A few years ago, I decided to take a solo trip to Thailand. Despite my long-term fascination with Asian culture, this was the first time I actually set foot in that part of the world. While the local customs seemed mysterious at first, over time I started seeing how it all functions.
One thing you notice in Thailand is the sheer number of people going around in orange robes. These are monks, devotees of the local branch of Theravada Buddhism. While some of them are life-long holy men, a curious feature of the society is that many normal people enter the monastic orders at some point in their life, even if just for a few weeks or months.
The Thais believe that the experience gives them a better perspective, teaching valuable skills. Learning this, I was inspired to delve deeper into the philosophy of Buddhism. This creed has many flavours (Theravada, Zen, Tibetan, and many others), but it is a profoundly personal experience in its essence. While other religions tell you what to think, in Buddhism you are meant to discover things by yourself.
It has been a life-changing experience. Incorporating Eastern teachings into my own philosophy of life has allowed me to reframe my mindset. The principal takeaway for me has been a set of tools to overcome the most difficult challenges a person can face.
Buddhism sees existence as a series of pains. According to the Buddha, many of them are self-created. You don’t have control over what happens to you, but you can influence what you think about it. As the first verse of the Dhammapada (a Buddhist text deeply revered in Thailand) states, all that you are is a result of your thoughts.
The teachings of the Buddha show you a path to channelling these self-destructive tendencies. By keeping a few simple Buddhist concepts in mind, you acquire a set of guiding principles to help solve the various challenges a chaotic world throws at you. From Buddhism, what you gain is discipline, a trait that can be applied in all aspects of your life.
The primary goal of Buddhism is to let go of your ego. This is the key to the ability to overcome many of the little pains that plague your existence. Yet, it is incredibly hard to do.
The ego is ingrained deep in your psyche because it evolved as a way to survive. According to evolutionary psychology, your instincts and thought patterns developed to help you navigate the complex world. The goal of your ego is to keep you alive and reproducing.
Today, however, the many mechanisms that were meant to ensure your survival are also at the root of your pains. The goals of your ego and Buddhism often clash. The ego drives you to always want more, but this striving is also the cause of your suffering.
You have an entrenched belief in your own fixed identity, where the ego becomes intertwined with your sense of “I am”. This rigidity is the source of many of your mental miseries. The way to get away from this type of thinking is to realize that your mind is in a state of constant flux. The Buddhists call this impermanence.
Things are fluid. They change. You are not the same person you were a few years ago, and in the future, you won’t remain the same person as now. In this context, you will recognize that most things don’t really matter.
Letting go of your ego can be a liberating experience. One of these life-changing “aha” moments for me happened at work a few years ago. A group of co-workers approached me to argue over some point. I looked at them with dread, knowing the encounter was going to descend into an unproductive shouting match. In that instant, a sudden mental flash illuminated me.
My brain quickly pondered over the situation. What is the point of this? In the grand scheme of things, this stuff doesn’t really matter. No lives are at stake. The only thing that is in play is someone’s ego. That’s the only reason why people are so heated up about this. I just smiled, nodded, and brushed the entire thing off. It felt empowering.
More importantly, this incident, like many others has passed. The issue at hand was unimportant, and the other participants have most likely forgotten that it ever happened. The notions of anatman and impermanence helped me to keep my cool, and prevented me from a potentially painful experience.
In life, you are often faced with choices. One course of action is advantageous to you. The other course of action is the right thing to do. Which one do you pick?
Most people usually pick the first one. Yet, the world would be a better place if more people did the right thing instead. I remember one day walking on an almost empty street. Ahead of me, a lady was marching along, bag in hand. As she was strolling, I saw something fall out onto the pavement behind her. It was her wallet.
She had no idea! The street was devoid of people, and I could have easily waited and picked up the wallet for myself. The loot could have been all mine.
Instead, I started running. Picking up the wallet, I chased after the woman. Following a short sprint, I managed to catch up to her and return what she had dropped. While keeping it would have been advantageous for me, it was not the right thing to do.
