New students will often presume that I never suffer, or that it’s somehow possible to exist above the suffering they know. Yes, living this way does make life much more peaceful, and it makes unpleasant experiences not so terribly unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean that life stops happening. The most painful experience of my life happened after I learned to live this way. But that experience and others were bearable because I accepted them. I truly and profoundly understand that just like great movies have some very tense, horrifying, and heart-wrenching sections, so do great lives.
So how do you recover from one of those hits life gives us? Okay, are you ready for this? When you’re distraught, the trick is not to want to not be distraught. Feel free to read that a few times. It was as hard to write as it is to read, but it’s an important idea.
If you’re sad you have to be content with being sad. If you’re angry but still aware, you want to be content with the anger. Weird eh? But you have experience doing it. It’s how you are in a movie. You’ll feel all kinds of emotions you claim you don’t enjoy, but as long as you accept them as a part of your experience of the movie, you’re okay with those feelings. It’s exactly the same for what you call your real life. Because in fact both the movie and your real life take place in the same location: your consciousness.
The reason Acceptance is important is because that means you have stopped fighting against an idea. Acceptance is when you cease to think about a thing because there is no point. There are times when it is very appropriate and it feels natural to be engaged with sad thoughts, but that doesn’t have to last long. But trying not to be sad will only serve to unnaturally stretch the sadness out. In the end, thinking about not being sad is just another way of thinking about being sad, just like saying you’re healing is just another way of self-identifying as sick.
You are what you think. When you think sad (or trying-not-to-be-sad) thoughts you are actually engaging with sadness. You cannot think even more about sadness as a way to cure yourself of being sad. You have to recognize that you don’t need a reason to stop those thoughts—you can just stop them because you don’t enjoy how they feel.
In the end you’re not really stopping them–it’s more that you cease to create them in favour of creating something else. For instance, right now you’re creating these words and their meanings inside your head, which means you’re not currently thinking the thoughts you were previously thinking and feeling. So just by reading this you’ve shown that your conscious is like a flow of light and it will illuminate whatever you point it at. You can choose to point it at sadness, or you can choose to point it at something else–like my writing.
So life is like a big dark room filled with potential experiences. Your consciousness is like a flashlight—a beam of consciousness that will illuminate any particular experience we choose to focus on. So if you were wandering around the room shining your light on things, the question becomes: when you came across something sad why did you choose to linger on it? There is no way to get it out of the room other than death, and sad things will always be there and your light will certainly spill onto them at least occasionally. But there is no need to choose to focus the light of your conscious on it. Focusing on it will not make it go away. To the contrary it will make it seem like it’s the only thing in the room when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
You have a universe of things to think about. If you keep thinking about the same people or events then you have to stop blaming those people and events and you have to understand that it is you that is shining your light on blame. This is a waste of your existence and it’s a drag for everyone around you who gets tired of your victim-hood. And they’re tired of it for good reason. It’s all voluntary, so you can’t order food you don’t want and then bitch about the chef. People will move away from that.
Every life is just waiting to be explored. Every big dark room has tons of happiness and tons of sadness in it. So accept that your light will shine on some sadness as you move through your life. Accept but do not dwell. Dwell instead on the happiness you find. Because if your light’s shining there that also means it’s not shining on being sad. And that sounds like more fun for you.
Now go and actually enjoy your own life. The choice is always yours.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations around the world.