When I first asked my 18-year-old goddaughter, Tricia, what her life's big questions were, she said that she didn't think much about spiritual things, and instead stewed about colleges, clothes and dating. But a short time later, over lunch not long ago, she came up with a big one: "Why is everything always being taken away?" And to go along with this conundrum comes the question "How do you stay positive in the midst of constant loss and suffering?"
Here is my response to Tricia and everyone else.
Change is the law. The more we resist that universal fact, that reality, the more we suffer. The harder we try to grip and hold onto that which is passing through our fingers, the more we get rope burn. That is simply the truth. It is in our higher self-interest to learn to loosen our grip, unwind, and learn to "Kiss the joy as it flies, and live in eternity's sunrise," as William Blake sang.
Things come and go. All that are born die. The seasons pass, arriving and disappearing. The good news and the bad news at once is that the old gives out and gives way to the new. We too follow the same course. Let's think about what we do while here, and what we make of whatever hand we happen to have been dealt. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross said, "If you truly want to grow as a person and learn, you should realize that the universe has enrolled you in the graduate program of life called loss." So, how can we gain through loss, making stumbling blocks into stepping stones, while learning the virtue of adversity? The Jewish wisdom of the Talmud reminds me that whenever a door closes, a window opens elsewhere. This helps me keep going and remain optimistic, as well as realistic.
I always say that the secret of self-mastery, inner freedom and peace of mind is to realize our own innate power and inherent freedom of being, for it is not what happens to us but what we do with whatever comes that determines our character, our fate, karma and destiny. The winds of karma and past conditioning may be blowing, but we can learn how to set our sails, use the tiller and navigate better, rather than just being blown away by the prevailing winds and currents. Even strong habits and conditioning, such as addictions, can be reconditioned and eventually de-conditioned. This is the secret of working with karma, cause and effect.
One old Buddhist saying tells us that pain is inevitable in life-but suffering, on the other hand, is optional. How much we suffer depends on us, our internal development and our spiritual understanding and realization. Our pain and suffering point out to us where we are most attached, and what we're holding onto the most; likewise, they point out how free we are. By recognizing this, we can learn to use loss and suffering in ways that help us to grow wiser and become more at peace with ourselves and the universe. Through meditation practice, we come to see that the necessary losses in life-aging, separation, sorrow and death-are inevitable. And when we learn to accept the inevitable changes, through a more graceful letting go called the wisdom of allowing, we will tremendously lessen our suffering and leave room for happiness to arise. Helen Keller puts it this way: "The world is full of suffering, and it is also full of people overcoming suffering."
Life is tenuous, impermanent, and fleeting-not unlike a dream. I think we all must look into this reality at some point, and make some kind of peace with it. Everything is always slipping through our fingers; yet the answer is not to hold on tight or to push away.
B. Alan Wallace, Buddhist scholar, writes that when our sense of balance goes astray, loving-kindness can augment an even temper. These qualities of the heart-lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity-are known as the Four Immeasurables. They all work together. Wallace writes: "Working with the heart qualities can be a means for overcoming emotional distress or instability and achieving genuine happiness."
Learning to love and let go is truly in our own higher self-interest. When we can let it all in, saying "yes" to all of life, meeting whatever befalls us with equanimity, we will grow deeper and wiser and happier; not in spite of life, but, rather, because of it.
So how to set one's sails, to stay positive amidst so much loss and change? First and foremost, the pain and suffering, misery and unhappiness-which I feel and experience as well-inspires and drives me to look deeper, further, beyond the material, the visible, the temporary conditions and circumstances-seeking something more reliable, timeless, transcendent. That is why I do spiritual practice. This practice includes cultivating gratitude and equanimity, surrendering to the higher power or the ineluctable law of karma, and arriving at some kind of faith and trust through developing a deepening experiential understanding, conviction, and inner wisdom. Genuine spiritual practice of any kind brings joy, inner peace and calm, clarity and centeredness. In my own spiritual practice, I keep positive through six attitude trainings and inner practices: