I didn’t spend my precious 40 minutes a day reading the scriptures. Instead, I read websites and forums to see if I could glean any answers there. For easy-to-digest beginner information, I was a big fan of Beliefnet and the About.com page on Buddhism. I read BuddhaNet and FreeSangha to read the gems that other people got from actually reading the scriptures.
And I did find some answers. I mean, I didn’t reach nirvana (eternal peace), but even the lazy person’s “Buddhism” can yield some nuggets of wisdom. In case you don’t have time to even Google this stuff, here are some key things that I learned:
Buddhism has Four Noble Truths. These are:
1. There is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by attachment/desire.
3. There is a cessation to suffering.
4. The path to cessation is the eightfold path.
Basically, everyone suffers, and the reason for that is that we’re too attached to things, people, outcomes, ideas. I got sad when my friend group splintered because I was attached to my friends. I don’t like change because I’m attached to my routines.
But the third rule says that there’s a solution, a way to end suffering: “The path to cessation is the eightfold path.” Yay! This must be the key to happiness, right? Right. Sort of.
The eightfold path is complicated if you want to really understand it—there are thousands of pages of scripture trying to explain it! As a 40-minute-a-day internet “Buddhist,” I just learned the CliffsNotes. But the way I understand the eightfold path, it’s kind of like Christianity’s Ten Commandments in that it asks you to act in certain ways (e.g., don’t lie, hurt people, or take a job that will hurt people) and to think in certain ways (understand the Four Noble Truths, practice Buddhism, avoid negativity, be mindful, meditate).
Even if I’m not dedicated enough to follow this path to the fullest, it’s good advice. “Don’t hurt people” is generally a good practice, and when I really start to get down on myself, it’s great to be able to remind myself to follow “right thought” and drop the negativity.
While I was learning these things, one concept that really jumped out at me was idea of impermanence. This is one of the things you’re supposed to learn to understand the Four Noble Truths so you can let go of attachment, which will help you end your own suffering. It’s basically like that saying “this too shall pass”: Usually you hear it when you’re going through a rough time—you’re upset over a breakup or a difficult class or an illness, and your grandmother sends you some cheesy card telling you to cheer up, this will pass. And that’s a good thought. The bad things will pass.
But here’s the catch: So will the good things. This is why you’re supposed to let go of your attachments. Because your pain over your breakup will pass, but so will that exciting new-love feeling when you start a new relationship. I was attached to my routine, my day-to-day existence of friends, classes, and family, but that comfortable existence was going to pass, and my not accepting that was responsible for a large portion of my anxiety.
If I wanted to become comfortable with change, I had to learn to live in the moment (this is called mindfulness, and it’s another important aspect of Buddhism). I had to accept that life was good right now, but that it was not permanent. When you learn to accept ahead of time that an end will come, the end is less painful.
One totally ridiculous thing that sealed this concept for me was the History Channel special Life After People. I’m a huge environmentalist, and every time I see a new shopping center open up in a previously green space, a little piece of me dies. But this show, which speculates on what would happen if every human on Earth disappeared at once, was strangely optimistic. As they went forward in time, trees sprouted up in the middle of buildings, roads crumbled and disappeared, and eventually, far into the future, it looked like we’d never been here. This process is already going on in abandoned places like Pripyat, outside of Chernobyl, and Detroit.
Some people would find this depressing. I find it liberating. No matter how much we build and destroyed, it’s all temporary. The world will continue changing, with or without us.
After my quickie Buddhism Lite for Lazy Neurotics course of study, I looked at my life, and suddenly my problems seemed very small. Whatever is happening to me, whatever I am attached to, it’s a blip in the universe. I am a blip in the universe. All that’s important is focusing on where I am right now, because dwelling on my past is just a cause for pointless suffering, and speculating about the future makes me miss moments as I’m living them.
My Buddhism obsession was pretty short-lived. I’m not interested in reaching nirvana in this lifetime—I just want to live a happy and fulfilling life. But my research helped me so much, and continues to. After I read about the great Buddhist debate on whether the “right conduct” proscription meant Buddhists shouldn’t eat animals, I moved on to spending my 40-minutes researching vegetarianism, and that’s one obsession that actually stuck (seven years meat-free!).
I still cling to routine. But these days I’m better at rolling with change. When my college roommate/best friend left to spend her last semester on an out-of-state internship, while I mourned the end of our life together, I also found myself kind of excited about the new experience of living alone. It turns out it’s kind of lonely. But this too shall pass. ♦