In the last article on resilience, Grace under pressure, I was saying how we need to view difficult situations as challenges as opposed to insurmountable obstacles or we can’t transform them. Later I was thinking we could get to the point where we even see them as invitations: “I invite you to transform me!”
When I had Omicron last month, for example I was trying to pray not so much, “Please don’t let me feel too ill!” but “May I accept whatever is appearing due to my karma as an invitation to transform my mind into renunciation, compassion, and the wisdom realizing emptiness.” This changes the meaning of adversity from “insurmountable obstacle” to “encouragement to transcend all suffering”.
In Kadampa Buddhism, one of our key practices is called “transforming adverse conditions into the path” – whereby we take anything that looks like a disadvantage and turn it into an advantage. In this way we don’t just have to bounce back – we can bounce forward. When we get good at this, we become someone who doesn’t mind difficulties. We don’t even have to have the initial freakout, “Nooooooo waaaaayyy!!!!” — we simply welcome wholeheartedly whatever comes up, knowing we can use it to make solid progress to our goal of lasting freedom and happiness. This is spiritual resilience. So useful.
One question you may have – maybe it’s possible to transform our own personal difficulties such as Covid, but what if people make a decision that we feel is completely wrong, eg, that will destroy public health, affecting millions of people? Such as the recent US Supreme Court decisions on undermining voting rights, gun laws, the EPA, and women’s rights? How do we transform all that?! Are we supposed to transform that?! … or are we supposed to fight?! What do we do? If we do nothing, as someone asked me the other day, won’t we end up living in the Handmaid’s Tale?!
For example, climate change has been quite nice in London this summer = two months of sunshine and heat (who needs Spain?!) But this unusually pleasant weather is another harbinger of a burning and melting globe, meaning that billions of humans and animals are going to suffer even more than they are suffering already. So I wasn’t impressed by the recent decision of the US Supreme Court to weaken the EPA. However, given that there’s very little that I can do about it, what can this teach me? How can others’ behavior – even when seemingly villainous — invite me to deepen my Dharma understanding such that I can transcend suffering once and for all? Such that I can get into the position of rescuing everyone drowning in the floodwaters of samsara?
And, by the way, transforming difficulties is not doing nothing – we need to keep in mind the difference between inner and outer problems, as explained here. We can be working on both at the same time.
4. Foster flexibility
The 4th of the 8 ways to foster resilience (according to my re-ordered list) is to become more flexible. As the article says:
“You can build your resilience muscles by practicing flexibility, which is the ability to use different tools and techniques to overcome a challenge. … First ask yourselves questions to focus your mind: “What’s happening to me? What do I need to do here?” Next, take stock of the “tools” in your toolbox. And finally it’s time to decide which of all my options am I actually able to do, do it, and then we monitor it and if it’s working great, good. If it’s not working, then we either modify it a little bit or try something else. That’s flexibility.”
I think our mind needs to become infinitely flexible, and that the combination of challenges and a massive number of Dharma teachings is giving us that.
There’s no point in getting upset with super villains because, of course, they’re not the actual villains – it is delusions that are running the show. All mother sentient beings are being swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers of birth, ageing, sickness, and death, entrapped by their self-grasping. Anyone who harms our environment, for example, is still going to have to inhabit the same world as the rest of us. When climate change strikes, it will strike them too. So, the real enemies are the delusions.
Get out while you can
In his teachings on the sufferings of samsara, Buddha is saying quite categorically: “Get out while you still can.” And we’re like, “Oh yeah, I kind of get that — but it’s not so bad. There are still some pretty fun things going on. Netflix has come up with some great series lately, and since I joined Apple TV there’s a whole bunch more stuff to choose from! Plus I have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and I love gamboling with my dog, and what was that you were saying about the lovely weather we’ve been having? Samsara has its moments, but I reckon I can protect myself from the worst of them.”
I think an awful lot of things need to go wrong before we develop the constant wish to get the hell out of samsara and inhabit a Pure Land. This might be why The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra contain a little bit of fire and brimstone, where we imagine going to sleep tonight as a human but wake up surrounded by hellish fire. Why would Venerable Geshe Kelsang bring that up?! For one thing, of course, it is perfectly possible that this is going to happen; it is not made up. But also it injects some urgency into our renunciation (and thereafter our compassion.)
Of course we need some sophisticated understanding of the causes and types of suffering to develop a qualified renunciation, but sometimes we don’t need to be too clever or too subtle – we just need to remember that, while we stay in samsara, we are in danger any day now of being engulfed by fire. This lends urgency to our wish for freedom, which we need because — although things go wrong every day and we rail and throw up our hands and sigh and gnash our teeth and dislike people — in reality nothing is the villain except samsara itself. We have to get out.
And we can. Dharma practice is rooted in the understanding that we are far more powerful than we realize — that we have extraordinary depth and potential. Indeed, we are creating our entire reality with our intentions, with our thoughts. Not realizing this, we give ourselves no credit or agency, instead being swept along helplessly by circumstances that we believe are completely beyond our control. We feel angry, helpless, anxious, depressed, etc because we don’t realize our involvement in this waking dream.
For more on this subject, please check out these articles on wisdom, especially this one “Mere karmic appearance to mind.” This is probably my favorite go-to consideration when things are going wrong and I have started to feel powerless. I really wish, amongst other things, that we could all pause at least occasionally from the passive imbibement of mass media to realize our true agency.
Another thing we can do when frustrated about factors outside of our control is pray. And we don’t need to pray too small. Perhaps we pray fervently for one or two people without appreciating that Buddha’s liberating wisdom and bliss pervade not just our little corner of the universe, but all of reality. When we pray, we can remember that Buddha Tara, for example, is everywhere all the time and can bring peace into many people’s minds.If we cultivate this insight through meditation and prayer, then of course we will understand how we can make a difference on a grand scale.
Over to you. Comments most appreciated!