P: A sunny day can suddenly turn into a cloudy day and innocent drops of rain can turn into a torrential downpour in a matter of seconds. Similarly, a thunderstorm accompanied by strong winds and lightning can clear up right away. Then, there are grey and gloomy days when the sky remains overcast all day long and feels like it could begin to rain at any minute. Just as the weather is unpredictable, our lives are also full of unexpected events. Even though people only thought of living happily ever after with their spouses when they first got married, they may unexpectedly end up getting divorced. When awaiting the birth of their child, most parents think their child will be obedient and smart. However, the actual experience of raising a child can be quite different from what they had imagined. For example, the child might not be a good student and could get himself into trouble, and as a result, he can become the source of a big headache for the parents. Likewise, when starting a business, people envision making a lot of money. However, there are instances in which not only do their business fail to bring in any income but end up making themselves and even their families and their relatives go bankrupt. Also, we can be let go at a moment’s notice from a job that we thought we would keep until we retire.
Will simply praying for your life to be smooth sailing, without any hardships, make it possible for you to have such lives? How about praying that our husbands come home early from work, our wives are more loving, our children excel in school, and people appreciate us? Do you think such prayers will solve the problems in our lives?
Since we always wish that our lives turn out the way we want, our happiness and unhappiness depend on what happens in our lives. We believe happiness and freedom are about getting money when we want it, having someone walk into our lives when we want to date, and having someone walk out of our lives when we no longer want the relationship. However, to our dismay, not everything in our lives turns out the way we had hoped. Because some things work out while others don’t, we are left to alternate between happiness and unhappiness. Thus, life is said to be a combination of both happiness and unhappiness. Repeatedly swinging back and forth between happiness and unhappiness can be compared to Samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. We are happy one moment, but the very next moment, we are unhappy. We alternate between the two emotional states depending on whether we have our way or not.
In life, happiness from good things that happen to us and unhappiness from bad things that happen come always hand in hand. This kind of happiness cannot be considered true happiness. Feeling happy because things turned out the way we wanted is similar to feeling high from drugs, so we need to keep on taking drugs in order to feel happy.
Please, examine carefully what you believed were happy and unhappy moments in your lives. Some things may seem bad and others may seem good to you now. However, after time passes, you may realize that something that you thought was bad actually ended up benefiting you while something that you believed to be good ended up hurting you.
Once you are aware of this, your emotions don’t fluctuate as much as before because you are not as attached to happiness and you suffer less from unhappiness. Whereas you used to immediately become happy by the good things and quickly fall into unhappiness by the bad things that happened to you, now you are able to discern that what may seem bad are not necessarily bad and what may seem good are not necessarily good either. Then, you won’t be as influenced by the external conditions as before, so you will be less likely to be overly happy or unnecessarily sad.
I was once tortured and was forced to live in a prison for a few months. I was devastated at the time, but the experience gave me valuable insights I could not have gained anywhere else and has helped me with my practice and my dharma talks. Additionally, the experience has helped me tremendously in understanding the world.
To give you an example, my attitude towards inmates has drastically changed after the experience of living in the prison myself. Before, I would have lectured to them saying something along the lines of “Although you have committed crimes, you can redeem yourselves if you repent now.”
But, during my time in prison, I was able to gain an insight into the minds of the inmates. Since I was there for violating the law on assembly and demonstration, I was categorized as a political prisoner. However, as a punishment for being uncooperative during interrogation, I was placed in a jail cell with 12 other inmates. These inmates were detained for misdemeanors, but every one of them claimed they were innocent. All of them felt that they were being unjustly punished.
If I were to visit a prison today and give a dharma talk to the inmates, the first thing I would say to them is “Life is not fair, right?” This empathetic phrase will enable me to instantly create an emotional connection with them. This is not the kind of knowledge you can get from reading books but one that you can only get from the actual experience of living in a prison and spending time with the inmates. Undoubtedly, it was very difficult to endure at the time, but it proved to be an excellent opportunity for me to learn many things. From this perspective, even the things we label as unfortunate events in our lives are not necessarily bad.
Accumulating diverse life experiences is what helps us mature as we get older. When we are young, even a trivial incident can reduce us to tears and make us feel as if it were the end of the world. However, in hindsight, we realize that the incident was actually a blessing in disguise. For instance, when someone breaks up with you, it made you despair and feel like your life was over. Later, however, you realize that the experience has enabled you to become a better judge of character and to gain an insight into the psychology of dating.
It is a good idea to regard everything that has happened to you in a positive light. After all, having a negative perspective won’t change what has already happened in the past. I am not suggesting that you should be overly optimistic and have a blind faith that everything will turn out well, no matter what. Rather, your mindset should be “Everything that has already happened is always for the best.” This way, any situation you find yourself in can be a learning opportunity, which will enable you to gain abundant experience. As a result, you will be able to impart some words of wisdom to others.