Once a month I sit with a delightful Buddhist monk named Kusala Bikshu. Sometimes he plays blues harmonica for us after meditation.
This week he told stories about his interactions with people in the world, and they were all real Buddhist Seinfeld tales – a monk, out of step with society, bumbles his way through awkward LA encounters. One of his stories summed up, for me, the absolute secret to being happy.
He was in the express line at Von’s and the lady ahead of him put her one item on the belt and then left the line to get another thing. Kusala waited. It felt like she was gone for a long time. This was, after all, the express line. There was nothing express about waiting for a phantom person, so he moved his items ahead of hers on the belt. He figured she wouldn’t be back until he was already checking out.
But she was back! And she was upset he had moved her stuff. And even though he knew he was, on some logical level, right, he also knew he was wrong. He had approached the scenario with a monkish rigidity of reason that didn’t quite work in the real world, and he had created some suffering for everybody.
Right now you’re like “how does this tell us anything about happiness at all?” and I’m glad you asked. Here’s how:
There will always be people who abuse the express line. Always. In all aspects of life we will run into people who are doing things in a way that we think is wrong, or that irritates us or angers us or wounds us. This is the nature of the world, and it’s the Buddha’s First Noble Truth – there is suffering.
Here’s where the happiness comes in. You can’t stop people from abusing the express lane. You just can’t. It will always happen. Expand that thought to every injustice, small or large, and you will understand the basic nature of life – bad things will happen. Always. If you can’t change the bad things, you can change something else: how you relate to the bad things.
Yes, the secret to happiness is entirely internal. You can choose how you relate to your problems and setbacks and pain and irritation – do you rage against it, wish it were different, bristle at the injustice, hold grudges, stew in your resentment? Or do you approach the abuser of the express line with some kindness, understanding that they’re not TRYING to inconvenience you, that they’re acting out of a lifetime of conditioning that made them this way, that you can’t change it, and that if you just accept it (“This is the way it is right now”) you’ll be happy. Because happiness is simply being okay with what is happening to you right now.
When you accept the situation and you can relate to it skillfully then you can understand what, if any, action you can take. The key is to RESPOND, not to REACT. Kusala reacted, taking into account only his own worldview and needs. He escalated a minor annoyance into an awkward encounter that probably soured everybody’s day. We do this ALL THE TIME. It’s how we create our own unhappiness.
It’s key to understand that accepting things as they are does not mean being passive. The analogy I use is an open refrigerator – you live in a house with other people and you come into the kitchen to find the fridge open. What do you do?
Many of us instinctively begin searching for who to blame. I’ve known people whose reaction would be to leave the fridge open and find the culprit to make them close it, all while food slowly spoils. Some people would close the fridge and hold a resentment against someone else that will fester in them.
The skillful response would be to close the fridge and let go of the idea of blame. You accept that the fridge is open, that someone left it open and that the action happened and cannot be taken back. So you act in the moment to do the best thing – close the fridge and save the food – while responding in your mind in the best way – with clarity and compassion, understanding that the person certainly didn’t leave the fridge open on purpose. Perhaps you can skillfully have a discussion with the other people in the house about fridge etiquette, but that’s pretty advanced and requires you to take into consideration a lot of personal variables. It doesn’t cost you much to just close the fridge and move on.
Of course every situation is different. It is a constant challenge to live skillfully, and it requires a lot of humility, compassion and patience. It never seems to get easier, judging by the daily life of Kusala, who has been a monk for 25 years. But you get better at rising to the challenge, and you find that your daily unease and discomfort gets less and less all the time.