Dealing with Change and Suffering

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a blog entry, mostly because I’ve been extremely busy teaching and practicing, developing my personal as well as my professional life. Spring is upon us, and I just completed the last of my 200-hour yoga-teaching certificate this weekend. I am happy and relieved, but also sad that I won’t be seeing Nicki Doane or my peers on a regular basis. Another point of awesomness: after much hard work at tearing down the walls of fear, I finally conquered handstand! It all feels a little surreal; time is moving very quickly.

Because of the Easter holiday, I had this afternoon and evening off. Despite the million things I could have ran around catching up on, I decided to spend a good chunk of it sitting with my back up against a tree in city park, taking in all the life around me. I listened to bubbles of broken conversation floating in the air, watched a father and son playing catch as dogs of all sizes bounced after balls, kicking up tufts of still yellowed grass in the waning sunlight. And as I sat there, I thought: “Life’s really good. I’m healthy, I’m doing what I love, and I have many people in my life that I adore. I’m very content. Perhaps this is what it feels like to have achieved santosha.”

Well, yes, but I’m learning more and more each day that expectations are the root of all heartache. A sharpened mind will know that when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Or to use another cliché, “all good things must come to an end.” In Buddhist terms, it is believed that life is never free of suffering. To be alive is to suffer. Suffering is called “dukka”, and there are three types of it. In the first category, dukkha includes the obvious physical suffering or pain associated with giving birth, growing old, physical illness and the process of dying. These outer discomforts are referred to as the dukkha of ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha). In a second category, dukkha also includes the anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing; these inner anxieties are called the dukkha produced by change (vipariāma-dukkha). The third pattern or category of dukkha refers to a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards, and is referred to as the dukkha of conditioned states (sakhāra-dukkha) (source: Wikipedia).

What I’m dealing with right now is the second kind, the suffering caused by wanting things to stay the same when it is inevitable that they will change. I’ve worked very hard to break down walls and come to a place where I feel happy and comfortable. I’ve achieved my dream job, I’m happy in my body, I have attracted friendship and romance that I’d only dreamed of. But just as my body will change, so will my professional and personal situations. To try and hold onto anything in this world is like trying to grasp a stream of water like a staff or hold onto a delicate butterfly; we have to just let it flow gently through our fingers or alight on its own terms in the palm of our hand. I’m recognizing that there are certain things that used to bring me great amounts of joy, but that when I revisit them, it feels a little like trying to fit into an article of clothing that I’ve outgrown. It’s just not the same. I guess this goes to show that I’ve changed, too. There is a definite sense of joy that comes with this growth, coupled with a hollowing nostalgia. Yes, change is good, but if things are constantly changing, what can we depend on? Are we doomed to flail forever in a state of cosmic flux? Or is our false idea of security what causes suffering?

One of the ten foundational Yoga Sutras of Patanjali states: Te Pratiprasavah Heya Sukshmaha – just when we think we have things figured out, watch out! There is always suffering on the path of life, sometimes it just seems to have disappeared for moments in time. But the universe will always remind us that we have to be ever vigilant, approaching life with a beginners mind and that “empty cup” mentality. This is much to our benefit, because if we closed ourselves off to learning and focused our attention on fighting to keep the status quo, we lose connection with what is real and start to delude ourselves in a fantasy world. This will most certainly bring us suffering!

“Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and of the world. It looks at things objectively (yathābhūtam). It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool’s paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness. One physician may gravely exaggerate an illness and give up hope altogether. Another may ignorantly declare that there is no illness and that no treatment is necessary, thus deceiving the patient with a false consolation. You may call the first one pessimistic and the second optimistic. Both are equally dangerous. But a third physician diagnoses the symptoms correctly, understands the cause and the nature of the illness, sees clearly that it can be cured, and courageously administers a course of treatment, thus saving his patient” (Wikipedia).

I think that to walk a true path when it comes to dealing with change is to see it not as a loss but an opportunity. If we can see change as a wave that we can ride rather than a typhoon that washes away all that we know and love, then we can use it to our advantage! There is sure to be some suffering along the way, but as I am beginning to realize, the goal in life shouldn’t be to create a pain-free existence. Pain is what drives change. Pain is what prods us to grow. Pain breaks open our seemingly protective shells so that light can come in. We have to be open to pain, allowing it to shape us as a violent storm shapes a landscape.

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief. Much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility: For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.” ~Kahlil Gibran, from “The Prophet”

Suffering and change are the natural states of being. But along with that comes growth. Without a bud, there can be no blossom; without rain there can be no rainbow. Cheesy, I know. But true.

Happy Springtime, everyone…and namaste.