Most of us want to be happy. And to most of us this means the absence of hardships and suffering in life. While, this is indeed a preferable condition, in reality, life is constantly throwing challenges at us. Our instinctual reaction to this is to say, “My life is so miserable”. This is often born out of comparison, when we evaluate our current situation in relation to what our family and friends are going through. Undoubtedly, social media amplifies these apparent differences. But little do we know that others too are suffering and evaluating themselves based on our social media posts – or our fake smiles and happy faces when we meet them. This is indeed a strange world that we live in. Everybody is miserable, but nobody wants to recognize it. Everybody wants to be happy, but nobody actually is.
The root of this dysfunction lies in our expectation that life will be fair to us. This narrative has been fed to us by the modern post-60’s life of independence and being able to do what we want to do. The west has taught us that “we are in control of our lives and can shape our destiny”. This illusion, that we can indeed have a happy life by shaping our external situations is the root cause of our suffering. How you may ask?
True freedom arises from recognizing that the external world is miserable. If we haven’t felt this, time should reveal this to us. One external situation after the other lets us down, disappoints us. They appear to bring joy for a short while, but that very situation brings misery later on. We use hope to tell ourself, “maybe the next one will be better – the next object, the next relationship, the next job”. We soon realize that nothing in the external world of form can indeed bring about satisfaction. This was the insight of the Buddha when he said “Life is Misery”. And by life he meant the external world of forms.
So if everything around us is anyway going to let us down, why do anything? Why seek happiness? Herein lies the key. When life throws challenges and responsibilities at us, our first reaction is to run away from it. Fight it with immense internal struggle – “Why is this happening to me?” We resist and resist and then cannot take it anymore and run away. But running away does not solve the underlying problem. We would lose a valuable opportunity to grow into better version of ourselves. We would have lost the opportunity of transcending our limitations. This is why, if we base our life on growth and not happiness, we gain the perspective to learn from the darkest of situations and times. Then our responsibilities and challenges in life become our teachers. They are gurus in fact – they shed light on our true selves.
If we base our life on growth and not happiness, we gain the perspective to learn from the darkest of situations and times. Then, suffering and joy become our teachers. We realize we are here to learn and not to seek joy through pleasure.
Challenges are often painful for the egoic self-image, for it reveals us as insufficient. We do not like to be perceived as weak. But if we can be honest to ourselves and fully accept the weakness – a shift in perception might happen in us. This acceptance of our flaws with an openness to learn is critical. Despite the ego being hurt, we call upon our higher selves to seek growth and improvement. This changes our lives immensely as it changes our very basis of expectation of life.
Therefore, welcome hardships. Accept them as your responsibilities even if they appear to curb your freedom. You welcome it, despite being painful, because you know that true freedom is not the ability to do what you want, but the ability to accept what is. The gestalt is shifted from the external world to within you. This is the inner journey that we all must make.
Freedom is not the ability to do what you want, but the ability to accept what is.
[PS – thanks to my wonderful mother for giving me this idea]