People feel attracted to Buddhist teachings and meditation for many different reasons. But the main reason I’ve heard is the hope to find relief from suffering.
We live in a culture that already provides us with a great deal of psychological and spiritual support. Nevertheless we often feel we’re missing some key to understand or better the situation we find ourselves in. Although we might have attended school, college, and beyond, still there are many questions to be answered: How can we better relate to our stress, to conflicts in our family and at work? How do we relate to unwanted changes, frightening diagnoses, aging, and dying?
As we find ourselves moving through phases of development and growth, we wish for deepening maturity. There are often different options right in front of us, but which is the best one for our own life and happiness? Which is the direction we can and want to follow?
Sometimes we end up in a difficult situation and ask, “Why me?” Other times we may witness someone else in a challenging place and don’t know what to do. We might regret an action taken or an action not taken, and we might go further, blaming ourselves for our lack of competence. These are experiences that we all know. They are very common, but they do not sit well with us.
Here our ability is not so much a matter of level of education or age. We learn from each other and with one another. There are people we admire for their ability to solve certain difficulties. And there are other people who reach out for our help when they don’t know what to do. Looking back, we might notice growth in understanding, skill, and ease.
When we’re young, we think we will automatically improve with age. And often enough we do. But having reached a certain age, we might also start doubting that! Some of our ways of thinking and behaving set with time. Remaining open and acting in flexible ways becomes more challenging. Noticing this, some of us become interested in discovering new ways of thinking and relating. There is a lot to find.
Wise people are with us today and they’ve always been among us. In India 2600 years ago the Buddha asked himself some of the questions we’re asking here. He wanted to understand why we are suffering, what helps us, and how far we can develop in our lives. His approach led him through much study and many practices. It revealed a path that liberated him from the experience we all share of being entangled in craving, frustration and suffering. He started sharing what had helped him find a way out.
In my work with elderly people, especially in their 80s and 90s, I have seen lived wisdom that seems in some ways similar to the Buddha’s, a natural kind of wisdom that is grounded upon reality as it is. They have experienced a long life already, have cared for many people and projects, and have managed to survive into their golden years. These wise elders did not get everything they wanted, had to let go of a lot, and were still enjoying active lives.
The easily obtained comforts and the fast-fulfillment promises of our modern life run counter to this wisdom. The promise is to free or at least distract us from discomfort, frustration, and lack of satisfaction. Fast relief and the fulfillment of our wishes does feel good in the moment, but often enough strengthens the hooks for our suffering: craving and aversion, our tightly-held preferences.
This is the place where I see the benefit of Buddhist methods: What do we do when our preferences drive our life and we can’t have what we want? We might feel caught and lost. It’s difficult for us to notice what’s actually happening and how we got there. In these times we long for some clarity of mind and the power of understanding to find our way out.
Here, the fruits of mind training — inner awareness, mental flexibility, and emotional stability — are a real relief. With some practice we can gain deeper insight into our human condition and find more freedom.
And how? We learned our usual ways of behavior in the past and typically did not choose consciously. Neuroscience these days fully supports the view that we can learn and change our behavior and mental patterns all the way through life. This is not easy in the middle of a full and often fast-paced life. Often an abundance of impressions, activities, responsibilities, and decisions already storm our minds and keep us busy. Stillness, peace, and simply being seem to be luxuries and barely reachable. On the other hand, research shows that practicing mind skills enables our nervous systems to calm down and our minds to relax. This allows for much more space and presence in our daily experience. We can always try one small practice and gently observe how it affects us.
Here I’d like to introduce a simple but very effective exercise that Jon Kabat-Zinn offers in his programs:
I’m so happy you are here and I hope you’ll have a great week. Enjoy the little video if you like. It can be a nice thing to do every day :).