None of us knows what’s around the corner. Only one thing is certain: it’s going to be a mixture of pleasure and pain. As the expression goes, ‘stuff happens’.
Many of us will have visited ancient cathedrals and seen the saints preserved in stained glass, looking serene and beautiful, but also rather anodyne, as if nothing even happened in their lives to disturb their pious expressions. But closer inspection reveals that the martyrs are often holding the instruments through which they met their gruesome fate.
Though he lived into old age and died of natural causes the Buddha was not immune from ‘stuff’ happening. Because we see his serene statue everywhere, from health clubs to garden centres, candle shops to Asian restaurants, we can easily forget that the historical person who grew up as Siddhartha Gautama was flesh and blood just like us. Those images remind us that he managed to preserve his serenity, despite difficult family relationships, troublesome monks and even assassination attempts. If he had lost his cool or succumbed to ‘events’ it is unlikely that the memory of his life would have been passed down through generations of followers. He would not have been seen as exceptional by those who knew him. In short, the life of the Buddha demonstrates that we might not always be able to change what happens, but we can shape our reactions.
Once, on a residential leadership development seminar, I took part in a session which made me extremely uncomfortable. I felt as if I were being compelled to speak about work matters which I regarded as confidential. I wasn’t prepared to do this, and I was concerned that this would be perceived as unwillingness to participate. By the end of the seminar I was both exhausted and upset. What should I do? As I went to bed that evening, I realised I had three options: pack my things and leave; sulk for the remaining day; or confront the situation gently and assertively the next morning. Which option I chose is not the main issue (in the event, I stayed and explained). What I realised, sitting in my room, was that – despite my wound-up state – I could choose which route to follow.
Why had it taken me decades to realise that I could shape my own emotional state and my response? A book by Julia Cassaniti which I read recently seems to sum it up. It’s entitled Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia and its argument is that people raised in a Western environment tend to see emotions as something which ‘happen’ to us, whereas in the Buddhist countries of south-east Asia, where her research was conducted, emotions are understood as something which people themselves construct. Such a perspective gives us far more agency. And it is this sense of empowerment, the possibility of deciding how one is going to feel, that first led me to explore mindfulness and its deep roots in Buddhist tradition.
The ancient narratives tell how the Buddha, with the wisdom derived from the insight of Awakening, managed to hone his responses to an extraordinary degree. Yes, the serenity so powerfully represented in Buddhist iconography is genuine; but it is achieved against the backdrop of many vicissitudes. I’m quite certain that I’m not going to achieve anything like that level of equanimity in this lifetime, but it is encouraging to begin to understand that we’re not inevitably the prisoners of our experience and emotions. At every moment it is within our power to think differently, to make different choices, and to unknot the tangled web of thoughts and emotions which ensnares us. In the Buddha’s own words: we do not need to be troubled.