Financial loss, divorce, career setback, illness, or death of a loved one - life is full of difficulties. To borrow an apt term from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, life is a ‘full catastrophe’!
How can we hope to live well amid these challenges of living?
Coping with a Catastrophe
Consider someone who just lost his job in a company layoff. The person has to cope with not only the financial upheaval and uncertainty, but possibly also psychological trauma of the job loss. They may feel wronged, resentful and bitter, wallow in self-pity and damageds self- image, and lose positive motivation to work.
How does a person cope with their suffering, even as they must promptly look for new employment to pay the mortgage, keep kids in school, tend to old parents, and get on with life?
How to Live Well
Everyone copes differently. Reflect for a moment on how YOU usually cope.
How we process our negative life experiences determines our wellbeing. Wellbeing is that dynamic blend of purpose, striving, contentment, balance and fulfillment which we instinctively seek.
Unfortunately, staying well is a lifelong challenge. From birth to death, every person experiences some worry, defeat, loss, shame, sorrow, or despair. Nobody escapes these negative life experiences.
Ways of the Vedas
In an acknowledgment to our vulnerability, wisdom traditions evolved ways to make our lives easier.
According to Indian wisdom in the Vedic tradition, a person can overcome suffering and maintain lasting wellbeing by using four basic methods – Knowledge (Jnana Yoga), Devotion (Bhakti Yoga), Awareness (Raja Yoga), and Action (Karma Yoga). These methods correspond to our four ways of being – to feel, to think, to experience and to act.
The word Yoga means pre-existing union, and also skillful means or device. Yoga represents a path, a method to process our life experiences in a manner which sustains our wellbeing by reuniting us with our original source of wellness.
Four Paths to Wellbeing
Path of Devotion and Compassion – Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti Yoga is the path of emotion, of faith and devotion, traditionally, to God.
The feeling of devotion creates greater wellbeing by replacing our toxic emotions by the positive energy of trust and openness to life’s setbacks as God’s Will. Faith and surrender to God’s will form the central pillar of Bhakti Yoga.
To see the presence of God in all beings, or the same spark of life in all, as would those reluctant to posit a God, also fosters love, compassion and harmony towards fellow beings and our world.
Path of Higher Knowledge – Jnana Yoga
The path of intellect or knowledge is Jnana Yoga.
Ignorance of truth is the root of all suffering. Ignorance is to view yourself, your experiences and the world as-it-appears-to-exist. Hence, the intellectual method to alleviate suffering is to investigate our world-view and change our perspective by discerning the truth.
Its chief tool is critical enquiry. This practice is suitable only to those who are willing to spend their intellect discovering what lies behind our apparent life experiences.
Path of Mindful Awareness – Raja Yoga
The path of awareness is Raja Yoga. Our life experiences cause suffering because our awareness is limited by our perceptions, which in turn are shaped by our close identification with our body-mind-sense apparatus as self.
The core practice of Raja Yoga is to witness your experience, and thus create a gap between you and your experience of suffering.
Popular Raja Yoga methods such as mindfulness and meditation create greater wellbeing by helping us take a step back from our stressful experiences, and to discover the peace beneath the tumult of our mind.
Path of Selfless Work – Karma Yoga
The path of action is Karma Yoga, the working man’s path to wellbeing. You don’t have to pray, meditate or contemplate; but simply work in the right spirit!
Suffering is caused by our personal attachment to the success or failure of our efforts. Thus, the primary practice of Karma Yoga is to work in a spirit of selfless service to others or to God.
This way, those who work selflessly, with fewer personal motives, can hope for greater wellbeing as their personal trials and failures no longer dishearten them.
Choose your Practice
It is important to adopt wellbeing practices which are suitable to your personality and situation - not everyone is able to watch their thoughts or have faith in a benevolent god.
These practices are not exclusive to each other either. Personally speaking, I have employed all four practices at some point in life to maintain my sense of wellbeing while dealing with my own catastrophes. I have prayed, contemplated, meditated and tried to work without expectation of personal reward. All paths led to greater harmony with myself and my world.
Going beyond Ego
All things considered, each route to greater wellbeing is a route to greater expansion of our heart, mind, attention and action. Each path takes us beyond our ordinary egoistic lifestyle, to a way of living, which recognizes and honors the oneness and interdependence of all. Nothing less will ensure lasting wellbeing for an individual.
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