Everything is different now. Absolutely. Impermanence teaches us that this is always going to be the case. While many cultures and civilizations have understood this for decades and probably even centuries, if not longer, it seems that here in the United States, we are reaching a collective recognition: our lives and our world are not the same, and they will not be the same. Many of us have learned that grief is common. That we all are grieving something. And that we do not grieve the same things, and we do not grieve in the same way. This realization can lead to us to a place of strength, or it can lead to empty complaining.
As I navigate impermanence with my friends and colleagues, I find myself contemplating a new mantra: “Change is difficult. Complaining is easy.” This is meant to be an observation, not a criticism. This is to remind myself (and others) that we have options. In this instance, the easy response is definitely not the best response. Complaining is like the junk food we eat when we are hungry, it is a quick but temporary fix that lacks nourishment. Fast food is full of sugar and starch and empty calories; complaining is full of attachment and aversion. In the moment it might feel good, but it only leads to more suffering.
According to Merriam-Webster, to be disappointed is to be defeated in expectation or hope. To complain is to express, grief, pain, or discontent. Complaining can be seen as a natural extension of disappointment. You know that disappointment comes from attachment. In a practice where we are advised to sit with our feelings, to notice them, and to seek to be non-judgmental of those feelings, comparing complaining to fast food seems very judgmental. It is not wrong to feel grief or pain or discontent. And it is not wrong to express these feelings. In fact, it helps us to recognize and remember the cause of our suffering.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Aren’t you just complaining about complaining?” You are not wrong. I have my own work to do around extending compassion to people I consider to be chronic complainers. Yes, I also notice the judgement in using the label “chronic complainers.” Complaining is easy. The challenge with complaining, just like with fast food, is that it tricks you into accepting habits and a way of life that is unhealthy. Check out the 2004 documentary Super Size Me to learn about the outcome of eating fast food meals all day every day for a month. The more fries you eat, the more fries you want. The more time that you spend complaining, the more you train your mind to focus on the negative. And the more that you will search for disappointment.
When you feel pain or discontent, do not force it away. And when you need to vocalize your pain or discontent, do so. How much is too much complaining? What do I mean when I say that complaining is easy? If you find that your thoughts are riddled with criticism (of self or others), or that your discussions center on all of your disappointments and all of the things you do not like, trust me—you are complaining too much. If your first response is to find fault with a person, place, or situation—you are complaining too much. If this is true for you, do not beat yourself up. Remember self-compassion and, as-needed, time with a trusted teacher or therapist.
When I say that “change is difficult, complaining is easy,” I mean that it is easy to ignore the opportunity that impermanence has brought you. You can issue the complaint and move on, or you can do the deeper and more difficult work of really sitting with the source of your unhappiness. The first part of the “mantra” has two meanings:
1. Change is difficult for most of us to accept;
2. It is difficult to do the work of changing your habit of empty complaining into one of developing non-attachment.
What can you do to leverage this opportunity for growth? Notice what leads you to feel disappointment. You can do this while you meditate, and you can do this while you go about your day. You might find journaling to be useful here. At first, it is easier to start with smaller issues. You decide what is a smaller issue. Maybe you feel sad because your favorite coffee house has closed. What is behind that sadness? Why was it your favorite coffee house and what does its closure mean, beyond having to buy coffee someplace else? As you dig more deeply into the source of your sadness, and what it really represents, you can identify your attachment or aversion. Eventually, you might learn that what you are reacting to is the fact that you will miss sitting and spending time with your friends. Or maybe their lavender latte helped you to feel close to your deceased mother.
When you first learn that the coffee house has closed, you will probably vocalize your disappointment. You will complain. Most of us need a gap of time between experiencing discontentment or grief and accepting our discontentment or grief. Allow yourself to feel your sadness or disappointment. This gap helps you process what you are feeling. While you are in the gap, be mindful of how often you complain and of your intentions.
Ultimately, our goal is to shorten the gap. To be able to move more quickly from sadness to acceptance. You might continue to feel sadness as you move into acceptance. And how do you shorten the gap? By using your practice to develop equanimity. Yes, you are back to meditation and awareness and the Buddha’s teachings.
Someone who can be equanimous all of the time has let go of attachment and aversion, is not going to be disappointed, and will have no reason or desire to complain. For the rest of us (definitely me), there is compassion. Because on some days we will indulge, we will have that french fry, we will utter that empty complaint.