In Happiness and Suffering

In Happiness and Suffering


Paul Sutherland struggles with creating an off-ramp for his unskillful thoughts and actions. He falls down, gets back up, and tries again.

“Do you want to be happy, or right?” I thought to myself as I listened to a business colleague explain how events that had transpired would have been much different if people had listened to him. His words were meant to communicate that he should be respected, listened to, and maybe admired for his foresight.

However, he was not met well by those who were affected by taking the path he had disagreed with. “You’re just rubbing our noses in this crap,” was the feedback he got. “I told you so!” did not make his friends happy when he was seven, and now at 47 it was perceived as snarky, petty, immature, and hurtful.

This colleague wants to be liked. Maxims like “Words are like toothpaste. Can’t put toothpaste back in the tube,” play in our heads. But why do we keep those unhelpful habits of mind? Epigenetics, nurture, nature, habits, insecurities, our need to be noticed—even if for bad reasons—and reptilian mind all help build our hurtful responses to inputs.

What my friend needed was a mental map to a different way of thinking and behaving, one recognizing his natural desire to fill the room with his presence—to be noticed—to connect.

Sadly, his words made us think, “Well, I wouldn’t want him over for dinner, so why keep him in our company?” Later, over drinks—as he slammed a whiskey sour and I sipped a glass of iceless water—he said, “I know I shoulda kept my mouth shut.” But then he added: “But I was right.”

The Golden Rule

My vipassana training teaches to just watch and to not judge. My mind still wonders and categorizes what I see or puts events through a stoic contemplative virtue matrix. Overeat, eat for comfort rather than nourishment, embrace violence, ignore injustice, express hate or anger in unhealthy ways, and so on. “Hungry ghosts,” I think.

The hungry ghosts are manifestations of the five Buddhist poisons: attachment, aversion, ignorance, pride, jealousy. My friend was feeding hungry ghosts. What to do about it? That is the key question. It seems as if antidotes to these bad habits have been preached about for centuries through various religions, as documented through the universal thread of all religions—the golden rule.

Great teachers who provide great examples can help us to give our bad habits an off-ramp. Years ago I went through a Buddhist training. I remember nothing of what the teacher said, but I feel I learned more from him than anyone. His presence gave my mind some new pathways to follow—and an off-ramp for the old, unhealthy, reactive thoughts.

I like this idea of giving our unhelpful habits an off-ramp and replacing them as we move along the path from accepting suffering to manifesting compassionate happiness. As we all seem to know intellectually, suffering comes from our grasping for stuff and our attachment to our beliefs, things, views, and teachings that do not support our move towards living a spiritually responsible, compassionate, happy life. Simply put, if we spend time dissecting the golden rule we can see it also is a great guide that unifies us in compassion and empathy for others.

Anchoring on What Is Good

Anchoring on right actions, we can replace unhealthy habits of mind with positive habits of mind and move closer to compassionate happiness. If we are trying to let our anger dissipate, we can practice patience. Our grasping and clinging can be replaced by contemplating impermanence. If jealousy and envy start to get us riled up, we can take a breath and replace them with expressions of exuberant gratitude and delight. We can replace indifference, self-absorbed laziness, and sloth with happily expressed loving, compassionate, and helpful actions.

Empirical research has proven that giving a gift creates a bigger positive emotional effect than receiving one. The wisdom of practicing positive deeds permeates the DNA of spiritual and religious paths. Islam is quite clear with its expectations for its followers, “To feed the indigent, the orphan, and the captive … seeking no reward—nor thanks.”

Karma does not translate into “thinking about doing something good.” Karma is about action, and it is foundational to Jainism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.

Expressing the Divine

The golden rule can help us have a safe place for contemplation about our mind maps and actions as we move away from being self-absorbed or an “all about me” victimhood and move towards compassionate happiness and a life built on love and gratitude.

Every religion has the golden rule embedded in its texts. Jainism’s golden rule comes from a happy place: “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” Hinduism’s golden rule is more austere, and more on the don’t-cause-suffering side of the spectrum: “This is the sum of duty; do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”

All religions are complex and to take a few sentences out of endless pages and interpretations of essential teachings oversimplifies a contemplative, action-oriented path. A path that changes our DNA so our reactive-self reacts consistent with what our best spiritual self would do. Moving towards a responsible, compassionate, happy life is about actions, accepting suffering, saying no to victimhood, moving on to express what is divine inside us—which is who we truly are.

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In Happiness and Suffering

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