There’s a song that goes “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug”. Sometimes things go for you and sometimes things go against you, we have all experienced being on the receiving end of both sides of life. We all know that these ups and downs are part and parcel of life. The Buddha knew it too, and he explained this experience as ‘The Worldly Winds’. The worldly winds are four pairs of opposite experiences that we all have: praise and blame, fame and infamy (or fame and disrepute), gain and loss (or success and failure), pleasure and pain. They are called the worldly winds because they blow us off course, off balance, and like the weather they are largely unpredictable.
But they are also experiences that in their pairs we either strive to get and cling to (the good side), or we try to avoid (the bad side). They exacerbate our tendency to try to get everything our own way and to push away any experience that is not what we want. Who welcomes pain or failure? No one. Who pushes away success or praise? No one really, we might put a bit of a humble show on out of politeness but really we love that feeling of being on top of the world.
We are always wondering how to get beyond the reach of the worldly winds, for life to be plain sailing all the time. But this can never happen; the whole point is that, like death and taxes, they are unavoidable. In the simplest terms it is basic statistics that, like tossing a coin, it is virtually impossible to get it to land on only one side or the other, so in life we can’t ever expect our worldly winds coin to only ever land on heads. And yet we still harbour this fantasy that it might be possible.
You might be thinking, well it’s easy enough for you to say that it’s just mathematical probability that bad things will sometimes happen to you, but the reality of experiencing the flip side of the coin is not something that you can just shrug your shoulders and go ‘oh well, just didn’t get the flip of the coin I wanted’. But it could be.
In Buddhist practice we are trying to move away from our preferences and getting to a place where we are not phased by how life treats us no matter how good or bad that is. This balanced approach is called equanimity. The worldly winds challenge our equanimity, and encourage us to develop it.
It’s not about just taking it on the chin when you lose, it’s more than that. We can all take a bit of a bashing as long as we get some of the good stuff too to make up for it, but this just leaves us as susceptible as ever to the highs and lows of life. What we need to do is to go right into the heart of the illusion and break it open.
Trying to have only the good things in life is an absolute delusion, what this teaching tells us is that this is impossible. These highs and lows are an element of this conditioned world we live in, and that means that there is only so much we can do to control our experience. The vast majority of it comes down to conditions, and almost all of them are beyond our control. The only real way to get beyond the worldly winds is to stop creating suffering for yourself when the winds blow.
Why do these worldly winds cause us so much suffering? Well it’s because it all feels so personal. How do you feel when someone is blaming you for something? Are you able to stay calm and objective? Can you listen to what the other person is saying and evaluate it fairly? And if you can is it easy to do that? No probably not, it takes a lot of work to not take that kind of thing as a personal attack. But it isn’t all your fault that it feels so personal, other people take things personally too, so they think there are other people who can be blamed for things too. This is the delusion of self and this is the condition that drives the worldly winds. Who wins? I win. Who loses? I lose. Who gets praised? She does. Who gets blamed? He does.
These ups and downs of life are just how it is, and we can’t stop them from happening but what we do is we take possession of them and build identities out of them. My success, I won, she is a loser, he is to blame. This is where the suffering comes from, and this is where the power of the worldly winds to knock us off balance comes from. When we take possession of our experiences like this then all the good aspects of the worldly winds become a source of pleasure for us and we don’t want that pleasure to end; all the bad aspects of the worldly winds become a source of pain for us and we will scramble desperately to avoid them.
What we need to do is to see these things as just conditions and unlearn taking them personally. Part of that also requires you to not care what other people think about you, but once you see that it is all conditions then you will see other people’s opinions as just their mistake.
The difficult thing in the modern world is that we don’t accept that we are at the mercy of conditions. We believe, or I should say we are led to believe that we are active agents in our own destinies, and that it is our actions and choices that shape our successes or failures. This is the message we receive thousands of times every day, at school, in the workplace, and through the machinations of capitalist society. If you have a professional level job you might have to go through a yearly appraisal process. Usually this involves you telling your boss all the times you helped the company to make more money, and he or she deciding if you done your job well enough this year. What your boss never wants to hear you say is that ‘really it wasn’t up to me whether the store hit its sales target or not, or whether the accident rate at the factory reduced or not, because actually boss there are myriad conditions at play here and one person isn’t the sole reason why something happens or not’.
