When Life Allegedly Sucks: Maintaining Resilience & Peace Of Mind

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War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death…  The world’s troubles never cease – an uncomfortable truth graphically illustrated by the 24/7 litany of horror stories being broadcast by global media corporations in all formats. The bad news is, there are no magic bullet solutions. The good news is, there are skilful behaviours for maintaining resilience and calmness…

 

 


 

WHEN LIFE ALLEGEDLY SUCKS: MAINTAINING RESILIENCE & PEACE OF MIND

 

Introduction

War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death…  The world’s troubles never cease – an uncomfortable truth graphically illustrated by the 24/7 litany of horror stories being broadcast by global media corporations in all formats. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t feel saddened or angered by disagreeable circumstances and obnoxious characters.

[DSC_0005] PSE12When I first turned to Buddhism it was with hopes of finding an effective remedy for life’s unpleasantness.  The bad news is, there are no magic bullet solutions. The good news is, there are skilful behaviours for maintaining resilience and calmness.

The Buddha taught that the problems I perceive are mind-made – they arise from a wrong view of self and a rejection of life’s fundamental characteristics; impermanence (anicca), dissatisfaction (dukkha) and non-ownership (anatta).  I believe in myself as a stable human personality with likes and dislikes, who needs to be happy and free of suffering. But ultimately there’s no enduring ‘I’ or ‘me’ and no lasting security or happiness to be found in possessions, or dwelling places, or other people.  Everything I cherish will one day change and vanish, and problems will always arise if I stake my well-being on them.

Living well requires neither rejection nor clinging to whatever life brings, it does however require an attitude of gratitude, generosity and humour.  Not even the Buddha could alleviate the sufferings of his followers – he could only teach them to help themselves, and he urged them to develop morality, concentration and wisdom so that they might also experience unshakeable peace of mind.

 

Mindfulness of breathing

When the news is bad and life seems unpleasant, what I must do is respond intelligently and wholesomely. Mindfulness of breathing is the key. When anger or fear arises, my ability to react skilfully depends upon how quickly I can recall that pleasant sensation at the nostrils as cool air enters and warm air exits the lungs.

Mindfulness involves sati – recalling and remembering to stay with the breath. It involves sampajanna or present moment awareness – knowing right now what’s happening with the breath (whether it is deep or shallow or coarse or refined, for example). It involves atappa or ardency – penetrating deeper into the subtleties  of the breath, realizing whenever the mind wanders off and immediately bringing it right back on task. [1] In this mindful, concentrated state I can investigate cause and effect and learn how things arise and pass away in the mind.  This isn’t simply a matter of passively watching feelings come and go – it involves using the body/breath as an anchor while employing skilful thoughts and reasoning to avoid being drawn into the energy of anger, fear, or any other mental disturbance. [2]

 

Awareness and acceptance

If a problem can be solved, why worry about it? If it can’t be solved, why worry about it?

My stomach may be knotted with fear and my muscles may be quivering with anger, but when mindful of breathing I can recall and reflect on the above piece of advice from Shantideva, an 8th-century Buddhist sage. I’m also able to recollect the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence and reassure myself with calming thoughts such as: “Okay, what’s happening is horrible and right now I’m angry and scared. But I don’t need to deny or suppress how I’m feeling. Feelings are impermanent – they come and go. I won’t always feel this way.” This strategy may not be enough to make the unpleasantness go away immediately, but it does enable me to accept and adjust to the experience without adding fuel to the fire by panicking.

 

Patience and equanimity

Having calmed my emotional turmoil somewhat, I need now to gain some objectivity.

Has lashing out angrily ever solved my problems? Have I ever solved my problems when paralysed by fear, wallowing in resentment and hoping for salvation? Has seeking solace in sensuality and intoxicants ever made my problems go away?  No, I don’t recall any of these responses ever having been helpful in a bad news situation.

Is the situation as bad as it looks? What are facts? How reliable is my information?

When mindful of breathing I’m able to contemplate unpleasantness like this. It puts my problems into perspective and takes some of the heat out of my feelings. I can re-evaluate the situation and feel differently about it.

