We’re All Buddhists (we just don’t know it)

When I was 16, I went through a mid-life crisis. I know, I know, that’s a term that only applies to middle-aged people but by 16, I’d already reached middle-age. I was mature, annoyed and constantly tired. (That’s middle-age right?) My friends at that age were crying about the usual things: Not cracking entrance exams, not getting permission to go to the movies, getting 90% in their boards instead of the expected 98%, bad break-ups, Facebook fights, cricket scores and nosy parents.

You want to know what I used to cry about? I was obese, I had an eating disorder, I’d been diagnosed with poly-cystic ovaries, I was failing at school, I was being bullied, my father was sick with neurocystycercosis and would be frequently hospitalised due to seizures and my mother was trying to fight her way out of a toxic relationship with her abusive family. The worst bit? I had a crush on this super stud who was totally not into me but liked to pretend that he was, so I’d end up going to parties with high hopes just to see him and come back absolutely crushed. High-school was not my time.

I even got into my first romantic relationship only to realise that it lacked two vital features: It wasn’t romantic and it wasn’t a relationship. That’s the moment I finally got it. I was depressed. I was so unhappy that I was ready to be with someone I didn’t even like, as long as I got to fake how happy I was. This was sad. I was sad.

Remember how Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray and Love breaks it off with her husband and then sits alone, meditates and cries, asking for a way out? Well that was me, except I was not a 40 something woman with a job, getting a divorce and planning to travel the world, I was 17 and I could barely wake up in the morning for school. So it came as a surprise to me when I realised that I had only one mission in life: I did not want to get into a good college or land a nice guy or get thin, I wanted to be happy.

But I had major problems, so how to be happy?

It was then that I started studying different religions because a) I was desperate b) I could not conform to any one institution and c) I didn’t have anyone to talk to. My problem with mainstream religion was that it was obsessed with God. I was agnostic and I didn’t really know what God was. I just wanted to meet a super chill, Yoda-like dude who would set me a problem, like a rubik’s cube and then at the end of it tell me that the cube was a metaphor for life and that I’d gained insight into all my suffering.

Solved, the problem, you have.

Then I came across an anecdote about Gautam Buddha. Once, he was conducting a discourse for his disciples when a man approached him and asked him if he could be inducted into the order. He said that he had certain questions that needed to be answered first, and if Buddha could answer them, he would devote himself to his teachings. The question that he mainly wanted to ask was, is there God? Buddha refused to answer the question and simply remained silent until the man, frustrated and disappointed, left.

Ananda, one of Buddha’s closest disciples asked him why he’d refused to answer such a basic question. Surely there was no harm in saying something? Lord Buddha‘s answer was simple: Whether God exists or not, is something only you can find out for yourself. It is not something someone tells you. Buddhism does not ask for faith, it asks for you to discover the truth. And besides, what good is answering such existential questions? Surely the most sensible question was, how do I find a solution to my problems? How can I be happy? How do I stop suffering?

Suffering is a theme in Lori Gottelieb’s book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, where a therapist is having a breakdown and ironically, seeks therapy. The author spends session after session crying about her boyfriend who dumped her and holds him responsible for ruining her life. She continues in this vein for so long that her therapist, a sort of avante-garde-Robin- Williams-from-Good-Will-Hunting-kinda- guy, gets up, kicks her in the shin and sits back down. Stunned, Lori asks him why he did that. Her therapist grins and tells her that she seems to be enjoying suffering so much, he thought he might give her some more, just so she would be satisfied.

There’s a difference between pain and suffering. You’re going to have to feel pain-everyone feels pain at times- but you don’t have to suffer so much. You’re not choosing the pain, but you’re choosing the suffering.

Maybe you should talk to someone

Yuval Noah Harari, an anthropologist, who wrote the best-selling novel Sapiens, talks about the evolution of mankind. While his book is mainly about the pivotal moments in the journey of homo sapiens as a species, he talks about how little we truly understand evolution. How is it evolving if we don’t get any happier? This is where he segues into Buddhism, a religion dedicated to happiness.

Gautam Buddha was the prince of a kingdom in Northern India somewhere around 500 BC. He was deeply affected by the suffering he saw all around him. He saw that all people, rich or poor, worked very hard to succeed in life. They earned more money, built bigger houses, had many children, found fame and fortune and yet, they were never content. So at the age of 29, he slipped out of his home and began spending his life as an ascetic, believing that this would be the path to happiness. However, no epiphany happened. It was then that he gave up and decided to meditate under a tree for 6 years and contemplate the causes, conditions and the cure for suffering. The realisation that he came to, was that suffering does not come from the world, it comes from within.

Our happiness lies within us but it is buried deep under layers and layers of thoughts, perceptions, habits and behaviours. To find happiness, we need to change. The world is simply a reflection of the chaos within, so raging against the world is not going to help you. Neither the life of a sage, nor the life of a sybarite is going to make you happy. The truth is, we could get everything we wanted in life but nothing can make us truly content until the neural pathways in our brain are accustomed to happy signals. The circuitry has to be rewired. Our mental pattern needs to change. Happiness is, after all, a state of mind.

If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving it, the sadness goes away; you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness. If you experience joy without craving that, the joy lingers and intensifies and you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.

