In a previous post, How To Pull Good Things Out Of Others, I wrote (to paraphrase): “Who we are turns out to be largely a function of who we’re with. Have you ever noticed, for example, how you feel and behave one way with your family and another with your friends—and yet another with your co-workers and boss? Those around us exert far more of an influence on who we are than we perhaps realize—not by their conscious intention, but by being who they are themselves. (How often, for example, do you want to be loving and kind toward your spouse only to be left feeling cold and bitter by his lack of gratitude? Or fun-loving and silly with your children only to be left irritated and mean-spirited by their temper tantrums?) And as who other people are themselves is just as profoundly influenced by who we are, the people we spend our time being is ultimately influenced by how we influence the people around us.”
22 years ago when I first went to a senior Buddhist to ask for advice, I said to him: “I have a very big problem,” and he, the late John Delnevo of SGI UK (pictured), replied with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye: “Congratulations.” I thought he must have misheard me so I repeated that I really was struggling with something (can’t remember what but it would’ve felt massive at the time – money / job / girlfriend / studies… or possibly all four…)
Again he smiled broadly and said, “that’s great news, well done!” Seeing my perplexed face, he made seven points over the next hour’s conversation that have stayed with me ever since:
- Happiness is not the absence of problems
- Problems are a fact of life “suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy” – this is what Nichiren Daishonin taught
- The problem is never the problem, it’s the life state from which you approach the problem that’s the problem
- The lotus flower of enlightenment only grows in the muddy pond of daily life– your challenge is a sign that your life is asking to grow. So, are you going to say Yes or No?
- You’ve made the cause / karma for this situation (otherwise it couldn’t happen), so therefore you (and only you) have the power to change it. (This is the principle of personal responsibility behind the name ‘Thanking the Spoon’)
- Any problem is a gift in disguise – it might be very heavily disguised sometimes, but it’s a gift all the same
- When you change for the better, the world around you does too, as surely as a shadow follows a body, that’s how, one by one, we create world peace.
‘John D’, as we called him, was an incredibly wise, strict and compassionate man and it is hard in a list of 7 points to convey the warm encouragement that always shone from his life, earning the trust of people all around him. In fact it has taken me 21 years to really understand with my whole life what he said to me on that day in 1991. And some days I still forget.
The advice he gave was born of his own heartfelt personal struggles or ‘human revolution’ as we say in Buddhism, he lived what he taught, it was never about theory with John D. And looking back I realise he treated me with the deepest appreciation, seeing past my whingeing self-centredness and talking to the person I might one day become. I believe this is the mark of a great mentor.
So, as this wise man repeated at the end of our little chat: “You have a problem? Congratulations…”
PS. When I began writing this post, I didn’t intend it to become a tribute to John Delnevo, it was just going to be a list of 7 hopefully helpful points. Now I realise that it is the profound human connection that counted even more than what he actually said. ‘John D’, you rocked. Still in my daimoku. Thank you.
My patient smiled a toothless grin and told me, “I feel fine, doc.” But he was far from it. His liver enzymes had risen into the thousands, his skin was a pasty yellow I didn’t need the benefit of sunlight to see, and his albumin (a protein whose level indicates the liver’s functional capacity as well as a patient’s degree of malnutrition) had fallen far too low. Further, he’d been admitted to the hospital with a chief complaint of vomiting blood, which turned out to have been caused by esophageal varices, a potentially life-threatening condition seen in end-stage alcoholics.
Courage is borne out of vulnerability, not strength. This finding of Brené Brown’s research on shame and “wholeheartedness” shook the perfectionist ground beneath her own feet.
Listen to this interview with Dr. Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.
Having to confront an indeterminate outcome that might be bad seems to cause more anxiety than having to confront an outcome known to be bad. In one study, patients requiring colostomies (a rerouting of the passage of stool from the rectum to an opening in the abdomen) that were potentially reversible were actually found to be less happy six months after their operation than patients whose colostomies were permanent. Why? Because uncertainty prevented them from adapting to the change, keeping them focused on and attached to what they still stood to lose. Uncertainty about the future has almost unequaled power to lower our life-condition in the present.
The converse of this, however, also seems to be true: anticipating something pleasant seems to have almost unequaled power to make our present glow. Anticipatory joy is often greater than the joy brought to us by experiencing the very things we anticipate. This is often because what we expect an experience to be like is often not what it’s like and the difference between our expectations and reality mutes our experiential joy. But it’s also because anticipating a pleasure is itself intrinsically pleasurable.
Like most Americans, when I learned that twenty children and six adults had been massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, I recoiled. Like most parents, my next thought was for my own son, the image I retain of his happy, smiling self for one moment replaced by an image of his tiny body lying twisted on the ground. Even as I write these words, an emotion I rarely feel—one I often can’t even make myself feel—threatens to overwhelm me.
Read Alex Lickerman’s “The Undefeated Mind“