Transforming adversity

Sorry I’ve been quiet for a while, I was nursing a horrible cold – so I thought I’d transform that experience into something meaningful by using it as the basis for this post.

One of the most wonderful things about Buddha’s teachings is the array of practices we can use to transform adversity into the spiritual path. Even if we take just a little bit of this advice and put it into practice, we fell a little better – like a diamond, where even a small sliver is worth something. We can use our problems to help us develop:

  • Patience
  • Renunciation, recognizing we will only be free from suffering when we escape from this imperfect world
  • Compassion, by using our suffering to help us empathize with others
  • Wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of all our experiences

Our suffering can be the entire path to enlightenment, but we can’t use our adversity to gain deep experience until we are able to apply patience to it. Patient acceptance is the key to all the other practices because it allows us to relax into our situation. I know it sounds strange to talk about relaxing when we’re suffering or in a challenging situation, but we can’t really transform our mind into virtue unless it is relaxed and comfortable. That’s why we always do breathing meditation at the beginning of classes: we need to start from a peaceful place. In the same way, when we encounter challenges we have to start by being patient, which allows us to relax.

Patience is a mind that has stopped fighting against reality. We say ‘yes, it does hurt; that’s the way it is.’ We simply accept our present reality, we let go of all the ‘it’s not fair, I don’t like it, why does it have to be this way, I want it to stop’ and just accept. That is a very relaxed mind, free from all inner conflict; from that mental space, we can move on to develop a positive and constructive view. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe-la says:

Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara. This recognition is the basis for developing renunciation, the spontaneous wish to attain complete freedom from every trace of dissatisfaction, which in turn is the foundation of all the higher spiritual realizations leading to the boundless happiness of liberation and enlightenment. But this recognition can only dawn within the clear and open mind of patient acceptance. For as long as we are in conflict with life’s difficulties, thinking that things should be different from the way they are and blaming circumstances or other people for our unhappiness, we shall never have the clarity or spaciousness of mind to see what it is that is really binding us. Patience allows us to see clearly the mental habit patterns that keep us locked in samsara, and thereby enables us to begin to undo them. Patience is therefore the foundation of the everlasting freedom and bliss of liberation.

Patience really is the key that unlocks the door to our spiritual development. In my experience, trying to engage in the other practices without establishing the baseline of patience first feels inauthentic. We can gain some good feeling, and that’s wonderful; but for it to be really transformative it needs to be built on the bedrock of patience.

In order to be patient with our suffering, we can remember karma, recognizing our present problems as the result of our previous actions and seeing them as the payment of a long-standing debt. When we experience the suffering, that karma is purified; so our current difficulties are cleaning our mind and smoothing the path of our future. If we recognize that a pain is performing a useful function, it’s much easier to accept. For example, if someone stuck a needle in your arm for no reason you would probably yell blue murder; but if that needle contained an antidote you needed you would hardly even register the pain of the injection. If we can see all of our sufferings as performing a useful function – purifying our mind of negative karma – then it will be easy to be patient. We may still feel it, like the pinprick of an injection, but there will be no mental pain associated with it. We can relax.

If we learn to accept unavoidable suffering, unhappy thoughts will never arise to disturb us. There are many difficult and unpleasant circumstances that we cannot avoid, but we can certainly avoid the unhappiness and anger these circumstances normally provoke in us. It is these habitual reactions to hardship, rather than the hardship itself, that disturb our day-to-day peace of mind, as well as our spiritual practice.

If we keep training in developing patience, eventually our suffering will no longer disturb our mind. Instead of interfering with our peace of mind, our problems will become the springboard for our spiritual life.

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