat yourself with compassion because you may be reversing a lifetime of conditioning. Many of us have been taught that nothing less than perfection will do. This may have been instilled in us by our parents or other influential people in our lives (people who are, of course, imperfect just like us). As a result, we hold ourselves to impossible standards; we’re the Beatles or we’re nothing.
If this is the case for you, you may initially resist treating yourself with compassion or, when you do try to cultivate it, feel sadness arise. This sadness may well be due to a realization that this is the first time in your life you’ve truly treated yourself kindly. Think of it, then, as a sweet sadness. The Dalai Lama repeatedly reminds us that everyone wants to be happy. “Everyone” includes you— this person most worthy of your kindness and compassion. With practice, self-compassion can become a natural response to your suffering.
Equanimity: Fully Engaging This Life as It Is
If you expect your life to be up and down, your mind will be much more peaceful.
A mind that is equanimous responds to life with an evenness of temper and a peaceful heart, even when the circumstances at hand may be one of those ten thousand sorrows—tension in a relationship, anxiety over children or parents, stress at work or at school, health difficulties, loss of a loved one. Every moment of equanimity is a moment of waking up from the delusion that things should be as we want them to be.
When we learn not to reject unpleasant experiences, we’re able to make room for the sorrow in our hearts and, treating it tenderly, rest in the peace and ease of equanimity. In the same way, when we learn not to cling to pleasant experiences—the ten thousand joys in our lives—we’re acknowledging that we cannot make the impermanent permanent. Then, resting in equanimity, we can enjoy the experience while it lasts.
The sublime states are usually presented in the sequence found in Chapter Thirteen: kindness and friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. But in her book It’s Easier Than You Think, Sylvia Boorstein starts with equanimity. She says that from the place of equanimity—holding both our joys and sorrows “in an ease-filled balance”—when we see people going about their everyday lives, friendliness is our natural response. When we see someone suffering, compassion is our natural response. When we see someone who’s happy, appreciative joy is our natural response.
One evening in February of 2012, I had an experience that brought into clear focus what it means to hold both our joys and sorrows in an ease-filled balance. The wispy clouds in the western sky were setting up for a spectacular sunset. I saw the sunset forming from my living room window, so I went outside and sat on the porch to watch. Unaware that Tony had turned on network news, I became absorbed in the beauty of the display before me. Suddenly, Tony appeared at my side, saying in a troubled voice: “The Syrian government is shooting civilians in the streets. People are running out of food and water.” (He was as absorbed in this news story as I was in the sunset, and so he was unaware that he was interrupting my pleasant experience.)
My first thought was, “You shouldn’t break in on my joyful moment like this.” Then I veered in the other direction and thought, “I shouldn’t be enjoying this sunset when people are dying in Syria.” Within a few seconds, I’d judged him and then judged myself. I felt caught in a dilemma: “What do I do about this unpleasant experience colliding with this pleasant one?” Then equanimity came to mind, and I thought: “This sunset is beautiful and people are dying in Syria. I need not cling to joy to the exclusion of all other experiences, and I need not recoil from sorrow. My heart is big enough to hold the joy of this sunset and, at the same time, the suffering of the Syrian people.” And so I sat there and tenderly held them both in an ease-filled balance.
Let’s consider some skillful means for cultivating equanimity.
“Start Where You Are”
Recall that dukkha refers to the dissatisfaction we experience with the circumstances of our lives. This dissatisfaction has its source in the type of desire that’s experienced as a felt-need for our lives to be different, even when we have no control over the circumstances in question.
After becoming chronically ill in 2001, I spent my days caught up in constant longing for my life to be the way it was before I got sick. I wanted to work. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be active in the life of my family and my community. But no amount of wishing for my circumstances to be different got me any closer to resuming my former life. Finally, I realized the only way I could find a measure of peace again was to stop trying to change circumstances over which I had no control and instead—to reference Pema Chödrön again—start where I was, with a body that was sick. For you, starting where you are might mean acknowledging frustration on the job, or disappointment with a relationship, or the stress of being a caregiver.
Remember not to confuse the calm acceptance of equanimity with resignation or indifference. The latter two are characterized by aversion to life, meaning we’re turning away from the way things are. When we turn away, it’s hard to make constructive changes because we’re not engaging with our life as it is. By contrast, when we start where we are, we’re better able to consider what might be the most skillful and beneficial action given our circumstances. For me, this means remaining proactive about my health. Returning to my examples, for you, it might mean keeping an eye out for a new job, or suggesting that you and your partner consider couples therapy, or looking for ways to get help with your caregiving responsibilities.
I hope you’ll resolve to start where you are each day. When you get up in the morning, if your struggles are the first thing that pop into your mind, reflect on how everyone’s life is sometimes easy and sometimes hard. No one gets a pass on life’s struggles. If you can acknowledge the difficulties you’re facing, you’ll be less likely to get caught up in longing for circumstances over which you have no control to be different. And you’ll be more likely to see clearly whether there’s any constructive action you could take to improve those circumstances that you can affect. In this way, you can be present for your life as it is for you on this day and, no matter what your difficulties, find some measure of peace and well-being.
Accepting and engaging my life as it is, difficulties and disappointments included, is a daily practice and I fall short at times. In 2011, my friend Grazia was in an auto accident that almost took her life. When I visited her after she was home from the hospital, to lighten the mood, we joked that although right now she was worse off than I was, in a few months she’d be better off again. Sure enough, she’s recovered enough to resume her active life.
At the time of her recovery, I thought back to when she was in a neck brace and in severe pain and how, now, she was traveling all over the world but I was still mostly housebound. The thought arose, “This isn’t fair.” Thoughts pop into my mind uninvited all the time, so I didn’t blame myself for this self-focused one. But I also knew that “This isn’t fair” was not the response of a mind that is at peace. So I reflected on Grazia’s life and on mine and said to myself: “This is the way our lives are—it’s that way for her and this way for me.” Then I rejoiced in her recovery and got on with my day as it was.
Buddhist monks carry a bowl for food and eat only what is put into that bowl each day. A bowl may be filled to the top with mouth-watering food or it may contain a small handful of rice. This is how monks are taught to start where they are. The monk’s bowl can be seen as a metaphor for life. We have what is put into our individual bowls each day. It’s up to us to learn to accept and engage it with grace.
Let Impermanence Be Your Guide
If you’re like me, some days you feel cheerful and optimistic about everything, and other days you feel in low spirits—often for no discernable reason. When we’re feeling dispirited, recognizing the ever-changing nature of experience can keep us from believing that we’re permanently trapped in a dark mood. In the same way, when we’re feeling ecstatic about life, understanding impermanence can keep us from clinging to this feeling which only sets us up for suffering—and perhaps a wild mood-swing in the other direction— when that euphoria goes away. And so cultivating wisdom—in this instance, looking deeply at impermanence—helps us to maintain the steadiness of mind and the evenness of temper that characterize equanimity.
Understanding the impermanent nature of all phenomena also helps us recognize that we are more than our emotions and moods. This is particularly helpful when our spirits are low. When we see clearly that we are not just sadness or that we are not just irritation, we’re better able to calmly wait, with equanimity, for things to change.
I think of emotions and moods as being as changeable and unpredictable as the weather. They blow in; they blow out. By working with this weather metaphor, we can hold these mental states more lightly—with the evenness of temper that characterizes equanimity—knowing that, like the weather pattern of the moment, our emotions and moods are impermanent. It’s also helpful to think of emotions and moods as being like the ever-changing waves on the ocean. Keeping this comparison in mind, we can work on calmly and steadily riding life’s ups and downs like the most skilled of surfers.
If You Can’t Change It, Let It Be
If you find yourself in circumstances you cannot change, I hope you’ll try a practice I call if you can’t change it, let it be. When my book How to Be Sick was released, I had the opportunity to work with this practice. At the time, the largest bookstore in my town was a Borders—and it didn’t carry my book. Invariably, my first thought upon entering the store was a grumpy “Borders doesn’t carry my book” (as if I didn’t know this already!).
Then my list of complaints would begin:
- “There are tens of thousands of books here. Why not mine? This is so unfair!”
- “What an incompetent bunch of buyers to have passed on my book. No wonder they’re going out of business.” (Note the self-centered delusion in that statement: Borders was in financial trouble because it failed to carry my book!)
- “Maybe I should talk to the manager. He could call corporate headquarters and tell them they’ve made a big mistake!”
