The older I get and the more I reflect on my experiences in life – the good and bad – the more compassion and understanding I have for everyone and everything around me. Life is tough and, in many ways, life as a human being on Earth is absurd.
News outlets paint the picture of great wins in economic growth, increases in house prices, and booming bitcoin. Our leaders in business and politics keep this upward trend moving – at all cost. The environment is warming, putting humanity at risk; wars are being fought and huge inequalities still exist. And, as a nice little side dish, we can fall sick at any moment. So can everyone we love. Through it all, we juggle our many roles as human beings — friends, lovers, employees, consumers — with our career and relationship pursuits, each directly impacting everything else. When you think about everything, it is easy to become overwhelmed, even scared. The thought of being happy can start to feel like a big waste of time.
But the great irony is that having the ability to waste time is a great privilege – a privilege which gives us time to explore, experiment, fail, and learn. With so much to do in our fast-paced modern world, we have less and less time to waste, which means less time to experiment and explore what it is we want to do with our lives.
Epictetus, the Greek slave turned philosopher, believed our greatest sufferings are “born out of a failure to distinguish what is in our control and what is not.” We confuse our internal world of our mind (over which we have control,) with the external world, which we influence but cannot control. Do we put too much focus on our external world, which is unpredictable and somewhat chaotic by nature? Do we not spend enough time on our internal worlds, where we have greater control – or can at least make less chaotic?
I encountered my unpleasant feelings while I lived in a hut in the forests of a Buddhist Monastery. Before I arrived, I avoided my internal world – those unseen and unheard parts, scared to make them seen, heard, and felt. Landed in my hut in the forest, I was a 28-year-old master avoider who never felt boredom or loneliness. Without the privilege of wasting time, I became an expert escape-artist, addicted to avoiding the uncomfortable.
Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “the trick is not to run away from our suffering.” Carl Jung would declare, “suffering comes from our failure to understand and feel the unseen and unheard parts of our psyches,” and they are right.
So, what does this mean? What is one to do? “Tread the path with care,” as the Buddha said. “We must be diligent today.” Does it mean to be grateful and not dwell on bad things? Back then, I thought life was about always feeling good. Maybe that is why I chased after ‘good times’ with sex, drugs, parties, and superficial relationships for a decade. I concluded that life is about living fully, even embracing the inevitability of suffering.
Life is not avoiding pain at all costs (which is impossible and hurts us even more.) The key is having the skills and tools to function and grow when things go wrong.
And what skills and tools had I cultivated back then that would make my life better, happier, freer, and more fulfilling? None! We do not grow if we just sprint without taking the baby steps first. Well, that is not true…we still grow, but we grow all the wrong things – making our lives more difficult in the long run!
Early in my stay in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, I stumbled upon a book called Happiness by Matthieu Ricard; he views happiness as a skill, one which we can develop. He cleverly wrote, “One is not born wise; one becomes it,” and I wondered if I could become happier the same way one becomes wise.
William James mused, “Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.” The insight of these two men moved me.
Matthieu Ricard and William James helped me see that that inevitability of things falling apart does not mean we can be passive or apathetic. Maybe failure softens the heart toward preconceived ideas – of ourselves, others, and our world – and encourages us to take responsibility and help. So, I set out on learning skills that made my life happier – not just richer, or sexier – but more brave, bold, and vulnerable. I no longer had to grasp for perfection, just dig deep.
“Going Deeper” is imperative if we are to redirect our lives. It takes sitting in discomfort and “wasting time” to transform from failure to happiness. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, I could not run away any longer — no phone, television, Wi-Fi, alcohol, and no friends. If I gave into those distractions and my own fears, I would have never grown.
Our choices make us; we are not victims, but creators. At this moment we always have a choice, and the trick is knowing what will make us happier, freer, and more peaceful. What will relieve the difficulties our friends and families face? We need to recognize our fears and be brave, creative, and playful enough to resolve them.
So, I dedicate this blog and my new book, Awake, to everyone who is bold enough to use their precious energy reflecting and learning skills that enrich their lives. After all, we do not live so we can practice, we practice so we can live—deeply, creatively, and meaningfully. The journey of learning ourselves and the world around us should be fun and continuous. If we stay curious, free, and inventive, we open to a bewildering number of possibilities and experiences that are often missed in haste. In the last year, as the world undergone unforeseen changes, I have fallen in love with some words from John O’ Donohue, the beloved Irish author.
His hope is that at the end of our days, we can all say, “We didn’t sit on the fence,” and “We sucked the marrow out of life.”
I created Awake so we can all learn new skills that make our lives happier, but also form new practices that enrich the lives of those around us. Too often our focus on self-development only feeds our love of individualism and independence. We forget how deeply interconnected we are to everything and everyone around us. Awake endeavours to help everyone and everything.
Awake will guide you through a range of meditations. You will reflect, investigate, and connect with your personal values. You will stretch yourselves—for some, this may mean dancing and surfing, and for others, this means carving out ten minutes from your busy lives to relax on a grassy hill. We will better understand our relationship to technology, be playful, and become more present, even when walking, standing, or eating dinner. We will share conversations with friends and family, express our gratitude for where we are right now, and take the time to say thank you. What we learn, we take along with us. I hope that you bravely explore your life, open rather than closed off, and practice in a way that enriches your life and the lives of those around you.
About the Author
Evan Sutter is a social entrepreneur, speaker, coach, consultant, and activist. It took living in an old, rundown hut in the forests of a Buddhist monastery with his monk brother, including exploring 50+ countries, for him to become a catalyst for reflection and transformation. There, Evan stepped away from the pleasure trap and embarked on a journey to enrich the lives of others, our communities, and our planet. Evan has developed a reputation as an expert in happiness, meaning, fulfillment, and positivity—speaking publicly and working closely with businesses and organizations. Evan has been featured on ABC television; in The Daily Telegraph; at the Sydney Writers Festival, the Happiness and Its Causes conference, and the GOTO conference; and on a range of popular podcasts.