This is a guest post by Dr. Chris Patti.
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This post has been featured on the Optimal Living Daily podcast – Episode 300.
One thing I know for sure: there is a lot in life we can’t control.
When I was fourteen, my dad died of cancer. He was only thirty-nine at the time, and he was one of the most alive, enlightened, and passionate people you could imagine. He was a mix of Indiana Jones and Clark Griswold. I’ve spent the last nineteen years of my life learning to live with his loss, and I’ve dedicated my life and career to understanding the suffering that is inherent to human life.
That’s what initially brought me to Buddhist and existential philosophy, and I now consider myself an “agnostic Buddhist.” The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that life entails suffering. The second is that the cause of suffering has to do with how we think about ourselves and the world around us. To me, a perspective that acknowledges the suffering that we all have—whether we’re the most privileged or disadvantaged person out there—is one that embraces a radically honest approach to life. Everything falls apart. Even the seemingly eternal sun at the center of our solar system will one day, many millions of years in the future, explode into a red giant and swallow up the earth, before collapsing into a white dwarf and eventually burning out. It boggles the mind.
Does this sound like a bummer?
In my quest to deal with my own and others’ suffering, I’ve learned that our culture teaches us to avoid discomfort at all cost. We find all manner of ways to run from it. We consume—substances or material possessions or media or whatever—in order to temporarily evade, push away, hide from, distract ourselves from, and dull the acuteness of our pain. The irony is, at a deep, intuitive level, we know that doesn’t work. The suffering comes back, often in a subtler and more powerful form. Trying to hide from it, dull it, and push it away only adds more anxiety to the equation.
Again: bummer, right?
The funny thing is, in practicing going toward suffering and holding it in awareness, as Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön or Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches, we can actually find a deeper peace with, and appreciation of, the world and our lives and relationships just as they are—in all their ephemeral, tragicomic beauty.
You don’t have to be Buddhist or existentialist to experience what I’m talking about in your own life. You don’t have to be religious or agnostic, an atheist or scientist, either. This is the same lesson I have learned from working and writing with Holocaust survivors. For my doctorate, I spent three years having compassionate conversations with Holocaust survivors on the theme of how they—and we—can deal gracefully with suffering. What emerged from this process was a great respect for human experience, and the human spirit, when faced with even impossible, incomprehensible situations. The survivors I talked with shared with me a wisdom that is found across cultures and throughout history.
This is the same wisdom contemporary neuroscientists, psychologists, and medical experts are “proving” in the research done by organizations like the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the collaboration between the Dalai Lama and researchers of the Mind & Life Institute.
So, just what is this big wisdom we’ve all be stumbling upon for thousands of years, this insight that could help us deal with the inherent suffering of our lives?
It comes down to learning to surf.
Let me explain by sharing a now classic story from a Holocaust survivor you’ve probably heard of: Viktor Frankl. To me, this story is the heart of his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and it’s the best way to explain what I mean. Frankl’s story took on new meaning for me this past summer, as I traveled to Poland for the first time to witness the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Frankl’s book is about his experience in Auschwitz, a suffering so intense, inhumane, horrifying, and unknowable that it seems from another universe. In this worst of human conditions, however, Frankl looked up to the sky, through the barbed wire, and saw the white clouds and blue atmosphere above. In this moment, a thought transfixed him:
For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. . . . I understood how a [hu]man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment . . . . when his [or her] only achievement may consist in enduring his [or her] sufferings in the right way—an honorable way . . .
This is a moment I come back to again and again in the classes I teach. If Frankl could come to this realization even in this worst of human situations, maybe you and I can come to it in the difficulties of our everyday lives?
Medical scientist and mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn famously quotes the yogi Swami Satchitananda’s aphorism “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” This is what Frankl, those I have interviewed, and all these poets, existentialists, Buddhists, and neuroscientists are talking about. The question is, can you make a practice of learning to surf the inevitable waves of your life? Can you practice dealing gracefully with that which you cannot control?
Practicing this highest of human arts, the art of suffering well, is tied to joy and appreciation for our lives and the world around us. Its byproduct is a deep gratitude for this very moment and the possibilities afforded by this present moment, even for those of us struggling with acute difficulties.
The best way I’ve learned to practice surfing the waves of my life is through simple mindfulness meditation. Learning to quite literally come back to my senses in the present moment for even a moment. Meditation is tough. Pausing on purpose is a radical act that goes against the grain of our culture and habitual behavior. Rather than being an escape from our fears, stresses, and suffering, it gets us to notice, and nonjudgmentally sit with, what’s actually happening within us and without us at this very moment. One minute a day is a good place to start. Now is a good time, and it’s always with us.
Take a seat. Breathe in. Bring as much awareness as you can to the feeling of breathing out. Notice how you feel. Notice what’s going on around you. When a thought comes up—good, bad, or neutral—notice that, too. When you drift off, no problem, notice that and come back to the breath and the present moment. This is the practice. See for yourself if it doesn’t help change your attitude toward what is happening in your life.
What I know for sure is there are a lot of things we can’t control. Existential freedom is realizing that no matter our external circumstances, we can control our attitude toward what is happening. When we do, like Frankl, no one and nothing can mess with us. And that’s real freedom.
While I wish my father hadn’t died, I’ve learned to appreciate what his death has taught me and how it has connected me to others who suffer. Compassion, after all, means to suffer-with. This is the best lesson I’ve learned. It gives me a profound appreciation for life, for those around me, for loving and being loved, even when things are tough and transient. Life is all the more precious for it. What a miracle it is that we’re here at all!
Learning to surf is a life-long practice. The waves keep coming, so I hope you’ll paddle out with me. All it takes is the intention to do so, and it’s a beautiful way to live.
Follow Dr. Chris Patti's Appalachian State University student/scholar club, “Zen & the Art of Applied Communication,” on Twitter: https://twitter.com/awarenessbites