January 3, 2013

The Four Noble Truths & Daily Living: Sitting with Suffering.

The Four Noble Truths are a Buddhist presentation of the spiritual path that is meant to be accessible and pragmatic.

The layout of the Four Noble Truths is simple: First, we diagnose the affliction, which in this case is suffering. Next, we identify the causes and conditions that give rise to this affliction. Then, we consider the possibility of freedom from suffering. Finally, the fourth Noble Truth offers a prescription of action for overcoming the state of dis-ease.

The simplicity and pragmatism characteristic of the Buddhist approach to spirituality is put on display in the Four Noble Truths. They are not a complex philosophy to be remembered. Rather, the Four Noble Truths offer a simple and direct way of relating to our suffering, accompanied by a down to earth plan of action that enables us to recover the fullness of our true Life.

First Noble Truth

Our Relationship to Suffering?

Spirituality is encouraged by suffering—not a bad day, but a deep seated, chronic form of discontentment. This nagging lack of content or meaning eventually delivers us to the door step of the world’s great religions and philosophies looking for answers. We are mentally and emotionally sick, out of whack, stressed out, depressed or just plain bored with the life we are living. So, we drop in on a yoga class or two, read a few self-help books and start fooling around with meditation, all in the hope of finding a more meaningful life. The path begins with dissatisfaction, because dissatisfaction brings us to the path.

Acknowledging the role suffering plays in our spiritual ambitions isn’t about self-degradation, but about exploring the possibility that suffering is intelligent and has a message. The first Noble Truth is not suggesting that suffering is apart from or other than spirituality. On the contrary, the first of these four Noble Truths proclaims suffering as the first step on the spiritual path.

For most of us, suffering is an enigma. We may entertain intellectual theories about suffering, but most of us have very little firsthand experience with suffering. We are all too familiar with the narrative that accompanies our suffering, but remain somatically distant and emotionally disconnected from the experience of suffering, because we spend the majority of our time trying to avoid it. This why Buddhism begins with suffering. We are asked to get to know our suffering—to watch it, touch it, taste it, smell it, feel it—rather than run from it.

Suffering cannot be avoided or disregarded. It is truth. It is our experience, our life. Suffering is alive and like any living system it has a life cycle. The first Noble Truth suggests that we give suffering the space it needs to live out it’s life cycle.

What is suffering?

We always start with what we know, the pain. While we might be ignorant to sufferings more subtle dimensions, we are all too aware of the heartache, fear and anger. We all know that explosive blend of frustration and sadness that comes welling up from deep within when we find ourselves right back where we started, yet again. The confusion: Should we scream or cuss, run away, break something, or just sit down and have a good cry? We feel defeated, like we have been backed into a corner. Running and fighting seem useless. This is the suffering of suffering—the blunt pain that characterizes, not only tragedy, but the end of a bad day.

In the midst of a painful upheaval, we often make personal resolutions. Frantically, we swear off: “I’m going to delete his number. I am not going to drink anymore. I’ll never eat like that again. I am done.” While this revulsion may be natural and sane, it is nothing short of childish and naive to conclude that my self-defeating patterns of behavior are behind me, just because, in a moment of despair I threw up my arms and proclaimed “I’m done!” Wanting to stop has nothing to do with transformation. What is addiction other than the perpetuation of an un-wanted behavior?

The “pull yourself up by the boot straps” mentality that believes suffering is over come by force of will is an adult version of the adolescent, immature, fear-driven weariness that, following our first serious break-up, declares, “I will never date anyone else, ever again…love stinks!” We are trying to protect our self from pain, rather than listening to it. It is an intelligent life system and we have to hear its message. Suffering is an instinct, not an accident.

When we look closer, we see that suffering is a cycle—that time and time again we relapse into the same patterns of behavior. Yes, it is true, right now you hate men—you got burnt, yet again. But six months ago you swore off relationships, and just three months later you bumped into that special someone, or so you thought. We go through periods where abstinence is fashionable, followed always by periods of indulgence. Why? Suffering goes through a honeymoon phase called the suffering of change.

