Which Lessons Do We Have to Learn the Hard Way?

In Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha, the troubled protagonist Siddhartha asks his friend how he can protect his son from the excess pleasure and power that he lost himself in during his life, and how he could possibly stop his son from repeating his own mistakes.

His friend replies: “Do you actually believe that you committed your foolish acts in order to spare your son from committing them, too? How could you possibly protect your son from Samsara [the material world]? How could you? Through prayers, lessons and admonition? My friend, have you entirely forgotten that story about Siddhartha, a Brahmin’s [the highest caste in Hinduism] son, that contains so many lessons and which you once told me here on this very spot? Who kept Siddhartha the Samana [a type of wandering ascetic] safe from Samsara, sin, greed, and foolishness? Were his father’s religious devotion, his teacher’s warnings, his own knowledge, or his seeking able to keep him safe? Which father or teacher was able to protect him from living his life for himself, soiling himself with life, burdening himself with guilt, drinking the bitter drink for himself, or finding this path for himself? Do you think, my friend, that anyone is spared from this path? That, perhaps, your little son will be spared because you love him and want to keep him from suffering, pain, and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take even the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.”

The moral here is, that in general, future generations will repeat the same mistakes as past generations, no matter how hard we try to teach others of our own mistakes. Siddhartha’s friend highlights that not even his own father, who brought him up in a rich and nurturing environment, could stop him from wanting to leave home to become a nomad, and later an addicted, greedy merchant – Siddhartha still followed his instinct and went on the journey that led him now to the point of thinking about how best to raise his own son.

Sometimes we have to learn the hard way for a lesson to actually sink in. Finding out that stove-tops are in fact hot to touch, or knives are in fact sharp. Or in later life, that status, power, lust, and greed may not be the most valuable things to chase. We have been taught these lessons already, but sometimes we have to experience it for ourselves for us to fully accept them.

The Dalai Lama’s Eight Pillars of Joy

At the end of the day, human beings just want to be happy. So how do we do it? The Dalai Lama tells us how in The Book of Joy.

Perspective: Take a step back and view your situation from a variety of angles. Reframe it positively. Understand that things that may seem difficult now will seem unimportant in a few years’ time. Shift from focusing on I and me and mine to we and us and ours. Move away from self-centeredness into viewing the world as interdependent.

Humility: Lose the labels and simply regard yourself as a fellow human being – one of seven billion. When we view each other as the same, we understand how much we have in common. Just like in nature, growth begins in the low places, and being humble means you are willing to learn. Thinking that you’re special leads to isolation and loneliness. Instead, think of yourself as essential. Humility isn’t the same as timidity – still take responsibility to use your gifts to help others and share with the world.

Humor: Laugh at yourself and don’t take yourself too seriously. It punctures your own sense of self-importance. Humor is an effective way of dealing with the anxiety and stress of uncertainty in life.

Acceptance: Let go of the expectations of how life should be and just accept what is. Let go of the attachment to a goal or method, because in the end we don’t control the result. Instead focus on doing your best.

Forgiveness: Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we accept or approve of wrongdoing, it’s choosing not to develop anger or hatred and remembering the humanity of the person doing wrong. Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past – until then, someone else will hold the keys to our happiness, and that person will be our jailor.

Gratitude: It’s easy to forget how much we can be grateful for, starting with the opportunity of simply being alive right now. Feeling gratitude simply makes us happy. It makes us accept reality and give thanks for everything that has led us to this point.

Compassion: This is probably the core of the Dalai Lama’s teachings. The more time you end up thinking of yourself, the more you suffer. Think of how you can bring joy to others, and as a by-product joy will appear for you. Compassion makes our heart healthy and happy. Wish for the happiness and joy in all sentient beings.

Generosity: They say money doesn’t bring happiness. But spending money on other people does. Being generous makes us happy. In giving, we receive happiness. Sit loosely with your wealth and status – we are simply stewards of these positions and possessions and be generous. But don’t view generosity as a burden, give with joy. That too, is a great gift.