Suffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Life can sometimes feel unfair. Our actions, conscious or not, have the potential to fill us with regret, frustration, helplessness, even anger. Sometimes “bad” things happen to “good” people. It’s not unusual in these instances to wish we could turn back time, or to be fearful about what the future may hold; we may even look up to the heavens and ask why? When a seemingly unfortunate event unfolds, self-inflicted or not, physical or emotional, it is our perception and belief that makes us see it that way. We never really know why things happen as they do or what the result of it will be on our life. When we are dealt one of life’s blows, the only thing we can really control is how we choose to respond.
Whether it is human nature or cultural conditioning, often the first inclination is to assign blame and assume the role of an innocent victim. After all, pointing a finger brings an instant sense of gratification and resolve. Longer term, however, this approach begins to backfire when the ego tries to keep the memory of the event alive by retelling it over and over again rather than letting go of it. Perhaps it’s because of this that those assuming the role of ‘victim’ in their lives often end up unhappier than those who find a way to let go of the past and not to fixate on the future; those who find a way to ‘be here now’. When we learn to step back from the immediacy of emotion and become an observer, we diminish the context and drama of the story, and this tends to have a calming affect on the mind. The next step is in learning acceptance; instead of witnessing ourselves and our circumstances with a critical and judging eye, we can simply watch (this is called the sakshi in sanskrit, the silent witness). When we focus solely on our suffering, we miss out on the magic and the celebration that co-exists in the world in equal measure. A panoramic view is only available in its entirety from a distance, and we never truly know the length and purpose of a journey until it is complete.
There is a wonderful story from Satchidananda’s interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita entitled The Living Gita. The story is about a yogi living in the hills of India with wife and only son. The army comes to the house one day and takes the son away to fight in a battle. The wife is terribly distraught and cries to her husband, ‘isn’t this awful, our only son taken from us!’ The yogi replies, ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’ Months go by, and one day the son returns home, and despite his wounded left, the wife is thrilled beyond belief. When she shares the joyous news to her husband, she says ‘ isn’t this wonderful?!’ The yogi once again responds, ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’ Within the course of a week, another knock at the door brings a messenger from the king’s palace to inform the boy that since he cannot return to war with a wounded leg, he has been called to be the royal gardener. The palace is a long, long way away. The wife once again is left in despair, and looks for consolation from her husband. She says, ‘we may never see our son again, my heart is broken, isn’t yours?’ Again, he responds ‘I don’t know, we shall see’. Weeks pass, and a knock at the door reveals a messenger who has been sent by the royal palace. It has come to pass that the boy and the king’s daughter have fallen in love, and will wed in the coming days with the king’s blessing. As a result, the yogi and his wife have been invited to move permanently to the royal palace. It goes without saying that the wife is thrilled. She laughs, cries and sings with glee, turning to her husband and saying, ‘Our prayers have been answered! Our life is now happily complete.’ The yogi turns to his wife and says ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’
The practice of mindfulness in whatever form it takes, is one of being present, making space for all the shapes and forms of a magnificent landscape to unfold. We practice being focused and specific on a certain task or posture, yet we hold a larger understanding of the world in our periphery; one that we do not try to control or understand, but rather, one with which we can co-exist. This is not to say that moments of joyful celebration and deep despair are not important or meaningful; these are important points along life’s journey. The moment of understanding that both joyful celebration and deep despair come from the same source is a beautiful moment. Being present and beholding the entirety of a landscape as an observer while interacting, enjoying and participating in its creation — this is our great gift called Life.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
-Mary Oliver, Wild Geese