Letting Go of What You Cannot Change
I’ve been chronically ill since I failed to recover from a viral infection in 2001. When someone asks how I’m doing, I’ve got my glass-half-full and my glass-half-empty answers. My glass-half-full answer is that I’m now able to be up and about for several hours in the morning and then—usually—again in the afternoon.
My glass-half-empty answer is that I can’t make a daylong commitment because, around noon, my body collapses on the bed in flu-like fatigue. If I’m able to fall asleep, then I can be up and about in the afternoon. By evening, I’m too sick to be anywhere but on my bed.
At first glance these two descriptions may seem to conflict with each other, but they don’t. They’re just two different ways to describe my life.
Glass-half-full/glass-half-empty is an idiom used to describe how people think of their lives. People who see their lives as a glass that’s half-full are thought to have an optimistic and joyful outlook on life—they’re looking at what’s in the glass. By contrast, those who see their lives as a glass that’s half-empty are thought to have a pessimistic and negative outlook on life—they’re looking at what’s missing from the glass.
When I think of my glass as half-full, I feel grateful and look forward to the day. When I think of it as half-empty, I’m sad or irritable and my mental suffering intensifies.
In September, I discovered a way to change that half-empty glass into one that is half-full. My son and his wife held a birthday party for my four-year old granddaughter. It started at 10:30 in the morning at a park near their home, which is a little over an hour from where I live. Factoring in my “collapse schedule,” and given the roundtrip driving time (even with someone else driving), I knew I couldn’t stay for the whole party. Still, I decided to push myself and go for about an hour and a half.
When I got there, I felt such joy—that glass-half-full feeling. Yes, I couldn’t stay for the whole party, but I was so happy to see my granddaughter, her little friends and their parents, my daughter-in-law’s parents and her brother, and even an old friend who was there with her granddaughter.
At one point, I asked my son if his best friends were coming—a couple I dearly love but rarely get to see. He said apologetically (knowing I wouldn’t be able to attend) that they were coming over to their house along with other friends for the “adult party” that evening. Whoa. That glass-half-full was suddenly half-empty. The desire to go to the party was so strong, I could feel it physically in my body. Then envy and resentment began to rear their ugly heads.
Not wanting others to see how I felt, I took myself off to the restroom to regroup. Was I going to let this information ruin the rest of my time at the party? I didn’t want it to, but the envy and resentment felt like they were eating me alive.
Then I remembered the Buddha’s teachings on suffering and unhappiness. When we’re caught up in painful thoughts and emotions, we have a choice. We can choose to feed them by going over and over our grievances: “This isn’t fair”; “Tonight is when the real fun will start.” By repeatedly conjuring up images or thoughts that evoke envy and resentment, we, in effect, become an envious and resentful person, which keeps our attention on the empty part of the glass.
But we can make a different choice. We can resolve to mindfully observe the painful thoughts and emotions without feeding them with stress-filled commentary. The Buddhist teacher S.N. Goenka called this “learning to observe [unpleasant sensations] objectively.” An objective, mindful observation might take this form: “Ah, envy and resentment are present.” (Compare this to repeatedly saying, “This isn’t fair.”) Observing painful thoughts and emotions objectively loosens their grip on us. This gives us some breathing room in which we can make a conscious choice not to continue to feed them.
In fact, as I describe in the chapter in my book How to Be Sick titled, “Getting Off the Wheel of Suffering,” we can do more than just not feed them. We can actively counter them by cultivating wholesome mental qualities—what Buddhists call the four sublime states.
Right there in the restroom, I made a conscious choice to move my mind toward one of those sublime states: karuna, or compassion. I gently said to myself, “It’s hard to have to skip a party that I want to go to so badly.” Immediately, I could feel the envy and resentment begin to slip away because I’d shifted my attention from them to an open-hearted acknowledgement of my unhappiness and to the cultivation of compassion for myself over the suffering I was experiencing.
Then I moved to another sublime state: metta, translated as kindness or friendliness. Metta is the simple act of well-wishing toward oneself and others. In this instance, I was the one in need of well-wishing! So I said to myself, “May I be happy hanging out with my family and the party guests for the rest of my time here.”
My heart having been softened by evoking karuna (compassion) and metta (kindness and friendliness) for myself, I took up the third sublime state: mudita, or joy in the joy of others. I pictured my son and daughter-in-law together that evening, along with other friends, enjoying each other’s company. As I did this, I tried to feel joy for the good time they’d be having. It took awhile—at first the residue of envy was still there. But I took a deep breath and kept at it, visualizing even more strongly the good time they’d be having. Eventually, joy arose. I was beginning to see my glass as half-full again.
As I walked back to the party, I felt the fourth sublime state arise: upekkha, or equanimity, which refers to feeling content and at ease with whatever life brings. “Yes, my body is sick and that limits what I can do,” I thought, “but this is how my life is and I’m at peace with its joys and its sorrows.” I rejoined the party with my glass half-full and with the realization that perhaps the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 19 (“Intentionally Turning Your Mind to the Sublime States”) of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com