Triggering the suffering of change is the sudden epiphany that this person is the cure for all that ails us (marriage), or the absence of this person (divorce) is the answer to all our problems. We convince ourselves that our lives would be greatly improved by the acquisition of a new job or a new partner. So, we grab a hold of or attach ourselves to this new career opportunity, the new boyfriend or girlfriend, or that last piece of cheesecake. In the beginning, particularly in intimate relationships, these suspicions seem to be confirmed. We stay up half the night talking on the phone to our new found soul mate; the cheesecake or the ice cream tastes so great; we put on our best outfit and show up to the new job with a little hitch in our giddy up. Then comes a sudden change… Our stomach begins to hurt, or we pick up a few unwanted pounds; the job expects more of us than we can give or feel like we are compensated for; the partner who, just two months ago, was the answer to all our prayers becomes the very reason we are praying!

Everything changes. So, any expectation or attempt to freeze life is bound to lead to disappointment.

If we look deeply into the relationship, we will see that our partner is not to blame for our dissatisfaction. Just like us, they and everyone else, is a great big ball of instability. Rather, it was our expectations of the relationship that transformed into disappointment. Much to our consternation, expectations grow into the very frustration, heartache, and disappointment they were intended to circumvent. We thought he or she was our other half. We expected that relationship to “complete us.” We were using the relationship as a solution to our problems, which was initially reinforced, because it served as a distraction that turned our attention away from the nagging, deep seated, seemingly incurable discontentment.

The suffering of change or the search for a solution is triggered because deep down inside us there is an apparent problem. There is a void we are trying to fill. We are looking for a fix or a high, or we expect the relationship to complete us, because we believe that we are fundamentally broken or incomplete. This fundamental shame or insecurity is suffering in its most basic form—embryonic suffering, and the blunt physical pain described earlier is the maturation of this embryo. It is the subtle feeling that we are somehow not enough—not smart enough, pretty enough, or loveable enough. This transforms life into a scavenger hunt for that magical missing ingredient, which always seems to end in disappointment. The meaning of life or God’s will becomes some mysterious plan that we must find and execute in order to be happy or reasonably content.

Sitting with Suffering

Buddhism suggests a different relationship with suffering. We are asked to appreciate our discontentment, rather than trying to avoid it or solve it. It is through the development of appreciation that our adolescent resolution—“I quit!”—becomes true renunciation and determination. We have spent a great deal of our lives trying to be happy by avoiding pain, but despite our best efforts we have been unable to find what we are looking for. The first Noble Truth asks, Have we been unable to find what we are looking for because we have been looking in the wrong place? Is what we have been looking for to be found in the one place we have been unwilling to look?

We have refused to listen to our suffering. We have refused to look within ourselves. The first noble truth asks us to develop an appreciation for suffering through mindfulness. This is the practice of shamatha or peaceful-abiding. We are not trying to figure suffering out or fix it. We are simply watching our mind, as it turns the present moment into a problem, and entertains itself by chasing after a solution to that problem. We familiarize ourselves with suffering on an experiential level by acknowledging our attempts to generate alternative versions of reality. When we notice our mind creating hypothetical problems and the subsequent solutions, we simply label them “thinking,” and return to the present moment, as symbolized by the breath. No more, no less.

We are a disembodied people. We live in a world of ideas. Suffering is experience. The restoration of sanity and well-being begins with the recognition of insanity. When we deny suffering we deny experience. To deny experience is to deny life, and to ignore life is to feel lifeless or discontented—without content or vitality. The disconnection between our conscious mind and the life of the body gives rise to the fundamental belief in our own insufficiency. We are living an empty or unsubstantiated life. So, in meditation we are coming back to the self-existing vitality of the present moment, by renouncing all of our escape plans. We will not stop running away from the body of experience until we see that there is nowhere to run. That is the basic message of the first Noble Truth: there are no other options, just what is.


This is part one of a four part series. If you would like to be notified when the next three chapters are published, please click here. 


Ed: Kate B.

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