When the going gets tough

Posted by on Sep 5, 2013 in Buddhism | 583 Comments

I just spent a while in hospital (hence the lack of posting). I had internal bleeding after a fall and was under close observation as there was a danger I’d need emergency surgery.

While I was in there I was surrounded by extremely ill people. Mostly they were old but some of them were young. People who couldn’t walk, couldn’t wash or dress themselves, couldn’t feed themselves. Some people didn’t know where they were or who they were.

Going to hospital is a bit of a wake-up call. As Buddhists, we like to think we’re pretty awake anyway. Especially Buddhists like me, who have been at death’s door before.

But there seems to be something inherent in the human condition about focusing on the good stuff and getting caught up in fantasy and distraction as much as possible.

Look at what gets on TV for example. Young, fit, successful, attractive people. Not exclusively, but mainly. That’s what we want to watch.

We have biases towards all of these things, but they’re only one aspect of our lives. When old age, sickness and death come calling, are we prepared?

(I’m not sure you can really be prepared – but I think it’s possible to be prepared at least for the impossibility of preparation!)

Buddhism is great for helping you handle the small things in your day-to-day life. The stresses of the commute to work, dealing with difficult people. Someone cut you up while you were driving. Take a deep breath. Cultivate loving-kindness.

But when serious things happen and we can’t hide from them anymore – that’s when Buddhism (and other religions too I guess) really come into their own.

We can think of these as ‘fringe’ situations that we shouldn’t spend time worrying about. Some people see Buddhism as pessimistic because it goes on about this stuff. But they aren’t fringe.

The unpleasant, scary, difficult stuff of life is just as much a part of life as the happy, easy, fun stuff. To spend your life pursuing one and trying to avoid the other is fine. But we also need a mental and emotional framework that allows us to cope when the inevitable happens.

One of my nurses was Catholic. She goes on a pilgrimage every year. She says the meds aren’t really what saves people. God saves people.

That’s her framework for making sense of what she’s surrounded by every day.

For me, the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and not-self have always struck a deep chord in me.

Wellness, youth, life are temporary. You do not own them, and you only have limited control over them. If you are addicted to them, you will suffer more than you need to. But letting such things go takes practice.

The waves of samsara will smash you on the rocks one day. You don’t know when that will be. This is one reason for living in the present. Mindfulness helps you to let go of the fictions of life and experience its reality.

We don’t know why we’re here. We can make up a reason if we like, but we don’t know. Staying emotionally open to that reality isn’t easy – especially when our lives are threatened. I can’t leave yet! I haven’t achieved great things! I won’t be remembered! I don’t even know what I want to do when I grow up yet!

The thing is, by grappling with these challenging realities, we have the opportunity to live a much richer life while we’re here.

Rather than focusing on our present situation and trying to convince ourselves that it’s forever, we open to the whole expanse of life. Not just our life – Life Itself. The majesty of the universe. The immensity of time.



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