Several years ago, my then 15-month-old son developed a fever to 103.5 F. Usually a champion sleeper, that night he woke several times with a frenetic look in his eyes and a jerkiness to his movements that unnerved me. The heat coming off his little febrile body almost made me start sweating myself. He had no other symptoms to suggest the cause of his fevers, and even though our pediatrician had been reassuring when I'd called early in the day ("fevers in kids are a dime a dozen"), my doctor brain was kicking in full-blast with worry over it's cause.
The fevers lasted five days and then ceased on the sixth, just as a diffuse rash broke out over his chest, neck, and arms. "Roseola," I told my wife after a quick bit of research, a benign viral infection that strikes children ages 1-3. Our pediatrician confirmed the diagnosis and within two days he was back to normal.
From the moment we're born we face a troubling paradox: life is made interesting, fun, and happy by the attachments we form, but the loss of these same attachments lies as the root cause of our worst pain in life. Even when merely threatened with the loss of a beloved attachment—whether a person or a thing—we often suffer. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, referred to birth as the first of the four sufferings (old age, sickness, and death being the remaining three) to indicate that being born into this world inevitably destines us to suffer the pain of separation from our attachments. These four sufferings are what led him to ask this most fundamental question: how can we achieve any kind of meaningful, lasting happiness when every person and every thing to which we ever become attached will eventually be lost to us?
There are many ways people throughout history have either consciously or unconsciously attempted to answer this question. What follows are the strategies I've found to be the most common ones:
How, then, can we be happy if our lives are destined to be filled with the pain of loss? The answer, I believe, lies in breaking through two delusions:
...but quite another to believe such a state of life is possible. And even quite another to actually manifest it. And yet...I've experienced brief moments of what that kind of life-condition feels like. And each time I've thought to myself: if this experience can happen for a single moment, why couldn't it happen for several moments? Why couldn't it happen for an hour? A day? A week? Why, in fact, couldn't it become my predominant life state? And yours?
This would require, it seems to me, two things: a great enough expectation that such a life state is indeed possible to motivate us to seek the second thing, a reliable method for manifesting it. A method that, like weight lifting, if done correctly, would build not strength of muscle but strength of life force.
If such a life state isn't possible, then we're all doomed to have our happiness remain at the mercy of our changing environment, to gather to ourselves what external attachments we can and do our best to hide them from the purview of fate and circumstance, desperately hoping to avoid their loss even knowing eventually we will lose something critical to our happiness.
I know many people are resigned to believing this, but not me. One reason is that I've encountered patients who've lost spouses and even children who, though still carrying their sadness with them, have managed somehow not to be destroyed by it; who've not only learned to be happy again but even, in one particular case, to radiate joy. There's something these people know that the rest of us don't. But if they can learn it, so can we.
There's ample reason to try. When my son was first learning to walk and would occasionally trip and smash his head on our maple wood floor, freezing my heart mid-beat, I found myself thinking the same thing: we're all born into constant danger, both ourselves and our loved ones. It may change its face as we age but never for one moment does it relax its grip. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could develop a life state in which our worry over that danger ultimately became unimportant?
Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!