It was my own exquisite little scene of torture and I replayed it every time I went into the store. Then one day, I recalled a daylong retreat I’d attended with the Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Jumnian. At one point, he had begun to describe how he lived each day. As Jack Kornfield translated, I grabbed pen and paper and jotted this down:
When people say, “Ajahn, let’s go for a beautiful walk,” fine I’ll go. If they don’t ask, that’s fine too. I don’t expect a walk to be any more satisfying than sitting alone. It could be hot or windy out there. If people bring me delicious food, great. If they don’t, great. I need to diet anyway. If I’m feeling good, that’s okay. If I’m sick, that’s okay too. It’s a great excuse to lie down.
I had this little discourse memorized, so I decided to use it as inspiration the next time I entered the store. When the day came, as soon as I started to list my complaints, I stopped and said to myself: “If Borders carried my book, fine. Since it’s not here, fine. It gives me the opportunity to practice equanimity—letting be what I cannot change.” Then I began to cultivate mindfulness by turning my attention to what was going on around me at that moment. It was a beautiful sight: people calmly meandering down rows of books; someone excitedly motioning for a friend to come over so she could share some treasure she’d found; a young girl, sitting on the floor, completely absorbed in the pages of an art book. I felt a sudden affection for this bookstore. In that moment, it didn’t matter at all that my book wasn’t in it!
I hope you’ll try practicing if you can’t change it, let it be. I suggest that you start with a minor irritation like those I raised in the equanimity portion of Chapter Thirteen: a loud restaurant or a day that’s too hot for your liking. By practicing with mildly unpleasant experiences, we’re training our minds to respond with an evenness of temper and a peaceful heart when we’re faced with a life crisis, such as being rejected by another person, receiving an upsetting medical diagnosis, or even the loss of a loved one. So start small.
Try thinking about someone who has a behavioral trait that irritates you—nothing major—perhaps a whiny relative, or a complaining friend, or a coworker who asks too many questions. Recalling Ajahn Jumnian’s words, say to yourself something like: “If this person’s behavior changes, that would be nice. If it doesn’t change, that will be okay too.”
How did you react when you said your words? With a loud “No it won’t be okay!”? If so, reflect on how your life will inevitably be a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. This person’s behavior is an example of an experience that is unpleasant for you. Turning away in aversion only increases your suffering by adding the unpleasantness of aversion to an already unpleasant experience. You might also reflect on my twist on Walt Whitman’s verse and say to yourself: “The world contains multitudes . . . and so it’s big enough for people who irritate me.” Then bring to mind the person you were thinking of and try the practice again.
A bigger challenge is to apply Ajahn Jumnian’s words to sensitive issues about yourself—for example, how much you weigh or certain habits or traits that you wish were different. You might try bringing one of those issues to mind and then speaking to yourself from Ajahn Jumnian’s perspective: “If I’m able to lose weight, fine. If I can’t, that will be okay too”; “If I can learn to be more assertive around others, that will be nice. If I’m unable to, I can accept that.” When we’re able to accept ourselves as we are, we’ve shed yet another layer of suffering.
I feel confident that, with practice, you can begin to experience the feeling of peace and well-being that comes from letting be what you cannot change, even when you’re confronted with the toughest of life’s challenges. Letting be what you cannot change is not to be confused with indifference to your life as it is. Indifference carries aversion with it, and so the suffering of don’t-want is present: “Well, whatever. Who cares?” A mind that is equanimous knows that life is a mixture of successes and disappointments and that peace of mind comes from acknowledging this with grace and acceptance, not from turning away in aversion.
Develop an Assumption of Safety
When I got sick, Sylvia Boorstein gave me a book called Healing Lazarus by Zen teacher Lewis Richmond. In the prime of his life, Richmond was struck down with a rare life-threatening brain injury—viral encephalitis. He was in a coma for ten days. In this remarkable book, he chronicles the devastating effect of the illness and his slow climb back to health.
One story he told had a profound effect on me. When he began to recover, he had to put his life back together. This meant learning how to walk and talk, resuming his career, and becoming an equal partner in his family life. During this long and grueling process, he suddenly found himself living in overwhelming fear and worry that something like this illness could happen to him again.
His therapist identified this fear as a phenomenon called “catastrophic thinking.” She told him that this was not unusual to experience after a traumatic event. Then she said:
Of course, any of those things might happen, to you or to me or to anyone, but we can’t live our lives in fear of them. We all must develop an assumption of safety that allows us to get through the day. I have three children, and if I allowed myself to worry constantly that one of them might be hit by a car, or could be kidnapped, I wouldn’t be able to function.
