The Buddha introduced this list in a teaching he gave to his monks:
“Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight?
- gain and loss
- status and disgrace
- censure and praise
- pleasure and pain.”
The Blessed One said, “When gain arises for an uninstructed person he does not reflect: ‘Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful and subject to change’ and so he does not discern it as it has come to be and his mind remains consumed with the gain.” (the teaching then applies this same formula to each of the worldly winds)
- He welcomes the arisen gain and rebels against the arisen loss.
- He welcomes the arisen status and rebels against the arisen disgrace.
- He welcomes the arisen praise and rebels against the arisen censure.
- He welcomes the arisen pleasure and rebels against the arisen pain.
“Now, gain arises for a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones. He reflects, ‘Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful and subject to change.’ He discerns it as it actually is. His mind does not remain consumed with the gain.” (and so forth for each of the winds)
- He does not welcome the arisen gain, or rebel against the arisen loss.
- He does not welcome the arisen status, or rebel against the arisen disgrace.
- He does not welcome the arisen praise, or rebel against the arisen censure.
- He does not welcome the arisen pleasure, or rebel against the arisen pain.
“As he thus abandons welcoming and rebelling, he is released from birth, ageing and death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses and despairs. He is released, I tell you, from suffering and stress.”
In the teaching of the ‘8 Worldly Winds’ we see the similarity between the Buddha’s teaching and stoicism. The teaching encourages the cultivation of equanimity through accepting the vicissitudes of life and stepping into the Middle Way rather than going to one or other polarity of behaviour through welcoming (and grasping at) what is pleasant or rebelling against (and rejecting) the unpleasant. Theravada monk and Pali translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu defines equanimity as “an attitude of even-mindedness in the face of every sort of experience, regardless of whether pleasure and pain are present . . .”. Thus, when we have equanimity, we remain balanced and centred.
An essay I read about the 8 Worldly Winds talked of them as the constant cycle of hope for the pleasurable and fear of the unpleasant that spins us around without end. Not that it is wrong to enjoy the pleasant or dislike the unpleasant. But being caught in a duality where we only look for what is pleasant we are inevitably then going to experience its opposite. As Jung says “what you resist persist and what you fight you get more of”. So instead cultivate this attitude of welcoming, allowing and accepting what is presenting itself here right now, however it is turning up in your life. Recognising that the nature of all things is that they are impermanent and will change so there is no permanent pleasure to grasp hold of or difficulty to fear being permanently overwhelmed by. The most unpleasant experience will have an end….even if our mind says it is going go on for ever. And the greatest pleasure can be enjoyed in the moment but needs to be seen for what it is – a temporary sensation that will pass so grasping hold of it to try and fix it as a permanent experience will bring suffering, whereas “kissing the joy as it flies” allows us to enjoy it without attaching to it.
“This is how it is”
My teacher Ajahn Sumedho simplifies this down to his key teaching: “this is how it is”…..pleasure is “like this” and the unpleasant is “like this”…something to be known rather than grasped at or rejected. Whereas our mind tends to say “this is how it should be” as we struggle to move towards what we want or avoid what we do not want.
You can see this at work in this real life situation of my own. A few days ago I was due to teach a corporate mindfulness session on Zoom and due to the change of year it was not on my 2022 calendar as it had been booked in before I bought my new calendar and I did not see it in my phone diary. The result was I had returned home from seeing friend and my phone went. Luckily I answered as it was an overseas number. On the line was the person who had booked me for the presentation asking why I was not online as everyone was there. And in this moment the worldly winds had their opportunity to start blowing.
Fearing loss, disgrace, censure and the pain of being seen to make a mistake the winds can so quickly blow up a storm of self-recrimination, anger at oneself or anger at the world. Desiring gain, status, praise and the pleasure of being seen to be successful and efficient there can be this opposite reaction in a situation such as this that threatens to remove the validation and approval that is desired.
In the moment that I took the phone call I had all of this – the sudden agitation of my mind at realising I had forgotten, the fear of censure, and fear of the loss of future work bookings through this organisation. If I had let these winds take hold then the ensuring mental distress would have made it so hard to be present for the presentation I had to give at a moments notice.
Instead I stepped into the middle of the storm and accepted that I had messed up, and then looked at what was needed next – first to log on, then to start the zoom session and quickly collect my thoughts so I could talk to the 40+ people on the zoom call, organising in my head the structure for the 45 minute session I had just been thrown into as I spoke with the CEO who had been there waiting for me to arrive in the Zoom room.
Going into this session with the worldly winds blowing would have left me no mental stillness to think. Instead, by accepting the unpleasant and not grasping at desiring praise and pleasure there was a sense of peace. I could not change being late. I was simple grateful I had arrived home, by chance, at the very minute I needed to launch the session and had not been on my bike still 30 minutes away. I also felt grateful the lighting was still set up from my morning teaching on Insight Timer so I had nothing to set up but could just turn on the lights, sit down and launch Zoom.
As the session progressed I was even able to refer back to the difficulty of getting started and use it as an example of the value of mindfulness helping us to stay present and centred at times of stress rather than coming into the meeting flustered and perturbed by circumstances.
The end result was the CEO was really happy with the presentation and spoke of how much he was taking away that he could start to apply to reducing stress at work…..and if there is any fall out with the company that had booked me to give the presentation, I know I will deal with that when it arises and so there is no need to allow the worldly winds of fear of censure, disgrace and loss to blow right now.
I hope you can find ways to use this in your own life to reduce stress and find a greater sense of equanimity and peace.