Updated: Apr 10
Have you ever harmed a relationship or spoiled an opportunity because you couldn't endure or control negative emotions? I certainly have. It's no wonder that the Buddha said,
"The success of everything depends on endurance."
I heard a great story on the topic of endurance.
In the Tang Dynasty of ancient China, there lived a famous person named Gong Yi Zhang (張公藝). He was famous because his household had nine generations* living harmoniously together.
(*Note: Nine generations is a LOT of people! We're talking several hundreds of people in one big house. But their houses back then were different, kind of like a small school. It is analogous to a big company office building with hundreds of workers. Nine generations means if I am a 45 year-old in this family, I have my parents (~55), grandparents (~70), and great grandparents (~95) above me, as well as my children (~30), grandchildren (~15), and great grandchildren (~1 year old) below me.)
One day, Emperor Tang Gaozong visited his house to personally see this rare family of nine generations. The Emperor was very impressed, and he asked Zhang, who was the elder of the house, how he maintained harmony in the household. Zhang then requested a pen and paper, and on it, he wrote the word "endure" over a hundred times. He then gave this paper to the Emperor.
His meaning was that families might have conflict due to unfair distribution of food and clothes among the elders, or imperfect etiquette from the youth. When people criticize and blame each other, conflict arises. But if everyone can mutually endure, tolerate, and yield, then how could the family not be harmonious?
In English, "to endure" means to take on hardship without complaint. But in Chinese, the word "endure" (忍) has a much broader range of meanings. It can mean
To take on hardship without complaint, such as enduring pain and discomfort
To be tolerant to others, as in enduring people's rude behavior
To yield to others, as in letting others have what they want
To be patient, as in not getting angry or annoyed with others
How can we interpret Zhang's action of writing "endure" over 100 times? One interpretation is that there are hundreds of things we have to endure to have harmony. After all, in a household with hundreds of people, everyone has different weaknesses, faults, and bad habits. To remain harmonious, they have to tolerate all of them.
A second interpretation is that Zhang uses the process of writing "endure" 100 times to calm himself down whenever he feels any urge to get angry and argue with someone. We can imagine that by the time he's written "endure" a hundred times, his anger would have subsided.
This process takes a great level of self-cultivation. After all, most people cannot control their anger. It rises fast like a burning fire, and before we know it, everyone is hurt. If we can cultivate our self-awareness to recognize when the flames of anger are starting to rise, then have the discipline to douse those flames right away, then we can avoid many conflicts. Zhang writes "endure" 100 times, but there are other ways too, such as deep breathing, going for a run until exhausted, or taking a hot shower. Whatever helps your mind calm down is good.
When we consider the wide range of meanings for "endurance", we can see the logic behind the Buddha's statement. Indeed, the road to success in any endeavor will have hardship, and we always need the help of others. The hardship might be related to the task itself, or related to people we have to work with to accomplish the goal. If we cannot endure hardship or be patient and tolerant towards others, how can we possibly succeed in anything?
To succeed in school, we need to endure difficult classes and stressful exam periods. To succeed in getting a job, we need to endure the long process of job searching, interviewing, and rejections, until we finally land a good job. To succeed in any relationship, we need to endure impoliteness and conflicts by being patient, tolerant, and yielding towards others.
How to Endure
A great Buddhist practitioner named Huang Nianzu explained six ways of enduring.
Endure through force
Endure through forgetting
Endure through reflection
Endure through observation
Endure through joy
Endure through compassion
These six methods are mainly related to enduring anger and conflict in relationships. After all, the longevity of a relationship is less dependent on how much you appreciate each other's strengths and more dependent on how much you can tolerate each other's weaknesses.
1. Enduring through force
Enduring through force means when you feel anger arising, you force yourself to not get angry. You shut your mouth or leave the situation. However, anger still exists in your mind, and if it accumulates, it might explode in the future. We probably all have had this experience.
If you can be aware of your anger rising, that is already better than most people. Next is to proactively prevent that anger from exploding. For example, we could say, "I need to go use the bathroom. Let's take a short break."