How many things that big business are trying to sell us are done so on the basis that they can give us only pleasure and no pain, that our lives could be consistently happy with this thing, or this holiday, or this car? Have you ever seen an advert where it says ‘this thing won’t make you permanently happy, you will still experience pain and suffering’? No you probably haven’t, everything is sold to us on this lie that we can choose to have everything just the way we want it, when we want it, and that this will make us happy. And if we aren’t happy it’s because we haven’t made the right choices. Adverts never say sometimes you’ll be unhappy because that’s just how it is and this new car won’t help you with that.
This materialist existence, this endless commodification of everything even extends into spiritual practice. What do you need to meditate? Nothing, just a breath. But you can buy apps, podcasts, meditation cushions, beads, incense, statues, fancy retreats, not so fancy retreats. Which kind of buddhism should you follow? You can have theravada, tibetan, mahayana, zen, pure land, kadampa, secular. There’s no place in a materialist society that commodification won’t find its way into, and it’s all sold to you on the same lie – that you as a consumer can choose to buy an escape from the down side of the worldly winds. All of this picking and choosing is just a distraction, it is just trying to push the discomfort away. What you really need to do is to drop any ideas that you have about being the sole agent of your destiny and embrace the reality that we are all in this together, and that most of it is beyond our individual control.
So the worldly winds strike us in two ways, firstly our own taking things personally, and secondly everyone else in the world taking things personally too. Sometimes we can get to a point where we learn to be OK with taking the rough with the smooth in our own minds but we still feel aggrieved when other people are pointing the finger at us and blaming us. ‘But they’re wrong, these are all conditions, they should stop…’ Yes they are wrong, but if you are trying to change reality then you are trying to change things to be the way you want them to be, and you are creating suffering for yourself. The actual reality of life is that society operates under the delusion of self, so people will blame you for things; to fully deal with the worldly winds this is what you need to come to terms with.
Not come to terms with in the sense of growing a thick skin and saying ‘to hell with you all I don’t care what you think’, but in the sense that you can see all the way through the illusion – no one is ever really entirely to blame for anything, it is all just a set of multiple conditions that arose and caused that outcome to happen.
When you get deeply into the practice you will start to recognise the world as just conditions, things are neither good nor bad, they are just conditions. If you get really deep in the practice you will be able to see that even our own physical form and our personality are just conditions too, a collection of conditions that arise and cease over time in different configurations.
When you see that the apparently bad things that happen to you are just conditions it gives you an enormous freedom to stop taking it all so personally. It will happen to everyone, not just you, and it isn’t even your fault when it does. There is an amazing verse in the Dhammapada that really hits this message home:
228 There never was, there never will be, nor is there now, a person who is wholly blamed or wholly praised.
If you read the suttas you will see that even the Buddha himself wasn’t immune to being blamed, so what chance do we have of escaping it now and again?
But don’t forget that the worldly winds create situations that we can crave too. You need to remember when the good things in the world happen to you to also not take it so personally. Don’t get the idea that you are special, clever, or whatever it is that you think got you this good thing; what you did get was all the conditions falling in your favour. Don’t think to yourself that you never want this thing to end, or that you only ever want it to be as good as this. Don’t cling to the good experiences, when they are finished let them go. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t enjoy it when you get the sweet side of the deal, that you should be all false modesty and self effacement. Enjoy when you win but remember that it is just because today the conditions were on your side, and don’t cling to the idea of wanting to win all the time.
Like the weather you don’t take any praise for the sun shining but you enjoy it while it is there, and when it is raining you don’t take the blame for it but know that it won’t rain forever. The worldly winds are like the the weather, always moving and always changing. The worldly winds though will only blow you off course if you are trying to get somewhere or trying to avoid somewhere; if your destination makes no difference then the winds can blow all they want, you can just sit back and enjoy the ever changing scenery.