My life is not all equanimity and joy. I’ve gone through periods of darkness when my mind has felt literally fogged up with clouds of misery. During such periods, it’s very difficult to think clearly, like trying to see the world through mud-colored glasses. Sometimes during such periods people have tried to be helpful to me in ways that haven’t been helpful at all. I have never once been comforted by hearing “it could always be worse”, no matter how true the statement is. “The universe never gives you more than you can handle” is another one that does not resonate with me. Sometimes I’ve faced situations that are more than I can handle. Sometimes I have broken. What I have learned, however, is that breaking gives me the opportunity to put myself back together stronger than I was before.
One of my favorite books is The Chocolate Cake Sutra by Geri Larkin. I was pretty skeptical when I started reading the book. There are a lot of pop culture references that initially felt pretty jarring in a Buddhist book and the author tends to be perky in a way that made me doubt whether she’d ever really been tested by difficult experiences. But the more I read, the more I realized that she’d been tested in far greater ways that I ever had and she’d come out with a deep happiness based not on platitudes but on radical acceptance of whatever life was throwing at her in the moment. She writes “Accepting what is leads to the surprise of a lifetime. Suddenly you realize that happiness is yours. And that it grows from the opposite of what you expect. Instead of control, it grows from letting go. Instead of stuff, it grows from simplicity. Instead of the need for fifteen minutes of fame, it grows from planting flowers and vegetables in an abandoned city plot – anonymously.”
This was revelatory to me. On some level, I’d always thought that my life was supposed to be happy all the time – and not little happiness like a clear sky or a fresh strawberry or a hug from my child but Hollywood-style happiness like fame, fortune, and vacations in Europe – and if I got less than that, I was being cheated. And yet. When I look deeply and really think about it – that’s not the way life is.
The Buddha realized this 2,500 years ago and called it the First Noble Truth: Life is full of suffering. That can be a hard starting place when explaining Buddhism to others. I didn’t really come to terms with it myself until I first read The Chocolate Cake Sutra back in 2007 and this huge awesome revelation burst out of me. I phrased it in a letter to my mom like this:
First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. But it’s not like that. it’s like: First Noble Truth: Life is suffering! Say it with joy. I mean it – it’s a joyous thing. Because once you get it, suddenly you understand – the suffering bits, why that’s what supposed to be there. That’s life – after all, remember – “life is suffering”. But then the joyous bits – those are completely bonus. Completely unexpected. Completely wonderful. Whereas if you go around thinking all the time that life is joyous – well, you start fixating on all the non-joyous parts as being unexpected, unfair. And that’s not it at all. Life is suffering! The joyous bits – lunch out in the park today by the fountain . . . the trees in the park when I cross the street . . . those are completely amazing.
Thich Nhat Hanh did a wonderful piece of calligraphy that simply says, “This is it”. That particular phrase grips me with immediacy. Whatever the situation I am faced with, whatever I bring to this moment to cope with that situation, this is it. There is no more, there is no less: deal with it. As the saying goes, pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.
And thus inevitably comes the uncomfortable realization that happiness is a choice. Geri Larkin comes right out and says this. “Happiness can only happen when we let it. When we choose it. I see choosing it as a moral obligation, at least for those of us who want the world to be a better place for everyone. It’s separate from the people in our lives or the situations we find ourselves in.”
This truth is uncomfortable because it lays the responsibility for my happiness right at my feet. Happiness is a choice. No matter how bad my situation is, how I feel about it is fundamentally my decision. This is what first attracted me to Buddhism. As a teenager visiting Nepal with my parents, I encountered Tibetans in exile living in a refugee camp; they had lost everything, had fled across the tallest mountains on Earth leaving family and possessions behind, and yet they radiated such happiness that I was confounded. Thầy developed his teachings on mindfulness and peace while doing social work in the midst of the horrors of the Vietnam War. He’d tested his teachings under fire long before he developed the Fifth Mindfulness Training, which says, “I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.”
That’s right: no matter what my circumstances are, I have more than enough conditions to be happy.
During any time in my life when things aren’t going exactly as I expect them to, my mind rebels against these teachings. I throw mental tantrums – but I don’t want to, I can’t, it’s not fair! I want someone, anyone, else to be responsible for my happiness. To take responsibility myself feels like too much of a burden on top of anything else. And yet, there is a flip side to the coin: if happiness is my choice, then no one else has the power to take it away from me.
Another one of my favorite authors, Pema Chödrön, writes in Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change that we suffer because we “keep trying to get away from the fundamental ambiguity of being human, and we can’t. . . We may feel lonely or depressed or angry. Most of us want to avoid emotions that make us feel vulnerable, so we’ll do almost anything to get away from them. . . But if, instead of thinking of these feelings at bad, we could think of them as road signs or barometers that tell us we’re in touch with groundlessness, then we would see the feelings for what they really are: the gateway to liberation, an open doorway to freedom from suffering, the path to our deepest well-being and joy. We have a choice. We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.”
In other words, stop making excuses. Accept what is, sit with the pain, find the joy, cultivate equanimity, and choose to be happy. It’s my choice.
Which brings me finally to the poem I want to close with, only I can’t put it here, first because it has very specific formatting that doesn’t copy well and second because the language is a bit strong in one part (consider yourself warned). But click on the following link and you’ll get there:
Remember: the boat is sinking, everyone is suffering, and everything sucks – but isn’t life amazing?