 

Analysis and resolution

A crisis can be a private problem such as income reduction or joblessness, property loss or damage, injury or ill-health, relationship breakdown or bereavement, etc. of concern only to me, my family and closest friends. When facing these kinds of problem I often employ a business management tool known as the TOWS Matrix; that is to say, I list any identifiable Threats and Opportunities in my external environment and I list any identifiable Weakness and Strengths in my internal environment. [3] Doing this paper exercise not only calms my nerves, it also helps me to identify the strategic choices and to choose an appropriate remedial action.

On the other hand, a crisis can be a public issue also affecting large numbers of people with whom I’m unacquainted. In comparison with my private problems, the perennial public issues of war, poverty, disease and environmental destruction appear practically insoluble, the threats and opportunities are seemingly remote and less urgent.  Unfortunately, switching off and unplugging my media devices offers only a temporary respite from the relentless barrage of negative news stories, and when retreating from the world isn’t an option the challenge for me is to remain open, compassionate and equanimous as opposed to remaining bubble-wrapped in naive optimism, cynicism, or indifference.

When the news is bad, I find that contemplating the issues of media ownership and media power, and enquiring into why certain news stories appear to be receiving more airtime than others, is an effective strategy for dispelling any unwarranted fears that I may be feeling.

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Why is it that the daily news output seems largely negative when logically there must be as many positive stories worth reporting?   Is it simply down to cynical journalism and the fact that bad news sells better than good news?

According to Roy Greenslade, “Peoples’ interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life. They care much less about what happens around them when they enjoy relative peace and/or relative prosperity.” [4]

Raymond Nickerson reviews the evidence for a human “confirmation bias” and concludes that people are more likely pay attention to whatever confirms their beliefs and to ignore whatever is contradictory. [5]

Moreover, research by Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka suggests that people have a “negativity bias”, a psychological propensity to hear and remember bad news. [6]

Apparently, just six American corporations (Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., CBS Corporation and NBC Universal) are controlling much of the world’s content media. [7] Or as the Journal of Media Law puts it – “Where a few firms dominate the media landscape they exercise considerable control…there is now a convincing body of evidence to suggest that particular corporate or political affiliations can lead to media bias or the suppression of information.” [8] So whenever I choose to read, watch or listen to what these corporations are peddling I’m allowing them an opportunity to influence my thinking.

When the news is bad I might want to re-examine my assumptions and opinions if they are leading me towards an attitude of pessimism.  Tempting though it is for me to believe that I’m witnessing the beginning of the end of planet Earth, in actual fact there are indicators that humanity has never had it so good. Allegedly, 2015 was “the best year in history for the average human being… The world is better-educated, better-fed, healthier, freer, and more tolerant – and it looks set to get richer, too.” [9]

 

Love and compassion

The ‘Golden Rule’ or Ethic of Reciprocity’ (i.e. treating others as one would like to be treated; refraining from treating them as one wouldn’t like to be treated) is a principle of altruism found in many human cultures and religions. [10]

Within Buddhism it is taught that to protect oneself is to protect others; to protect others is to protect oneself. [11] At a very simple level, what this means is that when I refrain from heedlessness I avoid harming myself and others through negligence. When I’m patient and forbearing with others I’m less likely to give them an excuse to become quarrelsome and violent towards me. Refraining from harming self and others by exercising morality, concentration and wisdom is said to be the best protection when life allegedly sucks.

The traditional Buddhist method for developing universal love and compassion involves reflecting on the fact that all beings apparently desire happiness and freedom from suffering. Feelings of friendliness (metta), compassion (karuna), joyful appreciation (mudita) and equamity (upekkha) are developed towards oneself, and are then projected outwards to family members, close friends, acquaintances, strangers, enemies, and all others who are suffering and searching for happiness. Love and compassion is also developed through the practice of refraining from killing, stealing, abusive conduct, wrongful speech and intoxication; upholding these five precepts or training rules without breaking any of them requires both mindful action and empathy for others.

