Many years ago, a friend of mine, someone very committed to self-awareness and passionately committed to social justice activism, said to me,
“You know, I feel so guilty all of the time for the suffering of this world, the suffering that I haven’t been able to ease. Knowing the likely conditions in which it was harvested, I can’t even let myself enjoy eating a banana.”
We all make personal ethical choices, of course, but at the time, my friend was in a pretty deep depression. He wasn’t at all claiming that the sacrifice of enjoyment was the cause of his depression, or that the depression prevented him from enjoying the banana. He knew, with his keen self-awareness, that he tended to push away pleasure. He sensed that he was more attuned to suffering than joy. He also sensed that he was bone-deep tired.
American society by and large can be suffering-phobic. We are taught to be ashamed of our pain, our fear, or our difference. We are taught to avoid the suffering of others as though we will somehow become tainted if we witness it too closely. We’re taught that we’d do better to hide the suffering away.
For the sake of resilience, we not only need to learn to relate to suffering with compassion instead of disdain; we also need to be able to accept and absorb pleasure. If we can’t, we will burn out. There’s an awful lot of suffering around, and trying to be fully awake to it demands energy, balance, perspective, and the ability to let go of attachment to results. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but there is good news too, if we stay open to it.
A few years ago, in the heart of winter, I was on the island of Maui leading a retreat alongside my old friends Ram Dass and Krishna Das. I found myself feeling bad when I told people where I was going. The weather there was glorious, and it felt almost too good to be true. When friends would write and ask how it was, something funny happened again: I would tell them how humid it was, implying that it wasn’t as nice as I anticipated — disowning the deep pleasure of my experience. I spent a great deal of time in Maui preventing myself from connecting directly to the pleasurable experience, and instead distracted myself with feelings like guilt and self-deprecation. Perhaps I assumed that by distancing myself from pleasure, I would protect other people from getting jealous. Or perhaps I felt I wouldn’t be abandoning my winter-burdened friends if I didn’t enjoy where I was. Or maybe it’s just hard for me to let in the joy, to admit fully that I deserve to be happy, just as I am committed to the wellbeing and happiness of others.
I wasn’t totally conscious at the time that I was doing this, but it’s pretty common when you stop and think about it. How often do you get a compliment, or hear someone else get a compliment, and find that the most automatic response is to say “No, no!”? We have an infinite number of ways that we distort our experiences through habits of the mind. When teaching meditation, I talk about these patterns of distortion most often in relation to pain or discomfort; for instance, rather than noticing a feeling like anger as it arises, we may start to blame ourselves or wonder how long the anger will last. All of these responses distract us from the feeling itself, and distort our relationship to the direct feeling, thought, or experience.
In the Buddha’s terms, real, true happiness can be seen as an arm of resilience. Happiness is not about feeling like everything’s great, but about recognizing our inner resource of self-trust and our connection to others that keeps us from feeling depleted by tough emotions and experiences.
In my first years studying meditation with one of my teachers, Munindra, a fellow student once asked him why and how he came to practice meditation. I expected a studious response, perhaps a pious one, but Munindra’s answer totally surprised me. Without hesitation, he replied,
“I practice meditation so that I can notice the small purple flowers by the roadside that we otherwise miss.”
This is the essence of mindfulness: paying deliberate attention, and doing so with an open heart. His answer really got to the heart of taking in joy, and being nourished by it. Rejoicing in something beautiful doesn’t have to mean the same thing as attachment. Allowing ourselves to enjoy a delightful experience with an open heart enhances our capacity for generosity and gratitude. We feel capable of being loving and connecting, and we want others to be able to feel the same. In that recognition, we see, with strength, that we are not fundamentally isolated, that our lives really do have something to do with one another.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has said,
“Happiness is available. Please help yourself.”
Helping ourselves could not only amount to our own happiness, but also to our commitment to the wellbeing of others.