Do you search for fulfillment through external situations and experiences?
Are you afraid to “be with” your thoughts? Do you fear your feelings?
Are your moods like a ping pong ball, constantly changing with the up’s and down’s of life?
Are you attached to certain outcomes or results, believing that “if only” you had a better partner, a bigger house, more money, better looks, you would be happy?
Such is the nature of being human. We all experience pain, an inevitable part of life. We lose loved ones, jobs and material possessions; we experience trauma, violence and abuse; we’re rejected by lovers and bosses. The pain of being alive is inevitable, but suffering, according to Buddhists, is optional. Suffering is the result of our minds, of the stories we tell ourselves around painful conditions of life. When we experience divorce, for example, it hurts and we feel pain. Suffering occurs when we create stories around getting divorced, telling ourselves that we’re worthless, unlovable beings who are destined to live a life of solitude and heartache.
From an evolutionary perspective, our minds are wired to see problems and focus on the negative. While such a negativity bias may serve us in regard to survival, our chronic dissatisfaction causes us great harm in terms of our mental health and psychological well-being. And while our thoughts are “real”, they’re not necessarily “true”. Our thoughts are merely subjective interpretations of reality, interpretations made through the skewed and biased lens of our minds. In our society, however, we revere the mind and we’re taught to fully believe our thoughts, to take them as truth. But the reality is, we never really know what life will bring us. Ultimately, life is uncertain and largely out of our control, and this reality causes us great discomfort and distress.
In addition to constantly chattering and telling negative stories, our minds also trap us in the pursuit of pleasure and resistance of pain. We prefer gain over loss and approval over blame or rejection. We experience something painful – something that involves a lack of approval or a loss of some sort – and we label it as “bad” or “wrong”. Rather than accepting life as it is – embracing what is here in this moment, the only moment that exists – we reject painful circumstances, hoping for some alternative version of reality in which we only experience pleasure, gain and approval. Our society was even founded on this “pursuit of happiness”, and so we chase and seek and search until we’re exhausted. And only then, only when we realize that we can never truly outrun our Selves, do we surrender. We let go. We cease to over-identify with our egos. Such a practice – to truly be present, to show up for whatever life has given us and to work with our own suffering – requires tremendous courage. The path of enlightenment, of facing the reality of our lives with grace, humility and acceptance, is the path of a warrior.
When we surrender and detach from ego, we can find our inner peace, or what Buddhists call “awareness” or “presence”. It is our essence, our light, our inherent basic goodness. It’s the place within all of us that is always calm and still, a space of silence. It is a clear knowing, a seeing things as they actually are, and not as we wish they would be. This is who we really are – our “Buddha nature”. When we have yet to wake up and experience this place of peace, we are taking ourselves to be other than who we really are. We over-identify with our egos, our “fixed identities”, and believe that we are our minds and our bodies. We develop a sense of self through our minds, based on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the experiences we’ve had, our preferences and dislikes, and plans for the future. In this sense, we attach our self-worth to tangible achievements, accomplishments and accolades – our job titles, educational degrees, salaries, marital status, and more. Rather than feeling as though we were born perfect, that we’re already enough, we believe that we must earn love, and in this sense, happiness and well-being are contingent on “doing”, not simply “being”. We don’t realize that we are as vast and infinite as the sky, large enough to contain any passing thought or emotion. We become our thoughts and emotions, and in doing so, believe ourselves to be flawed and broken, needing someone or something to fill in our voids and make us whole.
So what can we do about this reality? How do we find peace when the nature of our minds is one of suffering? One answer was offered over 2,500 years ago: Buddhism, which the Dalai Lama calls the “science of the mind”. Buddhism is a philosophy of human suffering, and is concerned with causes of suffering and ways in which to overcome it. Buddhist psychology blends ideas, principles and techniques from Buddhism with certain aspects of Western psychology, including neuropsychology, cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology. As a form of therapy, Buddhist psychology teaches us how to work with the mind, and develop a new relationship to our thinking. In this sense, mindfulness (most often defined as “moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness”) and meditation are key aspects of Buddhist psychotherapy. Other aspects of Buddhist psychotherapy include learning to “lean in” to our emotions, sitting with something that hurts, getting comfortable with uncertainty, using our breath to quiet the mind, staying present, understanding the nature of ego, and realizing our tendencies around attachment and resistance. We learn to cultivate self-compassion, patience, loving-kindness and gratitude – toward ourselves and each other – and in doing so, discover our true essence, our basic goodness, the light that is always shining brightly from within.
NOTE: While Buddhism may be considered a spiritual belief system, Buddhist psychotherapy is not religious or spiritual, and does not require (or reject) any sort of religious beliefs.