Do you want to be more at ease with whatever comes?
How did you feel the last time your lawnmower broke down?
What about when you were stuck in rush-hour traffic, late for an appointment?
Or, when your flight was delayed and that meant you’d miss your connection?
Did you immediately look for someone to blame? Did you want to scream at the top of your lungs? Did you let fly all the four-letter expletives that came to mind?
Did you ask, Why me? Why now?
Everyone gets upset when things don’t go their way. This is normal. But, don’t we also know something must go wrong eventually?
I mean, don’t we know that someone’s lawnmower will break down today? Don’t we know that someone will be late because of traffic today? Don’t we know that someone will miss a connection because of a delayed flight today?
Of course we know this, and yet it’s unthinkable that they should happen to us.
So, when they do inevitably happen, we can’t believe our misfortune. We stomp around, furious, like a four-year-old who’s just been denied a second Oreo.
What’s going on here?
Buddhism offers an explanation for this kind of unpleasantness and, thankfully, a cure.
Do you want to be more resilient when life goes sideways?
What is “resilience”, anyway?
According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.” Being resilient doesn’t mean you won’t ever again experience significant distress or difficulty — it just means you will cope with it better when you do.
Lucky for us, resilience isn’t something we either have or don’t. Resilience can be learned. Just like a muscle, there are things we can do to train ourselves to be more resilient in the face of adversity.
What does Buddhism have to do with resilience?
Buddhism offers an approach to training resilience. Much of the philosophy of this ancient religion is essentially a strategy for effectively dealing with the ups and downs of life. If you’re interested in what modern psychology has to say about Buddhism’s perspective on the mind, check out Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright.
Buddhism’s approach to resilience begins with the claim that we hold an incorrect view of the world. This is why Buddhism tells us we are the cause of our own dissatisfaction.
But, being the cause of our own dissatisfaction means we’re also the cure.
The question is, how can we cure ourselves?
The cause of our dissatisfaction
According to Buddhism, the cause of our dissatisfaction lies in our attachment to our desires to have and not to have.
It’s natural to want to encounter some things, like a promotion or a “perfect” partner, and to avoid other things, like missed flights and broken lawnmowers. Unfortunately, what we desire is not guaranteed.
Despite our best efforts, we sometimes don’t get what we want, and we sometimes get what we don’t want.
But, this is obvious. We all know this.
Then, why do we get so angry when our lawnmowers break? Why do we feel so disappointed when we don’t get that promotion?
The problem isn’t the “wanting”, per se, the problem is our attachment to it.
Two things are happening when we want something. First, there is the desire for the thing to happen. Second, there is an attachment to the outcome. It’s this second part that trips us up.
Whenever we have a desire for something we imagine what life will be like once we get it. Do you want a promotion? What do you imagine will change once you get it? Do you imagine receiving the respect and admiration of your coworkers and friends? Do you imagine what you’ll do with all that extra cash? Do you think your life will be so much better?
There are a few problems with these types of fantasies. First, your fantasy is probably an exaggeration. You won’t be as happy with that promotion as you think you’ll be. People are notoriously bad at predicting their future emotional states. Second, fantasizing about the future makes you restless that it isn’t here already — which in turn causes you to be dissatisfied with, and ungrateful for, the present. This behavior is literally training your brain to be unhappy no matter what you’ve achieved. Finally, research has shown that these types of fantasies are associated with reduced effort in the future. These types of fantasies may cause you to celebrate success prematurely, which reduces your real-life effort and energy toward your goals.
The more we fantasize about the future, the more attached we become to it. So, when life doesn’t play out as we fantasized, it feels like an injustice has occurred. It hurts.
But, this isn’t just true for big life events, like promotions, but also to everyday events, like being stuck in traffic, dealing with a broken lawnmower, and needing to navigate the hordes of people at Costco. Our incessant wishful thinking about the future colors our perception of the present.
As Charles Bukowski put it:
It’s not the large things that send a man to the madhouse… but a shoelace that snaps with no time left.
For most people, the term non-attachment has negative connotations. It makes us think of someone who is detached, uncaring, or aloof. However, in the Buddhist tradition at least, this is not what is meant by this concept.
Instead, non-attachment refers to the cessation of focus on outcomes. For example, this would mean ceasing to fantasize about what the world will be like when you finally get that promotion.
What non-attachment doesn’t mean is that you don’t care whether you get the promotion. Obviously, you care. That’s why you’re working so hard. Non-attachment, however, reminds us that outcomes cannot be guaranteed no matter how hard we work or how much we prepare.
We may be passed over for the promotion. Our lawnmower might break down despite regular maintenance. Our marriage might fall apart even though we went to see a marriage counselor.
The concept of non-attachment reminds us that trying and succeeding are two very different things. It is wise to try our best, but it is unwise to expect success.
Sometimes we don’t get what we want. Sometimes we get what we don’t want. Most of the time this is outside of our control. The concept of non-attachment is asking us to bring this knowledge into our experience — to live with this knowledge continuously so that when things do go sideways we aren’t taken by surprise.
Our calamitous contradiction
In the Buddhist worldview, there is one concept we all apply to our daily lives that causes a massive rift in our minds. This concept is permanence.
Our great assumption — which is the cause of much of our dissatisfaction — is that things will remain the same. Of course, we know our lives will change, but we rebel, anyway, when they inevitably do.
When we get that promotion, we cling to the good feelings, hoping that they will last forever. But, those good feelings eventually fade away.
When our lawnmower breaks down, we try to push away those negative feelings, hoping they will disappear. But, those negative feelings, too, eventually fade away.
It is in the clinging to and the pushing away that we experience dissatisfaction. These reactions are, in a sense, denials of reality. For this reason, it’s not the events themselves that cause our dissatisfaction but our perspective toward them.
Jacob Rubin, I think, put it best:
Humans … dreamed up a thing called “permanence,” a word with no actual referent, and then gnashed their teeth and wept and accused the universe of being “senseless” because it didn’t abide by this wishful conceit.
So, when our lawnmower breaks we don’t think, Yes, this was inevitable. Everything changes.
Instead, we kick and scream and bemoan our misfortune. Instead, we think, Now I have to waste my time getting this stupid thing fixed. This is going to take all afternoon. My plans are ruined!
We may not believe that things will remain the same, but we certainly act like we expect them to.
The road to resilience
Life changes, constantly. But it doesn’t always change in our favor.
The Buddhist concepts of impermanence and non-attachment, when operationalized, help us deal with these changes by making us more at ease with whatever happens.
But, to put them into action, it’s been my experience that we first need to see their truth. We need to experience first-hand the changing nature of our lives, as well as our attachment to our desires.
Unfortunately, knowing these concepts intellectually is not enough — you must also know them experientially. In order to see these concepts working in your life, you need to develop the skill of mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be developed through mindfulness meditation. Download an app like Headspace or Waking Up to get started.
I’m going to be honest with you — this is no quick fix. But the more you journey down this path the more you will move through the world with ease, regardless of outside forces.
Isn’t this what you’ve been looking for?
Thanks for reading!