These words from his therapist have helped me cultivate that evenness of temper and ease-filled balance of equanimity. I can still get caught up in the fear generated by uncertainty: “What if one of my children or grandchildren is at a shopping mall when a terrorist attack occurs?”; “What if someone in my family is in a bad auto accident?”—the latter being a fear I’ve carried since childhood. But now, when these fears arise, I remember what Richmond’s therapist told him and I repeat her words to myself: “We all must develop an assumption of safety.”
This comment of hers has not only helped me cope with the uncertainty of being chronically ill, but I’ve also relaxed about my children and grandchildren. I’ve wrapped them in an assumption of safety. It’s been tremendously comforting and freeing for me. After all, the probability is low that anything disastrous will happen to them. Of course we should take reasonable precautions, but catastrophes are the exception not the rule, despite the media’s constant focus on them. Yes, something terrible could happen. We all know that. But the assumption of safety, accompanied by reasonable precautions, is the skillful alternative to living in worry and fear every time you or your loved ones leave the house.
You might try practicing with the assumption of safety by calling to mind one of your own recurring worries or fears, something that keeps you from feeling the peace and calmness that characterize equanimity. As you do this, remind yourself that worry and fear are just arising and passing emotions—and that the stressful stories accompanying them also arise and pass. Neither the emotions nor the stories you spin have any connection to whether or not the subject of your worry and fear will ever come to pass. With that in mind, allow yourself to develop an assumption of safety about that fear or worry. It might help to recall what Mark Twain famously said: “I’ve lived a long life and seen a lot of hard times . . . most of which never happened.”
Loving Your Fate
It takes courage to accept and engage your life as it is. Frederick Nietzsche called this amor fati—loving your fate. In those moments when you’re able to muster the courage to let your heart break wide open to embrace all of your life as it is, you’re loving your fate. The Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah called this “the happiness of the Buddha.” I’ve been calling it awakening—waking up to a peace and well-being that aren’t dependent on whether a particular moment is pleasant or unpleasant.
I’m quite certain that you won’t get through this day without encountering some unpleasant experience, whether it be your computer crashing, being put on hold for a very long time, stubbing your toe, forgetting what you headed into the kitchen to retrieve, or feeling terribly disappointed by someone. When this happens, I encourage you to practice loving your fate.
Loving your fate doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take action to improve things personally and globally when that action can lessen suffering for you and for others. It simply means that your starting point is life as it is. Loving your fate means working to accept, with grace, that life will be a mixture of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and opening your heart regardless.
This can be quite a challenge. I didn’t love my fate when I first lost my career. And I still struggle to love my fate when I think about my inability to spend long periods of time with my two granddaughters, Malia and Camden. Malia lives in Los Angeles—the city where I grew up—so I thought I’d be showing her all my secret haunts. And Cam lives in Berkeley, right across the bridge from San Francisco, a city that I dearly love. I’d hoped to take her to all my favorite places: Fort Point, Aquatic Park, Fisherman’s Wharf.
As you can tell, this particular struggle is an ongoing equanimity challenge for me. Recall that the Buddha said that what we repeatedly think and ponder upon becomes the inclination of our minds. And so, I know that every time I respond with bitterness over my inability to be with my granddaughters—that is, every time I hate my fate—I strengthen my tendency to respond that way again. So I work on loving my fate.
I start with equanimity—reflecting on the wisdom of letting be what I cannot change. Then I move in a circle through the other three sublime states and, finally, back to equanimity. I cultivate appreciative joy for Malia’s and Cam’s other grandparents who are able to take them places. I cultivate kindness for myself and compassion for the suffering I experience at not being able to. Then I return to equanimity by reflecting on how everyone’s life has its joys and sorrows. If I could be with them more, I would, but since I can’t, I work on loving my fate regardless—a fate which has me living in a comfortable home, with a loving partner, a supportive family, a few good friends, and a faithful hound dog.
When we’re able to engage our lives without clinging to joy and without turning away from sorrow, then we’re touching that evenness of temper and openness of heart that characterize equanimity. In those moments, we feel alive to our experience as it is, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, whether it’s to our liking or not.
This is the promise of peace that the Buddha said is possible for all of us to attain.