The vicissitudes of life
Buddhism promises us freedom: freedom from our reactive patterns, freedom to act wisely and compassionately in the world. To the extent that we are able to see and let go of our patterns, we are able to be who we aspire to be.
It's important to say that 'freedom from reactivity' doesn't mean 'completely unresponsive'. The aim here is not to become a dead tree stump. And it doesn't mean always second-guessing our instincts - there are times when our initial reaction to a situation might be totally appropriate, wise and helpful. But we don't want to be at the mercy of our knee-jerk reactions either - if we're simply playing out habitual patterns of behaviour in response to whatever comes up, we find ourselves perpetual victims of the world, helpless to choose our own path in the face of what life throws at us.
One traditional teaching that helps to illuminate some of the forces that act upon us in daily life comes from the Pali Canon, and can be found in discourses like Anguttara Nikaya 8.6.
The Eight Worldly Winds
Sometimes translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Vicissitudes, the Winds are a set of four pairs of opposing forces which we can all immediately recognise in our lives. They can be translated and arranged in a rhyming format, to make them easier to remember:
(Sometimes you'll see them arranged so that the 'positive' one of each pair comes first, but personally I like the rhyme.)
Let's take those in order.
Pleasure and pain
One of the most basic characteristics of life is a movement towards the pleasant and away from the painful. Even an amoeba will move toward nutrients and away from acid. I like to think I'm a little more sophisticated than an amoeba, but even so I find myself drawn towards chocolate, and unwilling to go out for a run when it's icy outside.
Again, there's nothing wrong with this - but on the other hand, there are times when it's useful to be able to go against the path of least resistance. If I'm trying to get in shape and lose weight, it would be helpful for me to walk past the chocolate shop without going in, and it's also in the best interest of future me to get my running shoes on and hit the road even when it's cold out.
It's important to say that this isn't about developing some kind of ascetic, no-pain-no-gain mindset - the historical Buddha was actually keen to emphasise that he taught a middle way between asceticism and indulgence. Rather, it's about freedom to do the wisest thing even when the circumstances aren't totally ideal. (Knowing what 'the wisest thing' is in any given situation is not always immediately obvious, of course - in the Zen tradition it's said to be the teaching of a lifetime of practice.)
Loss and gain
Of the two, we're typically more sensitive to loss - our brains have a built-in negativity bias, something like 5:1 in favour of noticing and remembering negative experiences. People will usually go to much greater lengths to avoid a loss than to gain something. On the other hand, as the neon monstrosity that is Las Vegas demonstrates, gain has its own appeal too.
Taking the long view, of course, whatever can be gained will ultimately be lost. One of the Five Daily Recollections - a traditional set of contemplations from the time of the Buddha - is 'All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.' Even those most basic aspects of ourselves - youth, health and life itself - will sooner or later pass away. In the meantime, though, the bit in the middle is important too - there's nothing wrong with enjoying our lives or working to improve them, so long as we remember that our situation is always changing, and gains and losses are not always what they appear to be at first glance.
There's a traditional Chinese story that illustrates this last point:
Praise and blame
We are social creatures, and we're typically sensitive to feedback from those around us. Life doesn't give us a clear-cut roadmap of what it means to be good people, so we learn by observing those around us and taking on board their feedback (or not!). Praise and blame is an important part of that dynamic. As children, the praise and blame of the parents and teachers in our lives form a crucial part of our development - we learn how to behave in the world based on the steer we receive from those around and above us.
Typically, we continue to be sensitive to praise and blame in adulthood. A kind word from a boss or colleague can make our day, while a tirade of criticism can plunge us into misery. And, of course, these things do matter - if we're learning something new, then appropriate praise and criticism from a teacher helps to guide us toward our goal. But we can also crave praise (and feel unappreciated when we don't receive it), and we can dread blame to the point that we avoid situations entirely or self-sabotage.
Disrepute and fame
Beyond the immediate feedback from those nearest to us, we are also sensitive to our place in the social hierarchy. Are we well-regarded? Do people trust us, value our opinions, listen when we speak? Do people respect our achievements, or ignore them unfairly? Do we have a voice at all, or are we routinely passed over?
As with praise and blame, our social standing may well be important to us - but it can also lead us into trouble. 'Don't you know who I am?' 'Nobody cares what I think.' 'You can forget it, I heard about what you did, I'm not doing anything for you now.'
Freedom from the Eight Worldly Winds
AN8.6 goes on to say that the difference between an 'uneducated ordinary person' and an 'educated noble disciple' is that when the ordinary person encounters gain and loss, pleasure and pain and so on, they don't reflect that these things are impermanent, unreliable and perishable, and so favour gain and oppose loss (etc.), whereas the noble disciple does recognise the limitations of those things and thus neither clings to gain nor rejects loss.
We can see this same message repeated centuries later in Faith In Mind, the famous poem by the third Zen ancestor, which begins:
The Great Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
This is the mind's disease.
That's a pretty high standard! But even if we aren't totally free of picking and choosing just yet, we can still get quite a bit of insight into ourselves by contemplating the Eight Worldly Winds to see which ones we're most sensitive to. What are our personal triggers? When do we find ourselves doing things because we're chasing pleasure, gain, praise or fame? What do we avoid because of the risk of pain, loss, blame or disrepute?
It's also worth reflecting on these eight conditions from time to time as a way of keeping our feet on the ground. Sometimes, when our spiritual practice is going well, we can start to feel pretty special, and can lose perspective on those aspects of ourselves which could still benefit from a little work. I'll close with a story from the Zen tradition which illustrates one example of this phenomenon (adapted from the Nice Inspiration for Everyone blog).
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!