Two weeks ago, I sat on the roof of my downtown apartment, watching the sky fade from blue to dusty pink, clinking glasses of champagne with a few friends. We were celebrating so much: securing the lease of a four-level rowhouse in one of DC’s up-and-coming neighborhoods, my friend was about to embark on a month-long trip to the middle-east to do relief work, I had just received my own promotion at work. We laughed and joked, as the wine began to relax our muscles. We talked about the parties we’d throw in our new house and the garden we’d plant in the yard out back.
I gazed up at the sky, twilight now at its peak, felt the warm air cushioning my body, and I smiled.
Fast forward to this week.
I woke up on Monday morning with my throat aching. I sat drowsily in my bed, looking at the text I’d typed out to my supervisor. "I’m sick, I can't come in today." The text said. But my mind was racing with all the reasons why I really couldn’t be sick. I had two meetings with my CEO (meetings that were extraordinarily hard to secure), one woman coming in to interview for a new position, a staff meeting, a check-in with our intern, five events next week, the list went on. It was not a good day to be sick.
I tried to say something out-loud, to get a sense of what my voice sounded like, and all that came out was a croak. Resigned, I hit send on my phone.
On Tuesday, I went into the office. My throat still felt awful, but missing two days in a row? That seemed excessive. My boss sent me home after only a couple of hours.
“It sounds like you have strep,” she said. “You should go to the doctor’s.”
I left work, feeling stupid for having tried to go in the first place. About five minutes into my thirty minute drive back to my apartment and pulled my car up to a stoplight and suddenly the whole thing began to shudder.
“No, no, no, no.” I said, as the check engine light blurred onto my dashboard, blinking yellow.
I had just poured a large amount of money into my car at the start of the year, hoping that with those repairs, my 2005 Nissan Altima would carry me through the next few years. I didn’t want to buy a car in a city that was known for its bad traffic and aggressive drives; my ‘new car’ would end up in ‘old car’ shape pretty quickly.
I put the car into park and then back into drive, hoping that this miracle trick would stop the shaking. No such luck. I pulled my car off of the road and into an alleyway as a sulfur smell began to fill my nostrils.
This brings us to Friday, when I pulled my recently-repaired (another $350 later) Nissan Altima into the Safeway parking lot a few minutes before work. I didn’t bring breakfast because I planned to buy a smoothie and some probiotics to replenish some of the nutrients in my body after the antibiotics I’d taken from the strep throat that I did, indeed, have. I had left my house early for this specific reason. I was ready for a fresh start, a new day. I reached into my bag and after groping around inside it for a while I realized I left my wallet at home.
The Buddhist tradition teaches the concept of Saṃsāra. Saṃsāra stands for the repetition of death and then rebirth, caught in a continuous cycle of suffering. This cycle of suffering will not be broken until you are able to reach enlightenment. We are all living in this cycle.
When I first learned about it as a freshman in my Buddhist studies class, I remember thinking to myself: “Damn, that’s bleak.”
But if you take a second to think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. The Buddhists believe that suffering comes from a person’s fixation and attachment to their own life and their own problems.
When you think about all the things that cause suffering in our lives – death, injury, illness, heartbreak, disappointment – those things all create pain because we have married ourselves to different outcomes. We believe, and want to believe, that the people we love will live forever, that we will stay healthy until we’re old, that we will find love that lasts, that we will get to live out our dreams. But we all know, we have all already been faced with the truth, that life doesn’t always work this way.
The Buddhists believe that if you can detach from outcome – good or bad – and truly live in the now, then you will break the cycle of Saṃsāra. Only then will you ultimately find lasting happiness.
By most people’s definition, the things I dealt with this week were minor. But, by the end of my week, after dealing with the doctor-confirmed case of strep throat, a trip to the mechanic, and finally being left with no money to buy my morning meal, I’d reached my final straw.
Sitting in that Safeway parking lot, I could have burst into tears. It was just one of those moments where all the small things began to build and it all just became too much.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I took a deep breath and scrounged around for coins in my car to buy my damn smoothie. Which is what I did.
This is life. This is Saṃsāra. It is the weeks when your car stops, your phone cracks, you throw out your back, you lose your wallet. It’s the little things, and the big things, and the good things, and the bad things, and everything in between. It is when it’s easy to feel like the world is turning against you; when it’s easy to say things like, “everything happens to me” and “just my luck.” Or, it’s the weeks when you’re on top of the world and everything is going your way. But neither will stick, only our attachment to those experiences will.
So as I sit here, filling my trash can with snotty tissues, and feeling frustrated that after almost a full week I’m still sick, I’m forced to feel a little thankful. Thankful to be reminded that life isn’t all champagne and rose colored skies. Forced to remind myself that I don’t have it all figured out, and forced to accept that I never really will.
Life is a continual cycle of ups and downs, highs and lows. Once we can accept that, we realize that the successes, the celebrations, and the disappointments, hardships, and frustrations, are fleeting, but equally valuable; equally a part of life.
All that is, is right here, right now, in this breath.