This is the Buddhist concept of Shila, engaging in just actions. It’s about living ethically, not lying, not stealing, and doing things that profit others. Respect everyone, do kind things, and live in a virtuous way.
If translated into English, the Sanskrit word “prajna” means wisdom. In the Buddhist context, this is about gaining an understanding of how the world really works. What is the true nature of existence?
Buddhists see wisdom as a set of stepping stones. On the first level, you listen, study, and learn. On the second level, you start contemplating on all the knowledge you gained. Finally, on the third level, you gain enlightenment.
In practical terms what this means is that you need to focus on learning, and then putting what you learn into practice. For Buddhists, this is about getting deep into studying the dharma. For me, this has meant studying philosophy, psychology, science, history, and any subject that gives an insight into how the world functions.
However, you always need to keep in mind that having the right understanding doesn’t mean much if you don’t put it into practice. If you understand that chasing after things like fame or likes on social media is the cause of your daily pains, then you can outline a path towards eliminating these pains.
When I was younger, I didn’t have a good comprehension of what is really important. I used to think that if you get a good job, and then work on rising through the ranks, you are set. Boy, was I wrong? Now, I know that this is not the way to eternal happiness.
Instead, I started concentrating on other things. I got off the hedonistic treadmill, stopped chasing job titles, and don’t mess around with selfies. It’s about focusing my time on growing internally, getting closer to nature, and trying to make the world a better place for everyone.
For Theravada Buddhists like the Thai, “karuna” or compassion is the key to living a happy life in this world. Compassion is about feeling concern for the suffering of others, no matter who they are.
The best way to do that is to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Try to see the world through their eyes. Much of the conflict and polarization that you see on this planet is because most people are not able to feel themselves into the daily struggles of someone else. They deny the suffering of others, instead of focusing on their own.
Theravada Buddhism has two key concepts linked to compassion. One of these is the before mentioned “karuna”. This is about wanting to alleviate the suffering of others. The other concept is mettla, or proactively wanting to make someone happy.
With karuna, you help others when they fall. With mettla, you make them happy when they are still standing up. For me, the perfect example of mettla was when a girl I was going out with spontaneously bought me a book. I felt like wow. It was an act that I didn’t expect, but it brought me joy.
One day a few years ago, I was coming back from the store when it started pouring. Rain was falling by the bucket loads, and I scrambled to find somewhere to hide. Finally, I perched myself on a step hidden under a small roof that was protruding over it.
I remember sitting there when suddenly I felt an intense feeling of joy. It was as if time had stood still. I was at peace, just enjoying the moment. I realized that this is what life is all about. You live for these little moments of joy that come from time to time. They give you calmness and perspective.
The concept of mudita can be translated as joy. However, it goes beyond just these simple moments of connection with the world. Mudita is about the feeling of unrestrained joy for other people.
Imagine the joy that a parent feels when they see their child walk for the first time. There is no selfishness associated with that sight. They are happy purely for that other person. This is what mudita is all about. It’s about being happy for others, appreciating their deeds and fortune.
It’s the opposite of envy, a destructive emotion. Instead of being jealous of the success of others, try to be happy for them. This is something that I am still learning to do. It’s not easy, and I often slip up.
However, I have been working on my mindset. Instead of the negatives, I try to focus on the positives. What are the things this person did right? What can I learn from them?
My journey towards mudita has been thorny, but it’s coming along. I have learned to find joy in the little moments. From there, I am learning to feel unselfish joy for others. When a feeling of envy starts setting in, I refocus my attention on the positives.
“One who studies and doesn’t practice is like a ladle of soup pot. It’s in the pot every day but it doesn’t know the flavor of the soup. If you don’t practice, even if you study till the day you die, you won’t know the taste of Freedom!” — Ajahn Chah
In the words of the great Thai Buddhist Master Ajahn Chah, a person who just studies and doesn’t practise is like a pot of soup. You don’t know the taste of the soup. So if you want to savour the delicious broth of freedom, you need to apply what you learn.