I am blessed that my personal struggles aren’t really that serious compared to so many who are really suffering in the world. And yet, they are my struggles. I own them. And many times they feel heavy to me, especially in the past. However, my journey over the past few years of self-discovery has greatly lightened the load I carry and given me many tools to help with my stress, self-doubts and anxiety.
I have learned…
How my thoughts define my life state.
How I have power over those thoughts.
How the Universe sends me whatever is in my thoughts.
How challenges are my greatest opportunities.
How meditation calms my monkey mind.
How yoga is really a wonderful form of meditation.
How Buddhism taught me the power of cause and effect.
How gratitude and kindness leads to gratitude and kindness.
How seeing people’s own suffering is the only way to really see people.
I continue to read, explore and stretch my mental muscles as a core part of my journey of self-discovery. One of the best ways for me to do this is reading books. Difficult ones. Uplifting ones. I keep a stack of books in my library that I discover on this journey and plan to read so as to ensure I just keep going, exploring.
Perhaps the greatest book I ever read was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. It literally changed my life. Never have I been so moved and, yet, so inspired by a book that was gut wrenching to read. It’s the story of one man’s impossible survival during the Holocaust. The book teaches us that the key to overcoming any struggle, no matter how severe or how minor, lies in your thoughts and your commitment to overcome them.
I have always been interested by people’s ability to overcome struggles and hardships. Why one person loses in that fight and another survives. How some people get weaker as a result and still others get stronger. The stories that I pay particular attention to are of people overcoming the worst situations and hardships and making something meaningful of their lives vs. those that turn to self-destruction or repeating the same mistakes. Why? How? Who? What are the lessons, tools and common themes?
For me, in my life, my childhood wasn’t easy. It was messy, confusing, traumatic at times and full of pain and suffering. Some family members were defeated by it. Others overcame it, didn’t let it define them and became stronger and wiser as a result.
Perhaps that’s why I have always tried to help people I see struggling because I know it doesn’t need to define who you are. It’s very possible to learn and grow from these challenges. It’s why I was drawn to Buddhism because that’s the cornerstone of what we are taught…that our struggles are blessings because they allow us to confront and change our karma and also they are gifts to help us grow and evolve.
Exploring this topic further, over the summer I simultaneously read two books to really understand even more how people persevere in extreme hardship. I sought out wisdom from two of the most extraordinary spiritual leaders of our time, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And I read an extraordinary book that was recommended to me — Primo Levi’s account of the worst suffering known to man, the Holocaust.
Here are the two books I read:
In these books, I found such extreme examples of suffering that at times, especially Primo Levi’s description of what he and others endured in the Holocaust, to be physically gut-wrenching. Total unimaginable suffering. And the stories of the hardships that the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu endured are equally tragic and would have defeated most people.
But in their stories lie such amazing insights and lessons for all of us. How they endured, how they didn’t become bitter or angry, how they went on to live productive, inspiring lives. For me, the central question is “Can this be taught? Or is it in one’s DNA that equips them with the tools to overcome?” I believe they can be taught and I try to use my own life experience to demonstrate this. And to share what I have learned in the hopes that we can draw some inspiration and insight in battling our own challenges no matter how trivial or small compared to these warriors of survival.
From Primo Levi…
“We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last – the power to refuse our consent. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.”
“…(he) reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”
“Man’s capacity to dig himself in, to secrete a shell, to build around himself a tenuous barrier of defence, even in apparently desperate circumstances, is astonishing and merits a serious study.”
And from The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu…
“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” Dalai Lama
“What the Dalai Lama and I are offering, is a way of handling your worries: thinking about others. You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even in a worse situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.
Once again, the path of joy was connection and the path of sorrow was separation. When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face—together.” Desmond Tutu
“Suffering is inevitable, but how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.” Dalai Lama
“One of my practices comes from an ancient Indian teacher. He taught that when you experience some tragic situation, think about it. If there’s no way to overcome the tragedy, then there is no use worrying too much. So I practice that. (The Dalai Lama was referring to the eighth-century Buddhist master Shantideva, who wrote, “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?”)” Dalai Lama
“Adversity, illness, and death are real and inevitable. We chose whether to add to these unavoidable facts of life with the suffering that we create in our own minds and hearts… the chosen suffering. The more we make a different choice, to heal our own suffering, the more we can turn to others and help to address their suffering with the laughter-filled, tear-stained eyes of the heart. And the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more- incredibly- we are able to hear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This is the true secret to joy.” Dalai Lama
I hope that whatever hardships you have encountered or are suffering with currently, you would consider reading books like these that offer such wisdom and insights. For I believe that we honor these fearless, selfless individuals by reading about their hardships and listening to their words of wisdom. While they bear witness to some of the worst conditions known to man, they also serve as textbooks for the rest of us to overcome whatever struggles we encounter.
And in their words and examples, I have learned that the key to overcoming any particular struggle you may be facing is the narrative that you form in your thoughts. In those thoughts, therefore, lies the answers to your suffering. Controlling them is the most powerful, and often the only thing, you can control.
I leave you with this quote from the great Viktor Frankl…