“The Buddha taught that even your happiness is dukkha — a Pali word meaning “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness.” It is inseparable from its opposite,” wrote Eckhart Tolle in his classic guide to spiritual awakening. “This means that your happiness and unhappiness are in fact one. Only the illusion of time separates them.”
To the extent we seek happiness, we also find unhappiness. It seems these two go hand in hand, and we delude ourselves by thinking we can have one without the other. Still, we get so lost in the pursuit that one day we look around and see that our life has turned out the complete opposite of what we wanted. Lost in despair, what can we assume about our life tomorrow, except that it will be what we don’t assume, what we don’t want, what happens to us from the outside, reaching us regardless of all our efforts? So close, yet always out of reach, the very notion of happiness mocks us in the face and traps us in endless cycles of discontent. “Why do people have to suffer?” asks the young man — perhaps too young to think about this question — in the video below as if reading our minds, and letting the wise teacher give him, and all of us, the pointer in the right direction:
Thich Nhat Hanh continues his thought in his book No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by remembering his peace activism work during the Vietnam War. Many people turned to him for consolation, and one can only imagine how much strength it took to give them a truthful answer that would inspire hope and heal at the same time. “Everyone know we need to have mud for lotuses to grow,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. “Without mud, there can be no lotus.” And then he adds:
It is possible of course to get stuck in the “mud” of life. It’s easy enough to notice mud all over you at times. The hardest thing to practice is not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by despair. When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you. But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.
When I lived in Vietnam during the war, it was difficult to see our way through that dark and heavy mud. It seemed like the destruction would just go on and on forever. Every day people would ask me if I thought the war would end soon. It was very difficult to answer, because there was no end in sight. But I knew if I said, “I don’t know,” that would only water their seeds of despair. So when people asked me that question, I replied, “Everything is impermanent, even war. It will end some day.” Knowing that, we could continue to work for peace. And indeed the war did end. Now the former mortal enemies are busily trading and touring back and forth, and people throughout the world enjoy practicing our tradition’s teachings on mindfulness and peace.
If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can produce happiness. We do need some suffering to make happiness possible. And most of us have enough suffering inside and around us to be able to do that. We don’t have to create more.
Complement this timeless kernel of wisdom from No Mud, No Lotus with American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron on what to do when things fall apart, and then revisit spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle on three powerful ways of overcoming challenges in life.