The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life has a quality of "dukkha." Sometimes, dukkha is translated as suffering, and other times as sorrow, displeasure, pain, stress, affliction, anxiety, discomfort, anguish, misery, dissatisfaction, or aversion. The translation I appreciate is unsatisfactoriness. Life is unsatisfactory, not least because it is transitory and impermanent (after all, it will end in death!). You don't always get what you want. You often get things that you don't want.
There are five remembrances in Buddhism. I am of the nature to grow old; nothing can save me from old age. I am of the nature to have ill health; nothing can save me from sickness. I am of the nature to die; nothing can save me from death. All that is dear to me and all those I love are of the nature to change; nothing can prevent me from becoming separated from them. I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech, and mind; my actions are the ground on which I stand.
At first glance, these may seem pessimistic. However, they are meant to motivate; they emphasize the urgency of practice. One Buddhist sutra constructs a metaphor of four mountains. The Buddha told King Pasenadi to imagine four mighty mountains, high as the sky, approaching from the four cardinal directions, crushing everything in their paths, allowing no path of escape. These mountains represent birth, old age, sickness, and death. In response, the king said that he would live his remaining hours with as much serenity and happiness as possible, acting for the benefit of future generations.
We are all in a situation of urgency. Put a positive spin on it. There is no time like the present. This moment is an opportunity to practice, so that you can have more capacity to deal with difficulty in the future. The problems that you have now may be minor, compared to the problems that you will experience in the future. As Pema Chödrön points out, meditation isn't all about feeling good. Learning how to stay with pain and discomfort in meditation increases your capacity to face challenges in everyday life. When one experiences pain or unpleasantness on the cushion, one can notice the aversion and the tendency to flee, and one can experiment with the instruction, "Stay!"
Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong." The tendency to be distracted, the pain in your knee, and the stiffness in your shoulders are all opportunities to develop and cultivate your capacity to deal with unsatisfactoriness. As this capacity becomes more of a habit, you become more capable of maintaining equanimity when things become really difficult. The more you can be happy with things as they are, no matter how they are. Pema Chödrön points out that it also uncovers our capacity for joy.
The Buddha used similes to illustrate points. One simile that he used to describe this situation was a person shot with an arrow and then shot with a second arrow right afterwards. That person feels the pain of both arrows - physical and mental. This is what happens when you sorrow, grieve, lament, beat your breast, and become distraught when you experience pain.
Suzuki Roshi said, "A bodhisattva should be grateful for problems. When you have a problem, right there is where your practice is." Problems are grist for the mill, as long as you bring an attitude of openness and acceptance to them. Pema Chödrön counsels taking a warrior's attitude towards discomfort. Approach dukkhha with steadfastness, patience, and strength. Catch the emotional reaction, and drop the story lines, and then observe, with detachment what really happens. The idea is that you'll either find that it isn't as bad as you thought it was, or, if it is, you will likely experience compassion for all those that have experienced similar suffering. She points out that, "The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta." Bodhichitta is a quality of openheartedness, an openness to experience.
Thich Nhat Hanh uses a gardening analogy to describe the best attitude to take when dealing with troubles or things that you might be tempted to judge as negative. He points out that any good garden needs compost. He emphasizes how mindfulness can be used to care for and, in so doing, transform things like anger, turning unwholesome states into wholesome states.
When sitting, one can mindfully observe how transient and impermanent all things - including unpleasant and painful things - are. When you experience the fact that pain will pass, you become much more capable of accepting it, much less likely to resist it and add an unnecessary layer of suffering to it. You become less likely to hit yourself with that second arrow.
I’ll leave you with my daughter’s favourite bedtime story.
The Donkey and the Well
The farmer got his shovel and started shoveling dirt into the well on top of the donkey. The donkey was, understandably, alarmed and started making even more of a fuss. The commotion drew the farmer’s neighbours, and they grabbed their shovels and started to help the farmer fill in the well, much to the donkey’s dismay. After a time, though, the donkey became quiet.
“He can’t be buried yet,” said one neighbor, and she looked into the well to see what was going on. She saw that, as each shovelful of dirt hit the donkey’s back, he would shake the dirt off and step up onto the pile that it made. The farmer and his neighbours continued shoveling, and the donkey continued to shake and step, until he got to the top of the well. Then he stepped out of the well altogether and walked off into the forest, never to be seen by the farmer and his neighbours ever again.
The moral of the story is that life is going to shovel all sorts of dirt onto your back. When it does, your job is to shake it off and step up onto the pile that the dirt makes.
Use your troubles as stepping stones!