Dealing With Adversity

All of us are going to have bad stuff happen to us in this lifetime – I guarantee it.  And it will happen to me too.  I tell the Buddhist inmates I work with the same thing — that “bad stuff” is going to happen to them” except I use the vernacular for “bad stuff.”

We always think OUR problems are the worst – and there will be no end to them.  Perhaps you feel that with each step forward, adverse circumstances pull you two steps back. If so, then welcome to life. Most people feel the same way.  The Buddha taught that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.  Face it, bad things are going to happen to you – they are going to happen to me.

All of us desire happiness, safety, peace and comfort.  We desire what is satisfying, pleasurable, joyful and permanent.  However, the very nature of existence is impermanent, always changing, and therefore incapable of fully satisfying our desires. Inevitably, we experience frustration, anger, loss, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction.  Life is in constant change, and changes such as birth, old age, sickness, and death can bring dissatisfaction and suffering.  Suffering may arise from being associated with people or conditions that are unpleasant, from being separated from people we love or conditions we enjoy, from not getting what we desire, or from getting what we desire then losing it.  Even our own thoughts and, feelings are impermanent, constantly changing. Inevitably, all physical, emotional and mental conditions will change.

Once when Ven. Phagyab Rinpoche was here many people had interviews with him and told him about the suffering they were experiencing in their life.  Some of their suffering seemed small – while some of it seemed rather overwhelming.  I remember he told all of them that their suffering was very small compared to others who are suffering in the world.  He talked about people in India who literally die on the streets without clothes – without food.  When Rinpoche was falsely imprisoned – he at first felt sorry for himself – but then he thought about all of the people who were so much worse off than him.

Once I was at one of the prisons talking about this topic.  One of the inmates who is a very good practitioner said he thought when bad things happen instead of thinking “What lesson is there in this for me — we should instead think “How can I improve the situation?”

Bad things are going happen to us because of our negative karma keeps ripening.  This is certain.  But the question becomes “how are we going to deal with this?”  If we become angry and respond in an angry way – it is ironic because we are only generating more negative karma.  Some of us resort to using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate – by numbing us from the pain.

I want to share with you a story.  Many years ago on an episode of Candid Camera they placed an actor behind the counter of a convenience store.  Whenever anyone purchased something regardless of what size bill he would receive he wouldn’t give back any change.  Instead he would explain that they have a new policy of not giving back change.  Of course people were outraged.  They yelled, they screamed – all except one man who calmly said, “OK, that’s fine.”  Later when they interviewed him and asked why he didn’t get upset he responded, “That no one was going to rent his mind.”  In other words he wasn’t going to allow the actions of another to upset him.  I think there is a powerful lesson here.

So, if we know bad stuff is going to happen to us, then we have a choice about how we are going react to it.  Are simply going to “react” (in a knee jerk sort of fashion?) or are we going to “respond?”  When we respond (rather than just react) we have a whole range of possibilities.

Adversity can be a lesson for us.  For most of us the busyness of our lives doesn’t allow us time to pause and appreciate the people we have around us.  Adversity often awakens us to the treasures that are far more important than: money, material possessions, our health, our family and our friends.  Sudden financial losses teach us that we shouldn’t base our happiness on money.  An illness teaches us to be humble and lead a healthy life.  A sudden loss in the family makes us appreciate the cycle of birth, life and death.  Such things may seem superficial, but you should learn from adversities if you don’t want them to control your life.

David J. Pollay, a best-selling author, is the creator of  “The Law of the Garbage Truck”™.  He explains The Law of the Garbage Truck in the following way: “One day I hopped in a taxi in another city and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car backed out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches! The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. He was really friendly.

So I asked, ‘Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!’  This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, ‘The Law of the Garbage Truck.’  He explained that many people are like garbage trucks.  They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they’ll dump it on you. Don’t take it personally. Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don’t take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets. The bottom line is that successful people do not let garbage trucks take over their day. Life’s too short to wake up in the morning with regrets.”

This is a wonderful story about not letting negative emotions control you.  Remember it is through meditation practice that we develop this kind of mental stability – so that we don’t resort to self-destructive ways of dealing with adversity or disappointments.