Our mindfulness practice asks us to open to all aspects of our experience: both our joys and our struggles. It can be challenging to open to suffering: to the frustration of wanting things we cannot have; to the fear that the things we have will go away; to anxiety about the health and happiness of ourselves and our loved ones; to confusion. Yet every time we experience a flavor of suffering, it is an opportunity to grow in both wisdom and love—when we meet it with mindfulness.
Much of our suffering happens when we struggle against the very nature of life: its changing uncertain nature, so often out of our control. At the same time, our suffering also seems to be connected to a deep inner wish to be happy, to be healthy, to be safe. We wish that for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the world—and at times these wishes seem out of reach. The wishes of love, of kindness, of caring are very human wishes. What happens when these deep wishes meet the vicissitudes of life? At times, the wish for well-being and happiness collides with the impermanent, uncertain nature of life, and reactivity, greed, aversion, and confusion result. We have a deep wish for safety. As we also recognize vulnerability, uncertainty, and impermanence, fear is born, anxiety is born.
As we learn to bring mindfulness to that anxiety or fear, we sometimes try to orient to wisdom, perhaps telling ourselves, “Vulnerability—that is just the way it is.” And this can be helpful. Yet sometimes as we orient towards wisdom in this way, we can subtly deny the deep wish for safety.
It is as if we believe that when things are impermanent and out of control, the wish for safety, happiness and ease is invalid, that it’s not the right wish. In a subtle way our minds can use our understanding of the teachings to deny those deep wishes, which are actually an expression of metta, of love, of compassion. They are wholesome wishes. Yet our relationship to these wholesome wishes often includes craving or a belief that if I were doing things “right,” these wishes would be fulfilled.
This craving around our wholesome wishes creates a collision when our experience is impermanent and uncertain. The hidden demand that these wishes be so creates anxiety, fear or reactivity. The expectation, the craving for a particular outcome around these wishes—that is what wisdom asks us to let go of. Wisdom doesn’t ask us to let go of the wishes themselves. In fact, I think that wisdom asks us to embrace those wishes. Wisdom understands that these deep wishes are wholesome, natural, human wishes. It asks us to simultaneously open to the nature of things as they are and to open to love, without clinging.
Whenever we are suffering, not only is there a doorway to aligning to the nature of life, there is also a doorway asking us to open to love without clinging to love—to truly have an open heart. Wisdom asks the heart to stretch and hold both, without resistance, without fear, without expectation.