Finding Islands of Happiness In the Sea of Suffering

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by Jayaram V

Life is full of suffering. Yet we all live and try to escape from suffering to the extent possible. We inherently know that life is a unique opportunity to be alive and aware and we cannot simply throw it away in a fit of despair. The longing for life and fear of death keep us alive despite our problems and the suffering we experience.

What is suffering? Suffering is the sum of all the negativity that we experience in life. It can be physical, mental, existential or even vague. Many a time we do not know why we suffer, yet we suffer. Suffering is the sum of all that we dislike, hate, turn away from or experience as pain, aversion, anger, envy, sorrow, anxiety, worry, unhappiness, fear or loathing. No one can completely remove these feelings from their minds, nor can they survive without them.

Since we are not completely in control of our lives, we cannot also fully resolve our problems and thereby the suffering that arises from our helplessness and lack of control. We also know from experience that neither wealth nor power nor status can resolve human suffering. On the contrary, if you lack wisdom or balance, they may increase it. As far as suffering is concerned, we have very limited options. Yet, as we will discuss later, the situation is not completely hopeless.

Suffering is inherent to the very act of living. At the very thought of suffering or seeing how others are suffering, one may experience intense feelings. Thus, in a way suffering is what makes us human. It is a natural response, which distinguishes living beings from inanimate objects, and part of the natural mechanism, which intends to prepare us in advance for the threats and opportunities that are present in our environment. While subjecting us to intense emotions, it brings to our attention what we should or should not do to avoid suffering and self-destruction or increase our chances of our survival, success and happiness.

For example, hunger makes you look for food so that you can nourish your body. Fear makes you prepare for threats and secure your life against them. Suffering teaches you many lessons about life and how to survive in a rather hostile world. Attraction and aversion, which are responsible for our attachments and desire-ridden actions, act like the two sides of a paddle. They help you keep the boat of your life steady and move forward in the sea of impermanent phenomena.

Building the foundation for happiness

Living in such a world how can you make yourself happy? Is happiness possible at all for people in this world? Realistically speaking, you cannot entirely eliminate suffering from your life or your mind. It is not even healthy to try doing it. What is possible and what you should aim is to enjoy moments of peace and happiness in a sea of suffering.

You can also try to extend the duration of those positive moments, besides increasing their chances of recurrence. Amidst suffering and daily problems, life gives you many opportunities to enjoy life and experience peace and happiness. You must make the most out of them. You can also create opportunities to experiences those positive moments. It is the best you can do.

People are by nature inherently negative. Negativity is a natural, human disposition, while positive thinking is a learned or cultivated behavior. There is no person who is completely devoid of negativity. However, you will find many people who have learned to think positively, due to circumstances or deliberate effort, despite the negativity that surrounds them.

Our predisposition to negativity is evident even in the most mundane aspects of our lives. People remember moments of unhappiness more than moments of happiness. They remember people, who despise them, rather than those who love them. They seek that which is difficult to attain rather than enjoy what they already have.

The truth is your happiness does not depend upon what you have, but what you enjoy. Yet, more people spend their time in accumulating and hoarding what they do not need, rather than enjoy what they have already secured. Insecurity drives most people into despair. The more insecure a person is, the greater is his or her vulnerability to suffer.

You might have seen people who tend to remember negative events and experiences more than positive ones. You might have seen how they ignore the positive moments of their relationship with friends and family, but focus upon unpleasant experiences and unhappy conversations. In the process they lose opportunities to build trust and strengthen relationships.

People are wired to be suspicious and distrustful. You cannot easily break that pattern. Help them a hundred times. They may take it for granted. Say once, “No,” and you may lose all the esteem they may have for you. It happens even in close relationships. The positive vibes which you build for years in a friendship or intimate relationship may be lost in a moment of anger.

The human brain is wired to think negatively as part of its survival mechanism. We should not try to tamper with it, but we must understand that negative thinking is inherent to our nature, and we must learn to live with it and make use of it. At the same time, we can also train our minds to cherish and remember positive experiences about ourselves and others.

In other words, let us be careful and realistic about our lives and circumstances, but at the same time let us keep our minds and hearts open to positive experiences and moments of happiness.

You cannot always be happy, but you can choose to be happy whenever possible. You cannot entirely overcome suffering, but you can keep your morale high in the most challenging circumstances.

Your happiness is a product of your thinking and attitude and how you choose to respond to events and circumstances. It is where you can exercise control. In this regard the following suggestions are useful.

1. Cultivate the Buddha mind

Since you know that your mind tends to think negatively and remembers negative events, focus upon the positive aspects of your life. Try to remember pleasant moments in your life, the people who might have helped you or made you happy. At the same time learn to forgive people for their faults and failings. Thank them for teaching you valuable lessons. Show compassion and understanding in your relationships and attitude. The Buddha suggested the Eightfold Path essentially for this purpose. With right thinking, right perceptions, right choices, right understanding, right behavior you can improve your thinking and attitude and your chances of feeling good and being good.

2. Create opportunities to experience peace and happiness

You may not know what is going to happen the next day. You may not have control over the major events in your life. However, you can still do a lot within your capacity and zone of influence. You can certainly create positive experiences or opportunities to experience peace and happiness. If you are wise and smart, it may not even cost you much. You can do it within your means by spending time with the people you love or by doing things that make you happy such as going for a walk in the park, going on a scenic drive or visiting a new place and exploring it.

3. Overcome your assumptive behavior and irrational thinking

Your mind is wired to follow the words of authority figures such as your parents, teachers, elderly people, those in power, people you admire or idolize, the teachings of scriptures, religious personalities and spiritual masters. In most cases you take them for true, without subjecting them to reality check. This assumptive behavior leads to many problems in your life and a lot of negativity, since your mind is habitually organized to think negatively. You can counter this problem by questioning all your beliefs, judgments, opinions, and assumptions, which you may have about others or yourself and subject them to reality check. Dispute your decisions, judgments, fears and negativity and subject them to reality check, using your own experience and observation as the proof.

4. Live in the present and learn to think clearly

Many problems in life can be avoided if you learn to see and think clearly. Lot of people have muddled thinking. They are influenced by their prejudice, desires, irrational beliefs and many such filters and thereby make many mistakes in discerning truth. For example, if something happens you may blame yourself if you lack self-esteem, or you may blame others if you are angry with them, whereas the real reason for it may be entirely different.

Therefore, if you want to find correct solutions to your problems, you must learn to discern truth. Clarity in perception and thinking comes from paying close attention. If you pay close attention to what happens in you and outside you, your solutions and your approach to the problems in your life will be realistic and effective. The best way to do it is to live with awareness and mindfulness. Engage your mind and senses to the extent possible in your daily life and gain insight into your problems and relationships so that you can either mend your behavior or find effective solutions.

Suffering can never be taken out of your life. If suffering is an ocean, happiness is an island. Until you cross the ocean, keep searching for islands of happiness or spend some time on each to collect gems of precious memories which you can carry with you and cherish them while you navigate the sea in search of the shore of eternal freedom.

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