How To Wake Up - Introduction

A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

Introduction: Ten Thousand Joys, Ten Thousand Sorrows

It is exactly because the Buddha was a human being that countless buddhas are possible.
—Thich Nhat Hanh

The title of this introduction—ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows—is attributed to the fourth-century BCE Taoist sage Chuang Tzu. The number ten thousand stands for unlimited. The phrase points to the seemingly countless joys and sorrows in everyone’s life—how it’s easy at times and difficult at times, fulfilling at times and frustrating at times, happy at times and sad at times. Life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, of pleasure and pain—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The Buddha’s life also had its joys and sorrows. Despite those sorrows, he became “the awakened one” (which is what the word buddha means). As I understand the Buddha’s teachings, every moment that we engage our life fully as it is, we have the potential to awaken to a peace and well-being that are not dependent on whether a particular experience is joyful or sorrowful. Moreover, each moment is followed, in the blink of an eye, by another moment in which awakening is possible.

I don’t believe there was anything supernatural about the Buddha’s awakening. After meditating for seven days and nights under a fig tree and carefully observing his experience, he woke up to what it means to be human—both its stark realities and the potential it holds for us to find peace and contentment.

Building on this insight, he left us detailed instructions for awakening. These instructions can be found in his teachings on wisdom, mindfulness, and open-heartedness. They are the three subjects of this book. The path of awakening is available to all of us, no matter what our religious or metaphysical beliefs are and no matter how difficult our circumstances may be.

In my own life, it has been the difficulties and struggles that motivated me to look deeply at the Buddha’s teachings on awakening in order to find some measure of peace and contentment. Since 2001, the most challenging difficulty I’ve faced is chronic illness. In the summer of 2001, I had the next twenty years of my life planned. I’d be teaching law at the University of California at Davis, as I’d already been doing for almost twenty years. I’d continue to be active in the life of a boy in Child Protective Services for whom I’d been appointed as mentor. I’d travel to visit my children and their families. And I’d attend as many Buddhist meditation retreats as I could.

Suddenly, everything changed. My husband Tony (yes, Tony!) and I took a trip to Paris. On the second day there, I got sick with what was initially diagnosed as an acute viral infection. But I never recovered, and I was forced to trade the classroom for the bedroom. In addition to leaving my profession, I had to give up the mentoring, the traveling, the retreat practice. At the time, it broke my heart.

During the first few years of being housebound, I lived in what I can only describe as a state of shock. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t getting better. I blamed myself for not recovering, certain that my illness was proof of a defect in my character. And I desperately longed for the life I’d been used to.

Gradually, though, I came to see that my unremitting desire for the life I could no longer lead and the blame I was directing at myself were only adding more suffering, in the form of stress and anguish, to the physical suffering of the illness. Inspired by the Buddha—whose teachings were waiting in the wings for me to return to—I decided to treat the illness as my starting point and begin to build a new life.

From my bed, I wrote How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, hoping it would point the way for those living with chronic pain and illness to find a measure of peace despite their health challenges. But something unexpected happened after the book’s release. I began to get “thank you” emails and notes from people who were perfectly healthy. For them, illness was serving as a metaphor for whatever difficulties they were facing in life: stress on the job or at school; tension in a relationship; sadness over a loss or separation; worry stemming from parental or other caregiver responsibilities; struggles due to aging; anxiety over money; and sometimes just the challenge of getting through the day. I learned from their emails and notes how long the list of life’s ten thousand sorrows can be.

That feedback encouraged me to write this second book, with the purpose of exploring how our difficulties and struggles can be the very seeds of awakening to what the Buddha discovered. The Buddha wasn’t concerned with heaven or hell, with miracles or saints. He avoided metaphysical speculation altogether. He was interested in investigating the human condition, particularly the presence of suffering in our lives and how we might alleviate it so that we can find the peace and well-being we all hope for. He left us dozens of concrete practices to help with this, and I share my understanding of many of them in this book.

Each chapter in the book includes practices that have helped me integrate the Buddha’s teachings into my daily life. As I work with a practice myself, I often take notes on my experience. Putting my thoughts in writing forces me to articulate more clearly what I am learning and this helps me lay down new habits. The Buddha said this about practice: “Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind . . . ”

Inclination is the key word here. For example, each time our “thinking and pondering” gives rise to compassionate thought or compassionate action, our inclination to be compassionate is strengthened, making it more likely that we’ll behave compassionately in the future. We’re, in effect, planting a behavioral seed that can grow into a habit. We are forming our character.

And so, whenever we practice cultivating wisdom, mindfulness, and open-heartedness—the latter referring to four psychological states, including compassion and equanimity—we are turning ourselves into a person who is wise, mindful, and open-hearted. The implications of this can be life-changing. It means that we have the ability to change ourselves no matter how ingrained our painful mental habits have become. Neuroscientists are finding this to be true—that our brains are constantly rewiring and reconditioning themselves based on our thoughts, speech, and actions. But the Buddha knew this long ago.

People who are new to the Buddha’s teachings often think there is one entity: Buddhism. But there are dozens of traditions, including Theravadin, Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, and the more recent Secular Buddhism. They’ve been forming and evolving for thousands of years, and the tenets of one tradition aren’t always consistent with the tenets of another. Some people consider Buddhism to be a religion, others see it as a spiritual practice, and still others as a philosophy of life. I think of the Buddha as a master psychologist because he understood the human condition, including how our thoughts, speech, and actions can intensify our suffering and how we can find relief from that suffering.

From over twenty years of immersion in his teachings, it is my experience that when we fully engage what’s happening in the moment, the conditions arise for awakening. The Buddha’s teachings are not passive. Engaging life challenges us to be fully present and actively involved in our moment-to-moment experience, without clinging to joy and without resisting sorrow.

To wake up, we have to investigate and learn for ourselves what gives rise to suffering and unhappiness in our lives and what we can do to find peace and well-being. The Buddha laid out a path for us to follow, but we have to do the work. I hope this book makes walking that path a bit easier.