YOUTH IN FOCUS: I have lots of problems. In particular, my step-mother has been against me since I was a child and I feel hopeless, and so I drink and even use drugs to block out the sadness. I’m not hurting anyone else and the habit helps me feel calm. Somehow, though, I feel it is not a good response. Could lama advise me?
-Hopeless College Student, Bangalore
Hi, Hopeless, yes, your gut instinct is correct. Using mind-changing substances is an ineffective response to life’s pains. Instead, it would be better to understand that life naturally contains suffering. If we accept this fact, we can begin to deal with problems in a positive way, rather than struggle against them.
As a simple example, think of life like a journey from Thimphu to Bumthang. We go up and come down. We turn left and turn right. Deep valleys are as much part of the journey as the high passes and neither can be avoided. Drinking or taking drugs every time we feel pain is like trying to stay on the passes and avoid the dips. It is impossible and attempting to do so is similar to constructing a bridge linking the peaks of Dochula and Yotongla. We would get exhausted in the attempt and finally there would be no positive result. Instead, it would be better to adapt our vehicle so it can negotiate the highs and lows.
To do this, we first have to realise that life contains suffering, which can come in the form of a broken relationship, a failed exam, sickness, old age or, in your case, an un-supportive step-mom. Even the Buddha was constantly opposed by his cousin, and so why would we expect to cruise through life with everyone loving us or enjoying success in every endeavour we undertake. It has never happened and never will.
Still, living with the illusion that life should be trouble-free, we reject and struggle against any kind of pain and suffering. Like building the bridge from Thimphu to Bumthang, this approach isn’t realistic and will merely create its own hardships.
Think of the ways that we try to avoid pain: Using drugs and alcohol is one. Other common means are to distract the mind through gambling or to physically run away. Temporarily, these methods are effective and so we replicate them with the hope of a repeat result. Soon we are addicted to the escapes, and our problems increase multifold.
As an example, consider the effect of habitual drug-use. It inhibits our ability to function, resulting in the high probability of us losing our jobs, family and health. Even if we regulate our use and are not addicted, in trying to avoid every painful experience we lose the opportunity to gain necessary life-skills. To enrich our mind and gain wisdom, we need a balance of hardship and joy.
Gambling has its own obvious downfalls, because even if we win we make a lot of enemies in the process. Likewise, physically running away has its natural limitations – here I’m not in any way suggesting that you stay in an abusive situation. You should not. In fact, no one should silently suffer domestic abuse, and anyone in such a situation should definitely move out. However, it is just not possible, or even helpful, to run from relationships or quit jobs every time we encounter a little discomfort. Basically, all methods that we use to avoid suffering have their own downfalls. They are like time bombs waiting to explode.
Furthermore, when you blame your step-mom for your problems and feel hopeless, you are falling into a blame and self-pity mentality. I’m not denying the reality of your suffering nor depreciating the scars it has left in your mind. Still, holding onto the pain and misery prevents you from moving forward. It is as if you have been pushed into a ditch. The place is miserable and you hate it, but rather than taking steps to climb out you sit there feeling angry and depressed. Blame and self-pity are uncomfortable, but they can be convenient excuses to do nothing.
So, how best to deal with your situation? First of all, you need to deeply understand that difficulties are part of unenlightened-existence. From the time of birth until death no-one has ever lived a totally pain or suffering-free life. It is just not possible. Consequently, rather than think, “Why me?” think, “Why not me? Why would I expect to go through life without ever encountering problems?” It is like becoming sick. We accept that illness is part of life, but at the same time we make positive moves to recover. We don’t just mope around, saying “Why am I sick?”
When we accept that sooner or later we will encounter mental or physical problems, we no longer try to push them away as something alien. Instead, we accept them as an integral part of being a human being and deal with them directly. With regard to blaming and self-pity, be aware when it arises in your mind. Mentally say to yourself, “Oh, oh, I’m starting to blame others and feel sorry for myself”. Then, be aware of how this attitude is preventing you from moving forward. I’m sure that at such times you’ll notice that you crave alcohol or drugs.
Once you are aware of your reactions, neither follow nor suppress them. Also, do not feel guilty about your cravings. Instead, just mindfully observe how you try to escape uncomfortable situations. Usually, our habitual responses play out like a movie at high speed. Now, we have discovered the pause button. Each frame unfolds slowly, and we recognise how each situation leads to the next. We also realise that we have the means to edit the scenes.
Basically, you need to have a view, followed by awareness and action: You understand that life contains suffering, you are mindful of your reaction to pain and you refrain from following old habits. When you do this, you no longer look for an escape, but instead face problems directly.
On a final note, it has become a common trend for step-parents to reject their step-children. This creates so much pain, not only for the children but also for the step-parents themselves, and even for society at large. In the same way that the whole body suffers when the organs don’t co-operate, so a family breaks down when the individual members do not get along. If step-parents could just put themselves in the shoes of the step-child and genuinely feel the pain of a child who, through no fault of their own, has lost his mother or father, they will change their attitude. Instead of showing hostility, they will give them the love and care they need. As a result, the entire family will benefit – including the step-parent. ,