Appreciating our problems is as important as is appreciating our fortunes. Why appreciate our problems? Because the difficult situations in our lives are the ones that make us grow the most. Take a minute and think about a difficult time in your life, a time when you had a lot of problems. Didn’t you learn something valuable from that experience? You wouldn’t be the person you are now without having gone through those difficulties. We may have gone through a painful time in our life, but we came out the other side with stronger inner resources and a better understanding of life. Seen in this way, even our problems enable us to become better people and aid us on the path to enlightenment.
Being a visual artist for most of my career and life I am fortunate to be able to visualize, life problems, solutions and escapes. When I began my buddhist practice I visualized being in a pure land, I used to imagine only the people I liked and left out the people with whom I felt uncomfortable, threatened, insecure, or fearful. It was nice to imagine being in a place where everything was very pleasant and it was easy to practice the Dharma. But one time when I was visualizing, all the people who were giving me problems were there too! I recognized that if my space and mindset were to be conducive for Dharma practice, then I also need the people who harm me to be there, because they help me to practice. In fact, sometimes those who harm us help us more to practice the Dharma than those who help us. The people who help us, give us gifts, and tell us how wonderful, talented, and intelligent we are often cause us to get puffed up. On the other hand, the people who harm us show us very clearly how much resentment and jealousy we have and how attached we are to our reputations. They help us to see our attachments and aversions and they point out the things we need to work on in ourselves. Sometimes they help us even more than our teachers do in this respect.
For example, our Dharma teachers tell us, “Try to forgive other people, try not to be angry. Jealousy and pride are defilements, so try not to follow them because they will cause you and others difficulties. Yes, that’s true, but I don’t have those negative qualities. . . it’s the people who harm me that are very resentful, jealous, and attached – Even though our Dharma teachers point out our faults to us, we simply don’t see them. But when people with whom we don’t get along point out our faults to us, we have to look at them. We can’t run away anymore. Then, even though we try to blame our difficulties on other people, we know we can’t. We are forced to look at them ourselves. And when we do, we also see that they are incredible opportunities to grow and learn.
The bodhisattvas, who sincerely wish to practice the Dharma, want to have problems. They want people to criticize them. They want their reputation to get ruined. Why? They see problems as wonderful opportunities to practice. Atisha, a great bodhisattva in India, helped to spread Buddhism to Tibet in the 11th century. When he went to Tibet, he took his Indian cook with him. This cook was very disagreeable, speaking harshly and being rude and obnoxious to people. He even regularly insulted Atisha. The Tibetans asked, “Why did you bring this person with you? We can cook for you. You don’t need him!” But Atisha said, “I do need him. I need him to practice patience.”
Let me end with this – At a meditation retreat friend had problems with one person there, let’s call him Laz. My friend was so happy when the daily lessons were over and he could return to group master. The master knew of his difficulties and asked, Who is kinder to: the Buddha, or Laz? The immediate reply was, of course the Buddha is kinder! Our teacher looked disappointed and proceeded to tell my friend that Laz was actually much kinder to him than the Buddha! Why? Because he couldn’t possibly practice patience with the Buddha. He had to practice with Laz, and without practicing patience there was no way he could become a Buddha, so he actually needed Laz! Of course, that wasn’t what my friend wanted the teacher to say! He wanted him to say, oh, I understand, Laz is a horrible person. He was so mean to you, you poor thing. Laz wanted sympathy, but our teacher didn’t give it to him. This made me wake up and realize that difficult situations are beneficial because they force me to practice and find my inner strength. All of us are going to have problems in our lives. This is the nature of cyclic existence. Remembering this can help us to transform our problems into the path to enlightenment!
Peace and Love, Jim