One of the major sources of dissatisfaction and stress in our lives is our ongoing desire to control what happens to us—to get what we want and get rid of what we don't want. I refer to this type of desire as the state of “want/don’t-want.” I thought it would be interesting to see just how much control we have over our circumstances. With that in mind, let’s start complaining about our lives!
“Complaint” is a good word to describe those circumstances of our lives that we wish were different, whether we’re dissatisfied about the small stuff (can’t find the sock in the dryer) or the more important stuff (how someone treats us). Even if a complaint is justified (the neighbor’s dog barks too much), it’s still a complaint in the sense that we're not getting our way. The purpose of becoming aware of our complaints is to help us recognize how they add stress and dissatisfaction to our lives and to begin to see what it would feel like to let go of them.
So, go for it—make a list of your current complaints. Here’s a sample list:
Don't be upset if your list is a long one. That could lead to self-critical thoughts that will keep you from reaping the benefits of this exercise. It’s simply a list of your complaints.
Now go through your list and separate it into three parts: (1) those complaints involving circumstances over which you have no control; (2) those complaints involving circumstances over which you might have some control; (3) those complaints involving circumstances over which you have total control. It’s highly likely that none of your complaints will fall under (3).
Here’s how I’d divide up my sample list:
If this were my list (honestly, it’s not—well not all of it!), I’d say that I have no control over numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, and 8. That’s over half the items on the list! These five involve conditions in my life and in the world that aren’t within my power to change. I can change my response to these five conditions (and that will definitely reduce my suffering), but I can’t change the bare facts of these circumstances.
Look over your own “no control” list. Can you see that holding onto complaints over which you have no control increases your suffering by making you more stressed, anxious, dissatisfied, and unhappy? Are you able to question the validity of the assumptions you're making regarding any of your complaints? If so, does that questioning reveal that the complaint might not be wholly justified (for example, the inefficiency of government and the poor manners of the younger generation)?
Are there any items on your list that, seeing you have no control over, you’re able to let go of? If “yes,” how does letting go feel? Whenever, I use that phrase, “letting go,” I think of the words of the Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah:
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.
I don’t see anything on the list over which I could claim total control.
That leaves three items on the list, and I’m not convinced that some of them wouldn’t fit better under “no control.” If this were your list, first, recognize that, at best, you only have partial control over these complaints. That should encourage you to consider letting go of them. If this were my list, here's how I'd analyze it:
Because I’ve categorized these three under “partial control,” it’s worth thinking about what kind of skillful action might lessen these complaints—which would, in turn, ease our suffering. I define “skillful action” as speech or action that relieves suffering and enhances well-being in ourselves or others. It helps to first acknowledge, without judgment, that things are as they are: a complaining partner, the presence of physical pain, kids who don’t call often. This non-judgmental assessment provides an opportunity for some dispassionate problem-solving.
Once we become mindful of our tendency to complain, we can begin to see that our peace and contentment don’t depend on controlling every circumstance we find ourselves in; they depend on learning to respond skillfully to those circumstances.
When we truly recognize that we have no control over most of our complaints, it’s easier to accept that many of our desires will go unfulfilled and many of our experiences simply won’t be to our liking. Acknowledging and accepting this, we can begin to take those unpleasant experiences in stride. When we do, we’re likely to find that our tendency to complain subsides. What a relief that would be!
Note: The theme of "complaints" is expanded on in Chapter 2 of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
© 2012 Toni Bernhard
You might also like my article "Taming the Want Monster."
Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:
How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (Fall 2015)
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.