Stand in the center and face death. Then you will endure forever.
In 2014, I graduated with an MBA from INSEAD. A hopeful student, I left the campus grounds with carefully laid out plans and a heart full of anticipation and excitement.
Little did I know of what would come next.
The next few years brought me on the roller-coaster of my life. I experienced exhilarating highs such as diving into a deeply fulfilling career as an executive coach, marrying my great love and welcoming our two sublime sons into our lives. Concurrently I was also thrown into oblivion-deep lows such as being part of a start-up that failed, suffering from periods of overwhelming stress and experiencing the excruciating vulnerability and exhaustion that can come with motherhood. Despite all the positive moments, I felt that the cup was half-empty.
Having been on a spiritual path for quite some years, I was surprised by how powerless I felt. I was acutely aware of the negative and unhelpful mental states that played out like a circus in my mind; frustration, anger, impatience, guilt, envy (all other mothers seemed to have a much easier ride with their little ones), and then worn down even further by self-judgement and shame as a result.
Why could I not simply be happy?
I had a wonderful husband, two gorgeous children and a comfortable life. Yet, deep breathing exercises or rituals of gratitude were no longer doing anything to reverse my experience out of the rabbit hole. I was stuck in darkness.
One morning in 2018 an unexpected opportunity opened a door towards the path out.
It was July, and a beloved and respected Buddhist teacher and monk I had met a few years earlier in India, came to Zürich to give a workshop. After attending one of his workshops, I simply reached out and asked him for guidance. The wisdom he shared completely transformed my way of looking at life and happiness.
Everything that we believe we do to gain happiness, such as getting married, working for recognition and money, acquiring material possessions and indulging in pleasurable experiences (nice holidays and an evening in the bar with friends as examples) is in fact not bringing us any closer to a permanent state of happiness. Whilst it can certainly make us feel good in the moment, this state is ever-impermanent, and the notion of happiness will wear off shortly after leaving the bar, once we have reached that next career step, or the holiday is finished. Our children certainly bring us many moments of joy and love, however, they do not guarantee us life-long happiness. Regardless of the nature of the pleasurable experience, once it fades – and it inevitably will – we are left with a sense that something is missing or could be better or different.
I realised that, despite all my efforts, I had only been focused on alleviating my own suffering rather than creating a sustainable sense of happiness.
Once this stark difference dawned on me I could finally see why I had gotten myself so deeply entrenched in the mud of my own mind. Suffering, as the Buddhist texts describe the innate conditions to the human experience, inevitably arises at some point in our lives. We all experience times of illness or physical discomfort and struggle with various mental afflictions; it could be a desire for more beauty, success or love. In this strive for better and more we experience negative emotions such as envy, disappointment and fear, feelings we are conditioned to believe are unpleasant and must be avoided. This unbalance creates a powerful paradox since these negative states of mind are in essence the “default” of our very being, born out of attachment to our desires and perceived needs as homo sapiens.
Everything we currently do in pursuit of happiness is only bringing temporary relief from suffering.
Apart from one thing.
Developing equanimity through training your own mind.
The key to permanent happiness is not at all to avoid that delicious meal, or to refrain from working for that career promotion, or to abstain from having children. It is rather to approach all life events with a sense of equanimity.
Equanimity is a mind-state of stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause us to lose the balance of our own mind.
It refers to a mind that is calm and steady in the face of life’s ups and downs. This is a tall order because it means opening our hearts and minds not just to pleasant experiences but to unpleasant ones, too. Resisting the latter just amplifies our own stress to what is already difficult. We all go through phases of our lives where it feels a little tough. How you approach these challenges make the whole difference.
If you expect your life to be up and down, your mind will be much more peaceful.
The journey towards a steady mind is long and requires deliberate training and constant presence of mind.
The first step, however, which is one we all can take, is to develop a true and deep sense of acceptance towards all life events.
Once I completely and honestly accepted my negative emotions and integrated them as fully acceptable parts of myself, they slowly released their firm grip. My heart and mind became freer, more open, and more joyful. I am still far away from wholeheartedly being able to embrace equanimity, however when difficult challenges arise, I approach them differently. I have stopped asked “Why me?” and started saying “Why not me?”
This, I truly believe, is the road to happiness.