I survived a plane crash in Myanmar. The recovery process was, unsurprisingly, long and painful. But it taught me about my own ability (and all of humanity's inherent ability) to survive. In fact, it taught me we can all even learn to thrive in the face of suffering.
In my recent book Through the Flames, I tell my story — how I was trapped in a plane as it exploded in flames. I was severely burned in the accident, and told by multiple doctor that I wouldn't survive. But I did, and here are five essential lessons I learned in the process of surviving — and thriving — in the face of this life-or-death experience of suffering.
1. We can guarantee ourselves suffering when we cling to a desire for things to be different from they are.
We can practically define suffering by saying that it is clinging to desire; suffering is born of attachment. Things are not different from the way they are. That sounds cryptic, so what do I mean? Well, things just are as they are. Wanting things to change is not the same as putting out the effort and determination to bring about change. With mindfulness, we can see into the true nature of things and determine when change is possible and when it is not. With that insight, we maintain equanimity.
When I finally came home from the hospital, the initial joy faded into the most miserable time of my life. I desperately wanted my old life back, wishing everything to be the way it was before the crash. By clinging to that impossible dream, I was keeping myself from the new life that was unfolding. It took time and patience, but when I opened to the possibilities, I was able to let go of what could not be and begin to build a new and meaningful life.
2. Every negative situation holds within it the potential for renewal and awakening.
We can experience dark and distressful emotions as we navigate difficult situations. That's an inarguable fact. The wisest among us still experience anger and frustration, but they can simultaneously understand that they are just feelings, and that feelings pass. Rather than allowing the distressing feelings to control us, we can begin to let go of the stories that lend power to those feelings. Releasing the negative spin makes room for healing and the chance to find renewal out of the darkness.
As I healed, my new life became more meaningful, dynamic and deeply satisfying. I will always be grateful for all the wonderful people and experiences in my pre-accident life, but the truth is I seem to appreciate my post-accident life even more deeply.
3. Although victimized, we no longer have to think of ourselves as victims.
When we are victimized we can become angry — angry with a parent, an attacker, our body, or our God. An injury or illness may leave us physically and emotionally challenged for the remainder of our lives, often requiring considerable adjustments to the way we function in our daily activities. Long after our physical pain subsides, our suffering continues.
Yet, at a certain point, each of us can make a transformative decision. Although victimized, we can begin the process of healing — of no longer thinking of ourselves as victims. This can be the most challenging work we will ever do, but determination and an optimistic appreciation of our own efforts can bring us to a happier and more meaningful life.
4. Craving for tomorrow cheats us of today.
Sometimes we look right past what we have in the present because we are looking for something better to happen in the future. We never really experience life — just desires and fears. The only time we can experience life, with its joys, delights, wonders and beauty, as well as its sorrows and difficulties, is in the present. Life is happening now.
5. The world might not be perfect, but it is a good thing to be alive.
It is a great and wondrous thing, as it is, to be alive and weaving your imperfections with those of the rest of humanity. We are but a speck in time and space, yet at this moment, we are indispensable. Live life as the person you want to be.