Today’s Brilliance from Dr. Alex Lickerman

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If I could share 500 words to inspire, this is the important wisdom I'd want to pass along to others...

  • The key to happiness isn’t material wealth, health, or even fulfilling relationships. The key to happiness is wisdom. Wisdom is so powerful that it can even put a halt to suffering without changing the circumstances that cause it.

    Most of us deem a problem solved when it no longer confronts us, but from a Buddhist perspective a problem is solved when it no longer makes us suffer, our escaping or overcoming oppressive circumstances representing only one particular means to that end.

    Certainly it may be the means we most prefer, and in many cases what we need to do to be able to declare true victory. But it’s not the only means at our disposal. As Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves.”

    From a Buddhist perspective, however, this means neither denying our problems exist nor denying they make us suffer. Rather, it means learning to use suffering as a springboard for creating benefit.

    For when confronted by harsh circumstances over which we have no control, we become capable of enduring them only by finding a way to create value with them–as Frankl, a psychiatrist, did himself while a prisoner at Auschwitz by both attending to the suffering of his fellow prisoners and dreaming of the day he would be able to lecture about the lessons in psychology he learned from being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

    Indeed, what Frankl’s example teaches us is that the essence of victory over suffering lies in the act itself of refusing to be defeated. For whether our problems are diminutive or global, mundane or existential, resolvable in the way we want or not, winning doesn’t just require we constantly attack with all our might: it is constantly attacking with all our might.

    That is, whether we can declare genuine victory doesn’t depend only on the final outcome, but also on what we feel in all the moments leading up to it. After all, how can we say we’ve won even in achieving the best possible benefit if at every moment leading up to it we suffered at the hands of the belief that victory would never be ours? Given that we spend much more time fighting for victory than attaining it, what we feel during the former is even more important than what we feel during the latter.

    Studies actually show that when most of us experience a significant loss–the death of a spouse or a parent, for example–we suffer for a while but then typically recover (becoming frozen in grief or outright depression following such an event turns out to be surprisingly rare). But just knowing we’re most likely destined to recover in the end doesn’t automatically mitigate the suffering such traumas cause while we’re going through them.

    For this reason, possessing an undefeated mind in which hope beats in time with every thrust of our pulse, a constant refrain in our body and heart, isn’t just necessary for victory; it is victory. For in refusing to give up, we refuse to give in, not just to oppressive circumstances, but to the moment-by-moment experience of suffering itself.

    Resilience, in other words, doesn’t consist only of returning to our original level of functioning after a loss; it also consists of not experiencing its decline in the first place.

    Dr. Alex Lickerman

    Alex Lickerman is a physician, former assistant professor of medicine and director of primary care, author of The Undefeated Mind, and current assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services at the University of Chicago. He’s also been a practicing Buddhist since 1989. Alex writes to share his views on topics relating to health, happiness, and personal development. His principal aim is to explore spirituality from a scientific point of view and help people think about life, happiness, and themselves in ways they never have before. Alex has been quoted in Crain’s Chicago Business, Playboy, The Chicago Tribune, Men’s Health, and TIME, and has had articles appear in Psychology Today and Medicine on the Midway. He’s also written a television pilot called Sessions that was optioned by DreamWorks Television, as well as several movie screenplays, including an adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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