Last year I graduated from college in India and returned to Bhutan. I was happy to come home, but I had not realized that in my absence my parents were having major problems and are now planning to get divorced. My dad has a new girlfriend and he and my mom continuously fight over property.  My mother also goes out a lot with friends at night, and both are ignoring me and my two younger siblings. We all feel really hurt and sad, and I have seen my younger sister cry. Recently, I started drinking and sometimes take drugs. I know this is not a solution, but it does take away the pain. I feel my life is falling apart. What should I do? 

ST, Thimphu

Well ST, I wish I could give you a solution that would take away your pain, not only in the present moment, but permanently. Unfortunately, I cannot. In reality, from the time of birth until death everyone will at some time suffer mental and physical pain. Even the Buddha had an enemy, fell sick, and eventually died, and so how can we expect to cruise through life without encountering problems? In reality, it is impossible that we will pass every exam, have relationships that are totally trouble-free, be successful in every job interview, and continuously enjoy good health. In the entire history of man, it has never happened and never will. Of course, some people will have much tougher lives than others. Still, no one lives a life free of problems.

Ok, this is an over simple example, but maybe it will help you see things in prospective. Think of life like a journey from Thimphu to, say, Bumthang. Along the way, we will cross over bright mountain passes as well as pass through dark valleys. In reality, both are equally part of the journey and it is impossible to have one without the other. Sometimes, however, we may feel that a valley is just too deep and dark and we fear that we will never get out, but this is not the case. At such times, we should remember that everything is impermanent and that both the happy and sad times will come and go and then come again. It is an on-going process.

When we take drugs or alcohol, it is like trying to build a bridge between Dochula and Yotongla to avoid the valleys. It is a totally unachievable goal, and in the end we will not only still have the original problem, but will also be burdened with the mental hell of addiction. In this respect, it would be far better to try and equip ourselves to handle the ups and downs of the journey, rather than waste time looking for escapes – and a first step to accomplish this is to accept that problems are part of life, and that no-one can avoid them. Put in another way, we need to see situations as part of life as a whole, not as isolated and unmoving period of time.

Of course, it is tough when our parents break up and feeling disturbed is a natural and perfectly understandable response to such matters. But, try to bear in mind that in life there will always be problems. This is the nature of human existence. I know that this can be hard to accept, but it is an undeniable fact.

Also, try not to feel angry with your parents. Of course they should care for you and not focus on their own issues, but they are also confused and insecure. Basically, they have lost sight of reality, and this is causing them to believe that property and relationships are a way to gain long-term happiness. However, this is a total fantasy. In reality, their struggle for material wealth will merely serve to increase their dependency on status, money, and relationships, which in turn will create more insecurity and anxiety. Instead, they should try to understand that social status and relationships are by nature volatile and insecure and relying on them to gain happiness is like leaning on a wobbly chair for stability. It is impossible.

Unfortunately, most people do not stop to investigate why their lives are falling part, but just believe that more of the same is a solution. As a result, their lives are often characterized by endless fights over property and/or a string of unsatisfying relationships. Personally, I would suggest that your parents take a long and hard look at their lives and ask themselves whether they are really creating the circumstances that will result in a life distinguished by its openness, generosity and warmth, or are they locking themselves in a cycle of insatiable desires that is making them hard-hearted and insensitive.

Here’s a quote from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche that they might like to think over: “To expect happiness without giving up negative action is like holding your hand in a fire and hoping not to be burned.”  In the context of your parent’s situation, focusing on personal happiness at the expense of their children’s welfare can definitely be classed as negative action.

To return to your question, I know that your present situation is tough, and I’m sure that you feel like you are in a very dark and long tunnel. Try not to feel depressed, but instead remind yourself that you are in a tunnel, not a cave and that a tunnel has an exit. Even though you may feel that you are condemned to spend your entire life in darkness, it is untrue. In reality, it is just a temporary experience and it will pass. Please trust me on this. Also, understand that while drugs and alcohol may offer some temporary relief from your mental pain, they will not hasten your exit from ‘the tunnel’, but will instead imprison you in the dark hell of addiction. In this respect, rather than trying to escape your mental pain, repeatedly remind yourself that life contains suffering – for all of us, not only you – and that your present experience will pass. I also suggest that instead of focusing on your own pain, reach out to your other family members – your parents as well as your siblings.

In short, recognize that life contains both suffering and joy, know that your present pain is temporary and will pass, and direct your energy into helping those who can benefit from your advice and company. I wish you well.

More information on impermanence and change:             

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.