Surfing the Vicissitudes

There are a lot of numbers in Buddhism; the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the five/eight precepts, the five hindrances, the four foundations of mindfulness, the thirty-two parts of the body, etc. It's a lot to memorize, so much so that my friend and I laugh at the running joke between us regarding our own ability to always remember all but one! From my perspective, this doesn't make us "bad Buddhists", because the practice of being aware and careful of what's going on in the mind is most important, BUT these lists are helpful in making sense of what we're experiencing.

So lately I dedicated myself to commit to memory the Four Pairs of Vicissitudes:

  • Pleasure & Pain

  • Gain & Loss

  • Fame & Disrepute

  • Praise & Blame

Here we see four distinct pairs of polar opposites. The literary definition of vicissitudes is perfectly accurate: "alternation between opposite or contrasting things." The point isn't to perceive the things in the list as bad, but rather to understand that throughout our lives we're continuously oscillating between some combination of these extremes. Sometimes we meet with pain, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with gain, sometimes with loss, sometimes with fame, sometimes with disrepute, sometimes with praise, and sometimes with blame. Our natural tendency is to cherish and chase after pleasure, gain, fame, and praise, while we hate and avoid their opposites. We tend to cling to pleasure, gain, fame, and praise, so as to never want to let them go, and with great aversion we try our hardest to suppress all pain, loss, disrepute, and blame.

When we do this, in a very real way, we're not only entrusting our sense of happiness to very unreliable, inconstant external conditions, we're also putting ourselves on a very rough and erratic roller coaster ride of emotions; when the events of life go up, we go up with them, and when the events of life go down, we go down with them.

Obviously we can't control how every variable in every facet of our lives comes to be, so without that ability to influence the events of the world, our problem is really with how we relate to the vicissitudes. When we mistake them as permanent, whether desirable or undesirable, we begin to tell a story in our mind of how life is going to be like this seemingly forever. We might benefit from reminding ourselves that every thing is in flux, by simply stating "this too shall change" or "this too shall pass." It's all inconstant, and the amount that we suffer on account of the ups and downs of life is in direct relation to how much we cling to the idea that life needs to be a certain way for us to be happy.

And while the solution isn't necessarily to renounce all pleasure, gain, fame, and praise, it might be wise to consider sooner rather than later that the fruits of these pursuits are always fleeting, meaning their enjoyment is never going to be enduring. As such, our time and efforts might be best invested in finding happiness within, a happiness that arises independent of the randomly changing, at times favorable, and other times unfavorable, conditions of the world.

In order to do this, we must first understand what we're doing with our own minds, and we learn and develop the skills necessary through the practice of meditation.