But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving? To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain? Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, “What am I experiencing now?” rather than on “What would I rather be experiencing?” It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Interestingly, there is a psycho-therapeutic technique that treats people on the basis of that same philosophy. REBT or Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy focuses on resolving emotional problems and helping people lead more fulfilled lives. Dr. Albert Ellis, who invented this technique, noticed that his clients would heal faster when they could change their way of thinking about themselves, their problems and their world. Ellis reasoned that happiness was only possible when focus was on the client’s beliefs rather than the problem itself. REBT views all human beings as ‘responsibly hedonistic’ which means we all want to remain alive and achieve some measure of happiness. However, our irrational beliefs and thought patterns get in the way of our accomplishing our goals and being at peace.

This means that both Buddhism and Psychology, are not giving you any sort of guarantee about life. Shit happens. No one can prevent the fire from burning down your house, but they can give you an insurance policy. You are ultimately increasing your own tolerance for bad things, while drawing optimism from the good things. Ultimately your belief goes from “I’m a good human being, this shouldn’t be happening to me” to “I’m a good human being and I can handle whatever you throw my way”.

Personally, I’ve adopted the philosophy of Zen Buddhism which teaches you two things: Meditation and Mindfulness. That means I’m here and I also know that I’m here.

How has it changed my life? To be honest, I’m new to this. I started practising Buddhism diligently around 2015 and since then I’ve really gotten into this way of life. I get up each morning, meditate, pray, watch what I eat, don’t take any alcohol or drugs, walk regularly, sleep well, resist any addictions, listen to talks on Buddhism, study it carefully, take therapy to deal with my own issues and offer therapy for those dealing with their issues. I don’t fight, I handle my anger, I try to stay honest and I do not get into ego-battles with anyone. I train as a lawyer, helping women and children and educate myself on human rights. I’ve lost 30 kgs, I feel good, I look great and I work hard. I try to have meaningful conversations, otherwise I stay silent and just listen. All my relationships are based on one simple rule: love. If there are people in my life who cannot be loving, I cut ties with them. I socialise in moderation, I do not do social media and I respect all the work that I do whether it is cooking for my family, sweeping the floors and walking my dog or going to a non-profit organisation as a legal counsellor, applying for a legal license and talking to activists. Most of all, I express gratitude for every single thing and to every single person in my life who has made me happy. I’m afraid of becoming bitter, so I make sure I’m grateful.

Is this happiness? You’ll be surprised, but there’s no happy station at which you can say you’ve arrived. There’s no ‘welcome to happy valley‘ sign hanging over my door. It’s actually the learning curve that makes you happy, not the results.

There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.

Thich Nath Hahn

If I sound too wise then forgive me, I am not even close to that. I’m writing from experience, which is basically having been diagnosed with PTSD by my early 20s, being chronically ill for nearly 10 years and confronting sadness in its ugliest form. I still screw up all the time and find myself constantly questioning the point of my existence. Am I doing it right? Am I happy? How can I be happy? Why am I unhappy? Am I doing well? Am I doing better than others? Why am I failing? Where am I going wrong? Should I marry or should I get a job? Is there too much salt in the Biryani? Are my thighs too fat?

Like any Buddhist, I understand that problems are inevitable. We all go through it and we will continue to go through it. As long as we are alive, human and trying to be happy, things will go wrong. This is where I am able to empathise with almost everyone I come across in life- we’re all trying so hard. I see Buddhists everywhere, because we’re all struggling with the same thing: happiness. We’re all trying to make sense of what is happening and why we’re here. Whatever race, gender or religion we belong to, we are all unified in our search for true meaning. It’s just that, sometimes, things get in the way.

I don’t mean to digress but there’s a scene in an episode of Monty Python which makes me laugh every time mainly because of how accurately it sums up human nature. A firm committee from the Very Big Corporation of America is conducting an investigation into the meaning of life. The findings of the committee are twofold: 1) People are not wearing enough hats. 2) There are various spiritual disciplines through which we can find a way for our souls to evolve, however, man fails to achieve this because he has the unique ability to be distracted by other things.

At this point one of the committee members interrupts and asks “What was that bit about the hats?”

So you see! We all want the same thing, we’re just easily sidetracked. And we could be happy, if only we could distinguish between the things that really matter and the things that don’t. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck says that you should want a good life with good problems, not a good life without problems. He also has a flowchart.

The Key to Finding Happiness Map

I’m not sure if I’m happy- if you have PTSD you cannot tell the difference between happiness and sadness. But I’ve become comfortable with change; as long as I keep changing, keep evolving, I keep feeling happier. I may not be as happy as I want to be, but then I’m happier than I was yesterday. You could say I’m learning to be content. That’s enough for me. As I approach my 30s, I feel like I’m still a kid, just with a better idea of what to do.

If it seems like I’m trying to force Buddhism on you, please don’t think that. In fact, the Dalai Lama has a wonderful way of describing Buddhism.

Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”

His Holiness, The Dalai Lama

In the end, happiness is ephemeral and elusive. Don’t run after it. Stop trying to be happy. There will never be a point where you can truly be happy, because there will always be something else you’ll want. If you cannot be happy, you can just be. When a renowned saint from South India asked one of his devotees what he wanted the most, the devotee said “I want to be happy.” The saint gave a very profound answer:

I want to be happy? Remove the ‘I’ and the ‘want’. And what’s left is ‘happy’.

Sathya Sai Baba