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I am a college student, and recently my parents decided to get divorced. They continuously argue about property and don’t seem to care about me and my brother.

Life contains both suffering and joy

I am a college student, and recently my parents decided to get divorced. They continuously argue about property and don’t seem to care about me and my brother. I feel hurt and sad. Recently, I started drinking and sometimes take drugs. I know it is not a good thing to do, but it takes away the confusion and pain. Lam, could you advise me? Thank you.

KN, Thimphu

Well KN, I wish I could take away your pain and tell you that from now on your life will be free of suffering, but I cannot. In reality, there will always be times of hardship in our lives. No-one can avoid it. From the time of birth until death there has never been anyone who has not experienced mental and physical pain. Even the Buddha had an enemy, fell sick, and eventually died, and so how can we expect to go through life without encountering problems – passing every exam, being popular with everyone, successful in every job interview, and continuously enjoying good health. It is just not possible.

As an example, think of life like a journey from Thimphu to Bumthang. Along the way, we will pass over bright mountain passes and also through dark valleys. Both are part of the journey and we cannot have one without the other. Sometimes, however, we will feel that the valley is just too deep and dark and we fear that we will never get out. In reality, though, everything is impermanent and both the happy and sad times will come and go and then come again. It is an on-going process.

When we take drugs or alcohol, it is like trying to build a bridge from Dochula and Yotola to avoid the valleys. It is an unachievable goal. In reality, it would be better to try and equip ourselves to handle the ups and downs of the journey. Dips are part of life. We cannot escape them.

In this respect, it is important to see the situation in prospective. Of course, it is tough when our parents break up and anyone would feel disturbed when such things occur. But, as I said, try to bear in mind that in life there will always be problems. This is the nature of life and no-one can avoid sad and tough times. Also, try not to feel angry with your parents. Of course they should care for you, but they are also confused and insecure. As a result, they have lost sight of reality. They think that property and money will restore their lives and make them happy. Unfortunately, this is totally untrue and their struggle for material things will serve only to increase their dependency on wealth and property, which in turn will create more insecurity and anxiety. Instead, they should try to understand that material things are insubstantial and relying on them to gain peace of mind is like trying to quench our thirst from water in a mirage. It is impossible. In reality, only developing compassion and wisdom can lead to peace of mind, not accumulating wealth and possessions.

Anyway, to return to your question, I know that your present situation is tough, and I’m sure that you feel like you are in a very dark and long tunnel. Try not to feel depressed, but instead remind yourself that you are in a tunnel, not a cave and that a tunnel has an exit. Even though you may feel that you are condemned to spend your entire life in darkness, it is untrue. In reality, it is just a temporary experience and it will pass. Please trust me on this. Also, understand that while drugs and alcohol may offer some temporary relief from your mental pain, they will not hasten your exit from ‘the tunnel’, but will instead imprison you to the dark hell of addiction. In this respect, rather than trying to escape your mental pain, repeatedly remind yourself that life contains suffering – for all of us, not only you – and that the present experience will pass. Also, instead of focusing on your own pain, reach out and try to help your brother and your parents. In reality, the entire experience will make you a wiser and stronger person, and in the future you will be in a position to help friends who may find themselves in a similar situation.

In short, accept that life contains both suffering and joy, know that your present suffering is temporary and will pass, and direct your energy into helping those who can benefit from your advice and company. I wish you well.

I suggest that you and your parents contemplate the Buddhist teaching known as “The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind”.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes. Email to jjwangchuk@gmail.com for any queries

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