Suffering and Happiness: A Tangled Interconnection May 29, 2023 08:57
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, click HERE for the audio link.
During a recent meditation class, my teacher, Geshe Kunga, said something that has stuck with me, and I have been mulling it over for several days.
He said that happiness and suffering are interdependent and interconnected. For example, we appreciate food more if we have ever experienced hunger first hand. If we've ever lived in a country where water was a scarce and precious resource, we are more careful about how we use water--even if we're in a place where it is plentiful.
The suffering and lack of resources stimulates an appreciation and a strong sense of responsibility. This is the relationship between suffering and happiness.
Suffering, like everything else, is impermanent--and, so is happiness. Consequently, our lives are a blend of both--just like the beads on a mala. The beads themselves represent the beautiful aspects of life. The knots between the beads represent the hardships and obstacles. A meaningful life includes a balance of both.
Since January of this year, I have been practicing Lam Rim meditations with an online group connected with Sravasti Abbey. I enjoy the daily sessions--the familiarity of the mantra recitations, the visualizations, and the analytical contemplations that comprise this daily practice.
However, there's a part of the practice that I struggle with a bit, and it makes me bristle and cringe. As we begin the Shakyamuni Buddha sadhana, we visualize our birth mother on our left and our biological father on our right as we imagine leading them, along with other sentient beings, in this practice of gratitude and appreciation.
Both of my birth parents were challenging for me in many ways. They divorced when I was very young, so I didn't really know my father. What I did know wasn't good--he was a misogynist, a bigot, and a literal card-carrying member of the KKK.
My mother survived a serious car accident when she was a teenager. She slammed through the windshield...twice...and sustained serious head trauma at sixteen when she was riding in a car with friends.
As a result, she suffered with mental health issues ever since I can remember and even up until the time she died. When I was growing up, she took various combinations of medications over the course of decades ranging from anti-depressants to anti-psychotics. She worked with several therapists over the years, she was hospitalized several times, and she even endured shock-therapy treatments.
Looking back, I really think that she may have been misdiagnosed, and I believe that working with a therapist who specialized in trauma would have benefited her. However, I don't know if there were many specialists like that in the 70s.
Living with her when I was growing up, I remember that she was extremely self-absorbed, withdrawn, emotionally unavailable toward others, and needy. She was able to work for a while, but when she stopped working, she spent most of her time lying on the couch with her eyes closed--or staying in her room with the door closed.
She was very intelligent and bright...cogent...lucid...but also extremely preoccupied with her own wants and needs. When she did speak, it was usually something about herself or a needy request for some impulse craving: "Will you go to the store and get me a candy bar and a can of creamed corn?"
This was an actual request--and there were many random demands like this over the years.
I didn't know about causes, conditions, and karma at the time (I grew up in a Catholic home and didn't discover Buddhism until I was in my late 20s), but her life and choices demonstrated for me the drawbacks of self-cherishing and self-grasping thoughts.
All the medications and therapy didn't really help her much. She was obsessed with herself, and her self-absorption made her (and the rest of the family) miserable. Growing up with a difficult parent and home life encouraged me to seek other alternatives.
I walked away from Catholicism and embraced Buddhism instead.
I rejected my birth father's racist views and welcomed inclusive, anti-racist, and culturally-appreciative ideologies instead.
I did NOT want to be like my mom, so I focused more on giving rather than taking--on being of benefit to others rather than focusing on myself.
This is where suffering and happiness meet--and the line they share is in the choices we make.
If we're not happy, we can decide to choose another thought, another word, or another action. Our situation may not change immediately; it takes time. My life didn't begin to change for the better until I moved out of my parents' home at nineteen. I had to be consistent...and patient.
However, when I was in college and really focused on learning about subjects that fascinated me, especially learning how to educate others and helping others figure out what fascinated them, my life started to improve dramatically.
I have always enjoyed learning about other cultures. For a while, I considered the notion of studying cultural anthropology. Appreciating and learning about other cultures and viewpoints taught me to be open-minded and open-hearted, rather than fearful, limited, and hateful.
Interacting and teaching students from diverse cultures has enriched my life--and has encouraged me to feel connected and interconnected in this world.
Reading books and listening to music by writers and musicians from different walks of life and backgrounds has nourished my own curiosity and development.
My first teachers, my birth parents, taught me what NOT to be, what NOT to do. These early years of difficulty and suffering led to many more of growth, renewal, and happiness.
My life is far from perfect, and I am not happy all the time. That is for sure! I still struggle and suffer. I still make mistakes and screw up...a lot...but when I do, I know that I have choices. I know that I can sit with discomfort--listen to my thoughts--observe my feelings. I know that I can turn to others if I need guidance. I know that suffering, like happiness, is not permanent.
I also know that I can rely on the Dharma for inspiration. I know that I can rely on my practice for stability and clarity. I know that by focusing on others more than myself--by practicing generosity, patience, consistent and skillful effort, and by making time for daily meditation, I can manage more effectively these moments of suffering and disappointment.
Even now, having had time to reflect and write about this topic and these relationships, I now have a daily opportunity to reframe how I feel about my birth parents. My mom passed away nearly a decade ago. My birth father, I presume, is still living in a small town somewhere in Illinois. When I visualize them, appearing to my left and my right, I can now work toward feeling grateful. Despite the struggles and challenges, they taught me invaluable lessons, and my time with them eventually inspired me to grow and build a meaningful life.
My hope in writing these monthly blog posts is that they may benefit whoever reads (or listens to) them in some way.
May you continue to learn and grow in your own practice, and perhaps you'll find buried treasures among your own memories and relationships--evidence of interconnection--sparks of awareness, understanding, and compassion.
Several malas found new homes during this month. I've added a few to the collection, and I'm working on creating more one-of-a-kind designs. I invite you to visit the website to see what's new, and feel free to reach out if you have a special request.
Photo credit: Facebook