Contrary to popular understanding, the Buddha did not teach "going with the flow." That's pretty much what we always already do. He taught viriya-vada, the way of effort going against the flow.
Evolutionary biology made us this way: we either shrink away from or push away that which hurts; we try to hold on to and repeat that which feels good; and we ignore the rest. We have evolved, shaped by natural selection, with mechanisms that help us navigate through a world filled with danger. Natural emotions such as anger, fear, and shame keep us safe from harm; joy, pleasure, and curious interest support survival of us as individuals and as a species. What could be more straight-forward? Approach things that feel good; move away from things that hurt; ignore the rest. From amoebas to humans, such mechanisms are found throughout nature.
Over time however, most of the dangers that our ancestors had to contend with have ceased being relevant to us. Especially those of us living in privileged cultures, the survival function of “negative” emotions is mostly obsolete. It’s too hot, we put on the air conditioner; too cold, turn up the heat. Thirsty? Turn on the tap. Hungry? The supermarket is just a comfy drive in the car away, stocked with mountains of food. We no longer have to worry about being invaded by a rival clan or attacked while out hunting by a saber-toothed tiger.
Given this cultural shift, we have come to see any and all “threat-oriented” emotions as bad. We are indoctrinated by our religions, political ideologies, and much of the new-age thinking permeating contemporary yoga to believe that feeling unpleasant is bad. We see this in the contemporary yoga world, constantly emphasizing the “feel-good” gospel that all is – or should be – shri! The wellness industry, and so-called “alternative medicine,” preaches that the natural order of life and the human body is “wellness” and that if we lived in harmony with this “natural order” we would never feel ill. Of course, this disregards the truth I’ve written about elsewhere that the reality is that inter-body conflict is not confined to pathological conditions or simply some kind of mistake, but part of how the body conducts its normal business. For instance, microphages, the “big eaters” of the immune system actually abet the metastases of cancerous cells, and the body’s own immune cells have also been implicated in the development of coronary heart disease. The implicit, and often explicit, message we are bombarded with today is that we should always feel good, comfortable and free from adversity. Indeed, many of us only feel shame when that is not how we are feeling!
Those of us practicing buddhadharma are encouraged to go against the stream of our conditioning: the social, political, cultural, and even biological conditioning that tells us feeling bad is always bad and should always be avoided and resisted. Now, I am not saying that if you inadvertently place your hand on a hot stove you should resist the reaction of pulling your hand away. But most of the situations in which we find “negative” emotions arising are less life-threatening than ego-threatening: someone says something that hurts our feelings, or we’re stuck in traffic on the way to an important meeting, or we wake with a painful headache, or we can’t seem to fall asleep… etc.
In most of these life situations, such adversity need not ruin our whole day. With mindfulness, we can learn to contain our natural reactivity and choose to respond differently. We can cultivate the insight into the true nature of such experiences and accept them as they are without adding what the Buddha called the “second arrow.” Adversity that is not truly life-threatening or does not lead to enduring harm can be opened to as the nature of “just this” experience happening now. We can learn to see such experiences not as an indictment against our life but as an experience of solidarity with all life itself.
Frankly, even with those experiences of adversity that are more enduring, we can contain our natural reactivity and respond with interested curiosity, compassion and relative calm. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I felt that initial pull-back and saw the rabbit-hole of self-pity open up before me. Thankfully, through the teachings I received from my teachers and the support I felt from my practice and several wise, compassionate friends, I was able to re-orient myself rather quickly to the reality and embrace this experience as “my life.” Bringing mindful attention to “just this,” I felt my heart open to myself as well as others in yet another deeper way, touching upon a well-spring of love, empathy, and compassion.
For instance, I was offered a medicine to deal with the intense hot flashes I was experiencing but I chose to open to this curious experience and felt a deep and nourishing solidarity, empathy, and understanding for women in menopause. Yes, this is a rather simple and mundane thing, but still a heart-opening I’d have turned away from if I had turned away from the discomfort of the hot flashes.
When duhkha is misunderstood as “suffering” and something to be eliminated, we create the impossible situation of trying to live in such a way that we avoid all pain and discomfort. But this is already what we are doing! When duhkha is understood as the typical afflictions and adversities of living, we see a path open to changing how we related to such adversity: we can learn to feel the discomfort, not get swept away by our conditioned reactivity attempting to pull away from it like an amoeba, but rather contain that reactivity, and seeing the true nature of the experience, choose a more skillful and appropriate way to respond. This is the noble path of awakening available to humanity.