life is hard

Searching in vain for untroubled waters? Maybe it's time to embrace the storm

I wonder when we collectively forgot that life is hard, that the struggle makes it richer, and that smooth sailing often leads to a deadening effect. Think of the difference between the exhilaration of manning the sails in a storm and the ease of lying on deck tanning – the latter may feel like the sweet life for a stretch, but ultimately doesn’t have much to offer in the way of experience and growth.

Recently, I was talking to a young woman about her struggles as an artist. In the course of conversation it became clear that her immense unhappiness and anxiety was due, in part, to the fact that she hadn’t figured it all out yet. She didn’t yet know exactly where her focus should be at all times, or where she would end up. She didn’t yet have the security and certainty for which she was clearly yearning. And she seemed genuinely surprised by my suggestion that perhaps the journey of the artist is not meant to be an easy one. When you choose to be an artist you are very clearly not taking the path of least resistance, the easy road to a safe and structured life. This may not be why one chooses to be an artist, but it is an indisputable fact that it tends to go with the territory.

It’s more surprising to hear this complaint from an artist, but I see the same attitude as more or less pervasive today. People seem genuinely disturbed and anxious by the idea that they should have to tarry with life. To some extent, this is natural; worrying and fretting is part of the struggle itself. But the worrying is better directed towards the details, because when it’s directed towards the entire fact that life is not settled, that one is struggling at all, then I’d venture to say that we’re missing the point of life, its real substance.

I blame it partly on what I think of as yoga class philosophy, a shallow and often completely incorrect interpretation of Buddhist philosophy that tells us to aspire to a state of peacefulness and non-judgment. What Buddhism actually means by this is something that I find very valuable, but the perversion of it into a kind of willful ignorance about real suffering and the value of deep and risky engagement with life can lead us into a very superficial kind of existence. ‘Be in the moment’ often seems to get translated into ‘tune out life’s problems and tune into a state of happy peacefulness’. But remember when the Buddha decided to leave the safety of his palace and face human suffering and death? That fairly important point has somehow been glossed over. We want to be happy Buddhas who remain within the blind walls of the palace.

Furthermore, reasonable levels of worrying and insecurity are often in our society looked upon as so harmful that they are considered symptoms of diagnosable mental illness. In this context, much has been written about the DSM 5 and its inclusion of experiences like grief and caffeine withdrawal in the catalogue of mental illnesses. We worry too much about worrying. And then we try to meditate it all away.

And then we have our economic realities, which have led to a culture where we supposedly can’t afford to treat life as a grand experiment or expand our minds for the love of it but must narrow our paths towards a practical specialization or skill that will get us a steady and secure job. And we better not change our minds once we settle into that career that we’re lucky to have.

Positive psychology adds another nail to the coffin: just focus on the good stuff, be grateful, smile and say nice things to people and your chemistry will reward you with good feelings! Yippee! But wait…isn’t this Soma, Aldous Huxley’s fictional happy pill for the masses? And we saw where that went. Upbeat feelings are nice and all, but they absolutely do not amount to a life well lived.

The message all around us is that if we play the game right, life should be simple, straightforward, and pleasant. Facing difficulties and welcoming actual challenges (and I don’t mean the Lotus Headstand) suddenly appears to be a sign of our failure to get this message.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t aspire to some sort of stability. It’s part of our maturation process that we start to want to build things, to invest in certain of our interests and commitments, and to take on responsibilities. But too often these things, which should be part of life’s ongoing adventure, become mere securities. They kill our sense of being alive because existing actually does become easy and this can cause us to forget about living.

This state of deadened existence, where we finally have it all figured out and can stop struggling, is what we seem to be aspiring to. How different is this from the Christian worldview that had us aspiring to a life after death, failing to live fully in this world out of a belief that the reward for riding it out without rocking the boat would come after all this living business was over? Martin Buber wrote that “our human way to infinity is through fulfilled finitude”. To me that lovely idea has always implied a life full of the misguided adventures, risk, mistakes, uncertainty and restlessness that comes with being human and always incomplete. The yoga teacher/self-appointed lifestyle guru seems to want us to skip straight ahead to infinity, nirvana, a life-denying sense of quiet timelessness.

It feels good sometimes to stop and rest, to no longer have to struggle to build a life. But then you die. Because what’s left when you stop building, stop searching, stop being uncertain about what comes next?

When Buddhist wisdom exhorts us to find peace, I don’t think it’s asking us to retreat to an inner sanctuary away from the real world. On my reading, it’s telling us to make peace with and embrace the ongoing struggle, suffering and impermanence of a life well lived. Being anxious and unsettled is part of the human journey. Yoga class, besides helping us get tighter thighs, should help us relax about that.