Enduring through force is the easiest to use, but the effect is also the smallest. Usually, we start with enduring through force, then we go calm ourselves down. After we calm down, we can use any combination of the remaining five methods to truly let go from the mind.
2. Endure through forgetting
Endure through forgetting means being tolerant. We tell ourselves, "I can accept their behavior; it's not a big deal. I'm going to argue about these little matters." Hence, you let go of it and forget it.
I practiced this before when someone said something and I wanted to argue. But instead of arguing, I first wrote down what I wanted to say on my phone. Then I told myself to wait 24 hours. If I still want to argue, then I should explain myself in a calm manner, not in an argumentative manner. But after 24 hours, I realized it is a small thing that does not need to be argued, so I let it go.
Another example is enduring mosquito bites. I'm in Malaysia currently, and I get bitten by mosquitoes quite frequently. I could get angry every time a mosquito bites me, but that just ruins my mood and makes me an unpleasant person to be around. Instead, I could think, "It's not a big deal. It will be gone within a few days. I can simply put on some herbal cream to alleviate the itchiness. Why keep being annoyed by it afterwards?"
3. Endure through reflection
Endure through reflection means reflecting on our faults and our contribution to the problem. Be strict with ourselves and lenient towards others. No conflict is ever 100% one person's fault. As soon as we realize our faults, our anger will calm down. After all, what right do we have to be angry when we are at fault?
For example, if someone criticizes me, why do I have to defend myself and argue back? Why can't I express myself in a calm way? It takes two angry people to start a fight, so it is my fault for being that second angry person. To give another example, if I go to a restaurant with some friends to find out the restaurant is closed, I shouldn't get angry and blame the restaurant or my friends. I should blame myself for not calling the restaurant ahead of time to book a reservation.
4. Endure through observation
Endure through observation means observing the impermanence of everything. Just think about something that you got really upset about in the past. After a while, is it still a big deal? We forget about many of these things with the passing of time.
They become unimportant. We can choose to have that feeling right now. Besides, life is short, why waste it being angry? As the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,
"Life is short--the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good."
For example, when my boss did not keep his word and acted rather hypocritically, I reflected that life is short, and this job is only temporary. In fact, all my emotions are temporary. I probably won't be thinking much about this incident after a month, so there's no need to get too worked up about it right now. Instead, just focus on being a good person myself regardless of how others behave.
5. Endure through joy
Endure through joy means being joyful and grateful towards everything that happens in life. Why? Because everything has the potential to help us improve and succeed as long as we believe it so.
For example, if I just missed the bus, rather than getting angry and frustrated, I can instead choose to believe that this will help me. How? Well, it taught me to arrive earlier and to do everything with buffer time. I can be thankful that there won't be a big consequence if I am late this time, and I will prevent myself from being late for bigger events in the future.
Another example: if I did not get the job offer I wanted, I can choose to believe that this is life telling me I have something else more suitable coming up in the future as long as I persist and endure. By choosing to believe this, I will be much more productive than grumbling and feeling sorry for myself.
6. Endure through compassion
Endure through compassion means having empathy and viewing their suffering as our suffering. Empathy is a natural human trait. For example, when children see another person crying, they will feel sad and cry too. As we've gotten older, we were taught to focus more and more on ourselves, on our selfish desires. We then become de-sensitized to other people's feelings. But if we simply try to feel other people's feelings more, to try to understand other people's feelings more, we can naturally feel compassion for them, which then douses the flames of anger.
For example, when someone is arguing with us, rather than focusing solely on our feelings, we can pay notice that they are hurting too. Just like we wish they would understand us first, they also wish we would understand them first. Just like we think we are right, they also think they are right. No one is purposely trying to be wrong or to be angry. When we understand this, we can feel more compassion for them, and our anger will decrease. Then we can give kindness first, understand them first, and apologize first. When they receive our kindness, they will also want to reciprocate.
If we want a happy and successful life, then we must learn to endure. Towards matters, we need to have patience and be able to endure hardship. Towards people, we need to endure anger, annoyance, and conflict. Usually, we start by enduring via force, but to prevent resentment from accumulating, we need to also endure via forgetting, reflection, observation, gratitude, and/or compassion.
Weekly Wisdom #232