“We All Need to Rise Above”
Erec Smith, Assistant Professor at York College of Pennsylvania, discusses the Buddhist concept, the eight winds.
The following article was originally published in the June 22 issue of the York Daily Record.
by Erec Smith
A few nights ago, a friend of mine admitted that she had no idea how to deal with what was becoming of the world. Between environmental concerns and school shootings, social and global issues, she felt overwhelmed and unable to process it all.
She also lamented the fact that so many people around her seemed cruel or indifferent regarding many of the world’s atrocities. I could empathize; I also have a difficult time understanding the causes and effects of today’s world.
However, instead of asking how to survive in the muck of temporary life, perhaps we should ask a different question: How can we rise above it?
To be clear, rising above does not (and should not) mean abandoning or ignoring life’s social tribulations. The key is not to rise above the issues, but to rise above the feelings attached to the issues.
This idea is nothing new. The Stoics, philosophers from around 300 BCE, were inspired by the story of how calm Socrates was upon drinking the poison that would kill him. Socrates’ courage and composure in the face of death motivated the Stoics: If death can be treated with such indifference, anything can. They worked to relinquish the fear of death so that anything else would seem like child’s play.
Although various Stoic philosophers existed, Marcus Aurelius seems to be my favorite. Regarding my friend’s lamentations over those who lack empathy, this quote from the philosopher may say it all: “When thou art offended with any man’s shameless conduct, immediately ask thyself: Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible.”
To translate this into more modern terms: “Haters gonna hate; if you expect this, it won’t hurt so much.”
However, to truly be immune to negative thoughts, you have to be unswayed by all thoughts: the good and the bad. The Buddhist concept of the eight winds explains this well. According to this concept, one must not be negatively influenced by the “winds” of decline, disgrace, censure and sufferings, but—and here is the kicker—one also must not be swayed by the “winds” of prosperity, honor, praise and pleasure.
Do whatever it takes, but do it. Don’t run from the fight. Meet it head-on knowing that, somehow, you will learn to rise above.
Why would anyone want to avoid those last four concepts? Because it is OK for us to feel things as long as we are not dependent on them. The wind metaphor is apt; like wind, these concepts may have force, but none of them last for long. So, as people, we must develop a strong and solid life state—one not dependent on temporary feelings—that no wind can sway. To put it in modern terms: “This too shall pass” and “All good things must come to an end.”
Just to clarify, I am not saying we should abandon hope and shrug off life’s problems. I am definitely not saying we should not try to right the things we feel are wrong. I am saying—to you, my friend, and myself—that we must not be chased away by the fear of unwanted results or ill-treatment from others. We must accept them as inevitable facts of life or rise above the muck to attain a stable and untouchable life state. Is all this easier said than done? Yes, but it can be done. In fact, it must be done.
The American Revolutionists did not want to fight a bigger and more experienced British army; they did because they had to. We did not enter into World War II because we wanted to; we did because we had to. Civil rights protestors did not want to deal with fire hoses, attack dogs and rocks to the head; they did because they had to.
The key is to be strong enough to come back for more until the goal is accomplished. The aforementioned heroes kept their eyes on the prize despite the obstacles. If they could persevere in the face of such threats, we can do what we have to do to make our world a better place.
So do what you must to get through. Find like-minded people. Discuss the Stoics with those so inclined. Visit Buddhist groups like Soka Gakkai International or other empathetic organizations. Do whatever it takes, but do it. Don’t run from the fight. Meet it head-on knowing that, somehow, you will learn to rise above.
About the Author
Erec Smith is an assistant professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania, associate director of the Institute for Civic Arts and Humanities, and chair of the York YWCA Racial and Social Justice Committee. He has practiced SGI Nichiren Buddhism for over 13 years and currently serves as a district men’s leader in York, Penn.