So how does a good Buddhist, practiced in equanimity and nonattachment, react to good news? She jumps up and down, claps her hands, squees like a little girl, and tells everyone she knows. Without shame or inhibition. And in full knowledge that today’s source of joy will be tomorrow’s source of suffering.
But who cares? I’ve been accepted into two great PhD programs, offered an awesome scholarship, I’m getting a Smart Car, and moving in with my boyfriend, who also got a new job. How cool is that?
So how does a Buddhist, good or otherwise, deal with all that? Patiently! Or she tries to anyway, because as good as the news is, it won’t come to fruition right away and not without a lot of effort. Almost all the best things are like that. And, if she’s smarter than me, she tries not to gettooattached. Because shit happens and things change, often without a lot of warning. Finally, she tries to see clearly that as great as these things are, they are not the true source of any lasting happiness. They will not bring about true freedom from suffering. Only the enlightenment at the end of the Buddhist path can do that.
So is Buddhism the ultimate downer? Of course not! Buddhism’s goal is to relieve suffering, not spread it in the form of malaise and pessimism. Engaging each of these Buddhist teachings – patience, nonattachment, and wisdom – will only enhance the joy of my good fortune. By practicing patience, I prevent frustration from arising when the paperwork for the car is delayed. By practicing nonattachment, I prevent disappointment when we can’t get exactly the apartment I want. By practicing wisdom I prevent heartbreak by seeing clearly the strengthsandweaknesses of the universities I’m considering. I can enjoy my successes more fully both now and in the future because I’m not hung up on demanding perfection or threatened by the fear that it might not work out after all.
In addition to preventing my current happiness from turning sour, there are even things I can do to sweeten it right now. By practicing gratitude, I feel a powerful sense of love for and from all the people who helped me achieve my goals: my parents for cosigning on the car, my boyfriend for being foolish enough to want to put up with me full time (and covering a major portion of the rent), my professors who must have written awesome recommendation letters for me, and all my friends who supported my ambitions. By practicing mindfulness I can enjoy this part of my life to the fullest without being too distracted by dreams and worries about the future. As a result, my work this semester is coming along nicely and I feel very fulfilled and productive, despite a higher than average project load. Mindfulness also helps me stay focused on the task at hand, even and especially if that task is relaxation or play, without fretting about my projects.
Finally, each of these skills helps me cope not just when things are coming up roses, but also when they’re nothing but manure. They are versatile, lifelong, and life-changing skills. That’s just how I think of them – as skills – not abstract beliefs or esoteric doctrines. Patience and gratitude aren’t things I value because some guru told me they’re good (and many have), but because I can do them and I likedoing them. I like being this way. This kind of joy and contentment is necessary if we’re going to continue on the Buddhist path. Its still going to take hard work, effort, and some necessary suffering, but if it didn’t include these types of rewards, no one would walk it long enough to reach the ultimate goal. The alternative is to easy.
Desire, attachment, delusion – these are the ways we normally react to the good things in or lives (myself included). We grab them and do whatever we can to hang on, even if the effort to keep them means we scarcely enjoy them at all. We tell ourselves we ‘earned’ them and we ‘deserve’ them and lead ourselves down the path of thinking the universe owes us one, so if it doesn’t work out, it’s a personal slight and we look for someone to blame. I remember living like that. I still fall into those habits of thinking. It’s not fun. In Buddhism I found a better way, and I’m grateful for that most of all.