Life constantly presents us with situations we don’t want. Too much of this… not enough of that… The intensity of these situations varies: someone uses the last piece of toilet paper and doesn’t replace it – a loved one dies before their 30th birthday. Do you know anyone who has avoided disappointment, failure, pain and suffering? Just like the 10,000 joys, the 10,000 sorrows are part of the territory of being human. Fortunately, we can build inner capacity to respond to the sorrows so that our wellbeing is not compromised (and may even benefit).
It is worth pausing and reflecting how much your contentment depends on external forces. For you to be happy:
• Does the weather need to be sunny (or cold)? • Does the stock market need to go up (or down)? • Do drivers need to be polite (or drive faster, or slower)? • Does your partner/friends need always to be caring and considerate (of you)?
Outsourcing our happiness to external forces means we surrender our power and miss the opportunity to build inner resources. Most external events are beyond our control. When we do try control the outside world, we often end up tight and stressed.
For some reason we tend to believe that other people ought to behave in a way that is consistent with what we want. Time and again we fall into the trap of enrolling people into our “happiness project.” We forget that they have their own “happiness project” which won’t always align with ours. Continuing to rely on others for our happiness in not an evidence-based approach to wellbeing! It’s doomed. You already know that.
Contrary to the advertising messages of “buy more,” increasing our wellbeing comes (in part) from letting go of expectations that the external world can deliver what we want, when we want it. Making peace with an imperfect world is such a relief. Another aspect of inner contentment comes from remembering that the challenges of life (the stuff we don’t want), can bring important benefits. Building resilience requires that we have experiences that we don’t like. Which of your life experiences has supported profound growth? They usually are not comfortable. “Failure,” responded to with curiosity and care can be a site of deep learning. Often, we only see this with hindsight, but it is possible through practice to move closer and closer to the point of discomfort with equanimity. Understanding the benefits that can come from unwanted experiences changes our interpretation of a situation. It we can remember that unpleasant events have much to teach us, some of the sting is taken out. While it is understandable that we look for ease and comfort, we paradoxically do ourselves a disservice when we avoid discomfort.
We learn to ride the waves of life so much more easily if we can welcome them. Grace comes from being able to bend and adjust to the conditions. Mindfulness is a starting point for building this grace, balance and equanimity. An equanimity refrain I’ve been using over the past few months comes from Tempel Smith: “This is how it is. It is like this.” In the face of unwanted situations this is proving very helpful. Granted, it is often a remedial reflection as I acknowledge the extra friction caused by my resistance to the reality of a situation. However, it is building momentum. “This is how it is. It is like this.”
Rather than coming from a place of resistance and reactivity this orientation increases the possibility of wise action. It minimises the additional stress created through wishing it were different, wishing I were different, wishing he/she were different…
Don’t hear me as advocating inaction in the face of injustice. It is simply that this article focuses on building inner resources to meet the stuff of life with equanimity. It isn’t a permissive argument for letting abuse go unchecked. If we are interested in reducing suffering, we need to respond by building inner resources and also by responding wisely and courageously to the injustices of the world. Wise activism is well supported by the inner resources of mindfulness and equanimity.
Go well Kathryn
PS Interested in developing your inner resources of mindfulness and equanimity? The next Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program will start you on the journey (commences Sunday, 2 February).
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.