Let’s say I turn on the news and see that some politician (could be here or in another country even) has done something, said something or implemented something that I disagree with, and I get really annoyed. I start turning it over and over in my head, and I end up suffering quite a lot for hours, maybe even days on end.
How do I get back to happiness as soon as possible? There is a very simple system that works for a huge range of difficulties, problems, and painful emotions:
First of all, I recognise, and accept, that there is suffering in me. ‘There is suffering’ (not ‘I am suffering’, which is unnecessarily personal). That’s the first step. It could also be voiced as ‘there is anger,’ ‘there is pain,’ ‘there is frustration,’ etc…
The second step is to investigage this sufferening within me, to see exactly what led to it. There is always a cause for this suffering, or a path to this suffering.
In this case I can see that I have a strong emotion of aversion towards the news I’ve read and how I perceive its consequences. I could also say that I have a strong attachment towards things being the way I think they should be, instead of how the politicians want to do things. So I have aversion and/or attachment (in reality, these are two sides of the same coin).
We also have the fact that I’ve turned this over and over in my head, my compulsive-thinker side, which has compounded the original suffering over and over into something much bigger.
So, now I have the root of the suffering, the path to this suffering, identified.
The third step is to take a deep breath and smile, knowing that I’ve got a handle on this now, and knowing that this suffering will end, as I know how to walk out of it, how to follow the path out of it, in step four….
Step four, the path out.
When I realise that this suffering comes about from both aversion to the actions of others, and attachment to my opinions about how the world should be, I can simply decide to let go. My desire for things to be different is causing me pain, so let go. Letting go is incredibly powerful. Why cling on to a hot coal if it’s continually burning your hand? Let go. On the other side of letting go is complete peace. It’s not always easy, it takes a lot of practice, but it’s always possible.
I also discovered that part of my suffering was due to my brain obsessing over the original cause of my suffering for days on end. So I can resolve to step up my mindfulness or meditation practice so that I can be quicker in future to spot my mind in obsession mode, and bring it back to a calm state or more useful things.
Now, reason tells me two more important things. That to worry about things that I can’t control at all (like what politicians or other countries do) is pointless. So letting go and moving on makes even more sense. In the next elections I can do something with my vote if that’s applicable, but in the meantime, what other people (politicians or otherwise!), other countries, or even mother nature does, is completely beyond my control.
Finally, for a huge, peace-inducing bonus, I can remember that everything is impermanent. Firstly, my suffering. When it is intense, in the first stage of any difficulty, I can smile compassionately to it, embrace it, and know that it will appear, rise, then fall and disappear, like everything in the universe. Like a wave. All suffering disappears eventually, and this is a huge comfort. And whatever condition has caused the suffering, whether in me, or external to me in the outside world, is impermanent too, and will pass sooner or later as well.
In this respect, remembering the phrase ‘This too shall pass’ in moments of suffering, can be a rapid sanity-saver, especially when combined with a healthy dose of self-compassion and letting go.
And so the suffering has gone and wellbeing returns. Looking around I see my lovely family, the beautiful winter trees, good books, the joy of doing interesting work, and my wellbeing builds upon itself. If I pay attention to these things, soon I can be very happy again.
Let’s look at another example. Over the summer I was enjoying quite a lot of bar terrace social drinks with friends. Occasionally, I would have one glass of wine more than necessary, and later feel the consequences. Sometimes it would be several glasses of wine more than is good for me (after a couple of wines in great company, who cares what is good for you or not! It’s all marvellous!) and I would get a terrible hangover that might take up some or even all of the next day. I’m not even talking about heavy, heavy drinking, my tolerance was terrible, and just a few drinks had a terrible effect on me.
But still, this kept happening. I got carried away and my self-imposed ‘rules’ about how much I’d let myself drink on any occasion would go out of the window after, well, after wine number one. As a result, I’d suffer, my family would suffer, and despite all my attempts to be very careful and moderate, the joys of summer kept over-whelming my good intentions, and another lost, hungover afternoon/morning/day would follow.
So, I had this pretty well identified. There is suffering (hangovers). There is a path to this suffering, a cause: my inability to get on with alcohol anymore. The realisation that I can end this suffering by changing the conditions that cause it. The path out of this suffering – in this case, with the help of a 30 day giving-up-drinking-experiment I found on the internet, and a good book, I gave up drinking. I removed the cause that was nourishing this particular suffering. And it turns out that three months down the line, this has not been a great loss, but a tremendous gain in well-being, clarity, health, and cash! It’s much easier to enjoy all the beautiful, loving and enjoyable things again. But that’s just me, don’t worry, this is not a subtle Tee Total rant!
The examples are endless. An argument with a spouse, a problem with work, money, the weather, the outside world, our own emotions…. the four steps seem applicable every time.
- Identify and accept that suffering is present.
- Identify the causes of the suffering, what leads to it or nourishes it, internal and external.
- Know that it will end and we will feel OK again.
- Follow the path out of the suffering. Embrace it, know that it is impermanent, make a change so the root causes are no longer there, let go, come back to peace… Find and follow the path back to wellbeing.
Of course, as you may have spotted, this is the practical application of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, but it strikes me from recent application that this four step approach is incredibly simple, practical, and rewarding. It really works. Every step is crucial. Identifying suffering, identifying the causes in us, knowing that wellbeing is possible, finding and following the path/making the changes to return to that wellbeing. A very simple happiness system.
It’s fascinating too, especially the second part, where we see the causes of our own suffering – so often our own attachments, aversions, opinions, desires, pride, ignorance, obsessions – the more we identify how they cause our suffering, the quicker we nail them, let go, and move on next time!
And once we know all this, and see that it works, we can come to the conclusion that suffering, although inevitable, is so often optional – its duration, at least. We can cling to it and roll around in it, or follow this very simple happiness system back to feeling good again. And from there we can get back to really enjoying all the wonderful things in the world again.