Sometimes I don’t sleep well and then I feel unwell and tired for the day. When this happens, I can see quite clearly the habitual pull of aversion to this experience in my mind. In a way, it is natural and understandable. As sentient beings we all share this wish of not wanting to experience pain discomfort.
The teachings give us a different outlook on this. This morning I read a famous teaching called Turning Suffering and Happiness into Enlightenment by the third Dodrupchen Rinpoche, Jikmé Tenpé Nyima, where he talks about how to deal with this problem.
He explains that when we always focus on the uncomfortable and unwanted aspects of our experiences we create a strong habit. We condition ourselves to only look at the unwanted negative side of things to the extent that eventually “all experience and perception will arise as enemies.”
Dodrupchen Rinpoche says that, “If you do not realize that it all depends on the way your mind develops that habit and instead put your blame on external objects and situations alone, the flames of suffering, negative karma, aggression and so on will spread like wildfire, without end.”
Instead, he says, “We need to convince ourselves of the uselessness and bitter pain involved in regarding suffering as something purely harmful and undesirable, and how much anxiety and pain you go through simply not wanting it to happen.” He also writes that “Reversing the attitude of not wanting to suffer is the whole basis of turning suffering into the path.”
In other teachings this change of attitude is often spoken about in terms of the Eight Samsaric Dharmas, which are hope for happiness, gain, praise and gaining a good reputation and fear of pain, loss, criticism and having a bad reputation. It is said that a true dharma practitioner needs to abandon these. I find that very challenging. Most of the time I am preoccupied trying to feel good and comfortable.
It is difficult to see how I could possibly abandon this kind of hope and fear. When I reflect on my habitual approach to happiness, I see that it is centered on just feeling good and very short-term focused. The Buddhist teachings acknowledge that we all want happiness and want to avoid suffering but they suggest a long-term focus. They tell us that we need to look at what will truly help and benefit us in the long run.
The nature of our world is such that there will be always an unwanted and undesirable aspect in any experience. If I have the habit of always looking for this aspect, I will always find something that is not right. For example, even if something is perfect I can worry that it might change! Therefore I need to develop a different attitude.
I want to learn to better accept that suffering, pain and discomfort are unavoidable aspects of this life. For example, His Holiness the Dalai Lama pointed out once that health is just a temporary balance of the elements of the body. It is futile to just want to feel good all the time. Even if I had a perfect life now and even if were to stay that way, the bottom line is that one day I will have to die and almost certainly it will be difficult and painful. Wouldn’t it be better to learn to deal with pain and suffering now?
With this perspective, I can look at “not feeling well” as an opportunity to prepare for this moment. And if I decide that for me it is more important to learn to deal with suffering than to just feel good, then I will be willing to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. I will look at pain or discomfort as a short-term hardship and as an opportunity to train my mind to prepare myself for the unavoidable suffering intrinsic to my life. My outlook on life and my priorities will be different. I will have a different appreciation of life and rely more on a fundamental contentment and wise outlook on the realities of life. My happiness will be based more on a positive outlook on life and be less dependent on the actual circumstances and what is happening.
Dodrupchen Rinpoche writes in his teaching that if we train like this we can eventually be joyful when suffering arises. Suffering will continue to arise but its experience will be as soft as cotton wool. He says, “As long as we don’t get anxious and irritated, then our strength of mind will enable us to bear even the hardest sufferings easily; they’ll feel as flimsy and insubstantial as cotton wool.”
He recommends we should remind ourselves that suffering is beneficial and say to ourselves that “… however tough, however difficult the suffering may be, it will always bring me the greatest joy and happiness, bitter and yet sweet, like those Indian cakes made of sugar mixed with cardamom and pepper.”
It’s important to practice and apply this kind of teaching to oneself and not use it to judge others or tell others what they should do. I notice that sometimes it bothers me when someone else is complaining about their suffering and usually my immediate reaction is to get irritated because it feels uncomfortable and think, “they should really apply this advice.” That may be true but when I think like this I fail to see that am I the one reacting with aversion to my experience and I am not applying this advice.
The best way to deal with my irritation would be to learn how to not be bothered by the situation, rather than trying to change the outer circumstances. I may be able to make one experience go away but another situation will surely arise and I will keep getting irritated until I am able to see how I habitually react to this kind of situation and learn to react differently. So, I am the one who should apply this advice to my own aversion. Until I do, the problem will never end. It will be like trying to cover the whole world with leather to protect my feet from thorns rather than putting on shoes. It is not easy to see my own habits because I tend to easily see other’s faults and not notice my own, like in the Tibetan saying, “Seeing a speck of dust in someone else’s eye and not the Yak in one’s own eye.”