If I feel that my time and resources are limited, my efforts to improve the lives of people outside my social circle will rarely extend beyond supporting a range of good causes. I regard it as my sacred duty therefore to acknowledge any habitual negative behaviour that is distorting my world view and preventing me from feeling loving and compassionate.  The table below lists several common types of negative automatic thoughts or “cognitive distortions” that I recognise as having clouded my own judgement on countless occasions. [12]

The Buddha told his monks to maintain a mind of love and compassion to all without exception – even to those who would literally saw off their limbs. [13] Myself, I can only relate to the ‘Parable Of The Saw’ as an example of supreme enlightened behaviour.  To feel love and compassion for someone I judge to be arrogant, aggressive, selfish and irresponsible seems to me to be an onerous task at the best of times, and no way could I summon up an attitude of love and compassion for my attacker if I were being brutalised.  I freely admit, there is often a discrepancy between what I believe to be right action and my actual behaviour, and I dare say I have that tendency in common with most other people on this planet.  Acknowledging this human characteristic and not beating myself up when it manifests within me is a small first step towards developing unconditional love and compassion for all.

 

Conclusion

The problems of the world arise from wrong views about reality. There are no magic solutions, only skilful behaviours.  Not even the enlightened Buddha could alleviate the sufferings of his followers – he could only urge them to develop morality, concentration and wisdom so that they might also enjoy inner peace.

When dealing with any unpleasantness it’s important to remain aware and present. Mindfulness of breathing is the key. Breathing mindfully allows space for acceptance and adjustment to whatever difficulties life brings without adding fuel to the fire by panicking.

Using the breath as an anchor for mindful concentration, the experience of unpleasantness can be analysed. Threats/ Opportunities/ Weaknesses/ Strengths can be identified.  Secondary sources of information (news stories, for example) can be assessed for reliability.  Habitual negative thoughts or cognitive distortions can be recognised. A wholesome attitude of patience, equanimity, love and compassion towards difficult circumstances and offensive people can be developed, enabling one to refrain naturally from killing, stealing, abusive conduct, wrongful speech and intoxication.

Refraining from harming self and others (ethical conduct) is the best protection when life allegedly sucks.
 

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Notes

[1] ‘The Path of Concentration & Mindfulness’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 8 March 2011.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/concmind.html>

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘The TOWS Matrix: A Tool for Situational Analysis’ by Heinz Weihrich, University Of San Francisco, 1982.
<http://www.rillo.ee/docs/2008/Weichrich_LRP_1982.pdf>

[4] ‘The Good News About Bad News – It Sells’ by Roy Greenslade. The Guardian, 4 September, 2007. <http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2007/sep/04/thegoodnewsaboutbadnewsi>

[5] Raymnond S Nickerson, ‘Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises’, Review of General Psychology  Vol. 2, No. 2, 1998, pp 175-220.
<http://landman-psychology.com/ConfirmationBias.pdf>

[6] ‘Why Bad News Dominates The Headlines’ by Tom Stafford. BBC, 29 July 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140728-why-is-all-the-news-bad>

[7] ‘These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America’ by Ashley Lutz. Business Insider, 14 June 2012.
<http://www.businessinsider.com/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6?IR=T>

[8] ‘The Elephant In The Room: A Survey Of Media Ownership And Plurality In The UK’.  Media Reform Coalition, April 2014.
<http://www.mediareform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ElephantintheroomFinalfinal.pdf>

[9] ‘2015: The Best Year in History For The Average Human Being’ by Charles Kenny, The Atlantic.com, 18 December 2015.
<http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/12/good-news-in-2015/421200/>

[10] ‘Shared Belief In The “Golden Rule” (aka. Ethics Of Reciprocity)’ by B A Robinson. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 4 February 2016
<http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc.htm>

[11] ‘Protection Through Satipatthana’ by Nyanaponika Thera.  Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/bl034.html>

[12] David D. Burns M.D., Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, Quill, 2000, pp.42-3.
< http://www.apsu.edu/sites/apsu.edu/files/counseling/COGNITIVE_0.pdf>

[13] ‘Kakacupama Sutta: The Parable of the Saw’ (MN 21) translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 10 November 2013
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.021x.budd.html>

 

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