This article was originally published in the online magazine “Timeless Spirit” in January 2004.

Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion, and a philosophy is all about examining the nature of reality. At the heart of Buddhism is the enlightenment that transformed Gautama into the Buddha: his realizations about the nature of suffering.

Buddhism states that life is difficult, flawed and imperfect. There are parts of life that we would all change if we could. From something as minor as an argument with my partner, finding the cream for my coffee has gone sour, or that the light has turned red as I’m rushing to get to my destination, to something as major as a life-threatening illness; every day I am confronted with parts of life I wish were other than they are. But it is not those imperfect pieces of every day that make life difficult. It is the craving that they be other than imperfect that makes them so unbearable, that thrust me into a state of agitation and misery. Because I crave satisfaction, I end up spending much of my time dissatisfied.

All pain in life is created by self-centred craving, and only through the release of those desires can inner peace be achieved. If I’m in a state of joy, misery arises from worry about keeping things suspended in this happy state of stasis. But of course, the only constant in life is change. No matter how wonderful things are, they will change. Worrying about that change, shoring up my life against that change does nothing but keep me in a state of anguish; it does nothing to stop change from happening.

Buddhism teaches, however, that liberation from this anguish is possible for everyone. This liberation is the state of Nirvana, inconceivable inner peace, the cessation of craving and clinging.

In Buddhism the answers all lie within. Difficulties lie without, in the belief that what will fill you, satisfy you, make you happy lie in the complicated world outside of yourself. When I am confronted with a situation in which I feel distress, sadness, anger, pain, my instinct now is to seek refuge within through meditation. Through the discipline of meditation I am able to create a gap between the thinker and the thoughts, between the feeler and the emotions felt. I can remember than I am not my thoughts and not my emotions, that those are evanescent states that come and go in response to external stimuli. I am able to quiet my mind, to stop spinning like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere but exhausting myself mentally and emotionally. To remember who I am, the inner unchanging permanent me.

The discipline of meditation is essential to Buddhism, for it is only through meditation that we can quiet the noisy mind enough to discover that spacious gap. But, more completely, Buddhism teaches that liberation and enlightenment can only be realized by leading a compassionate life of virtue and wisdom, as well as meditation.

Most people in the twenty-first century have at least a nodding acquaintance with the concept of karma: the idea that what we reap, we sow. That what goes around comes around. We are creating new karma for ourselves all the time. When I act out of an intention of kindness, of virtue, good karma is created. When I act from a negative motivation, negative karma is generated. Through practicing wisdom, I am able to discern the virtuous path, the one which will not create more negative karma for myself, will not cloud the waters or agitate the mind further.

If I act out of mean-spirited intention, the energy generated by that confuses the mind. When I later look back on that event the muddiness of guilt and discomfort rise up and make detachment difficult. When I act from a spirit of loving kindness, from a place of truth, however, no matter what the outcome, it is easier to release the events that follow. “I did the best I could,” I say with a clear conscience and a lighter heart.

In Buddhism energy is always directed towards simplification, toward release from striving and struggle, toward attaining inner balance and peace. The answers all lie within; peace is just a breath away.

Susan Lynn Reynolds is a novelist, freelance writer and teacher of creative writing in Durham Region, just east of Toronto. She leads writing practice retreats and facilitates regular writing workshops one breath at a time.

This article was originally published in the online magazine “Timeless Spirit”, January 2004.