The first noble truth
The First Truth: There is suffering
Everything is impermanent. What arises will cease. When Shakyamuni gained enlightenment (insight), he became a Buddha, which means he attained an awakened mind. He awoke to what enlightened beings had seen before him. He rediscovered the path onto which we can return. The Four Noble Truths are part of the teachings that connect all Buddhist traditions.
The First Truth, that there is suffering, may seem pessimistic at first, as if life is hopeless. That is how it once appeared for me. Although I had suffered, I would have told you once upon a time that I had a great childhood, but once I stopped going for refuge to the nightclubs, to sex and intoxicants, the suffering hit me. I spiraled into an eating disorder. I was unable to cope with the reality that there was suffering. And if there was I was going to be in control of it. But acknowledging my own suffering connected me to every other human on this planet. I was not alone. I had suffered and so had everybody else I knew.
The light bulb switched on when in the same week, I had one friend grieving the loss of her mother, and another who was grieving the loss of her dog. The latter puzzled me, why was she so distraught? As that thought arose I could see that pain was pain. Suffering was suffering, the cause of it was irrelevant.
It was insightful for me to accept that in my life, and everyone else’s that there will be suffering. And even more insightful to learn how I created more suffering. I had lived my twenties anesthetized to my suffering. I had done everything possible to avoid suffering, so I thought. But I had to learn that there was suffering, and I could make it worse or easier for my self. The first truth was plain and simple, and I could not avoid the truth. From the moment I was born I was old enough to die.
By the fact we are born, we suffer. We age, become sick, and die. This gives us pain and grief. We lament, making such statements as, She was too young to die, He wasn’t meant to die, It is so unfair that I am sick, and Why does this happen to me? Yet, as the saying goes, once we are born, we are old enough to die.
Perhaps, we are born sick at birth, with a dis-ease, and our lives are about healing this sickness. The die-ease of life can be cured by the practice of renunciation.
Yet we live our lives attached to almost everything around us, unaware that, every day, we consciously or unconsciously renounce something in our physical, mental and spiritual lives. Ironically, we never seem ready for the final renunciation of our lives. So many of us are still sick when it comes time to renounce our bodies. This is suffering. It cannot change, and it will not change; we are always changing, whether we like it or not. Thus, to die well is to die with faith, energy, awareness, wisdom, and loving kindness.
Interestingly, death in some cultures is not such a painful occurrence. Some women know that their children will die before the age of five, due to poverty and sickness. Here in the West, a child dying before their parents is considered to be a most cruel occurrence.
Modern medicine has advanced the longevity and health of the physical body, but it has stagnated the growth of the mind and heart. We have become attached to our bodies, our health and our beauty. Ironically, the only guarantees in life are that we will age, we will get sick, and we will die! We do not know when these events will strike us, but we know they will happen. Nonetheless, many of us live our lives as if we were unaware of the fact that such mundane phenomena will happen to us.
The suffering occurs when our mind and hearts are unable to accept the first truth―that there is suffering. We are unable to see that everything is impermanent, that what arises will cease. When happiness or success arises it, too, passes, and something new arises when it ceases. And when unhappiness, difficulties and tragedies arise these, too, pass and something new arises. Suffering occurs, because we want happiness to last forever. We become attached to it, and when it passes and unhappiness arises, we move into aversion and hatred, wanting to push away our unhappiness, while craving for happiness to arise again.
We refer to a sunny day as “beautiful,” thus fixing our day and, so, when it rains, it becomes an awful day and we suffer. If we could simply refer to the sun as “shining” and the clouds as “raining,” we may begin to lighten our load of suffering. By extension, we may begin to see death as merely another part of the life cycle. Thus, there is hope.
My first step in recovery was to acknowledge that this human life will bring me suffering – and suffering is okay, if I don’t move away from it. It will arise and cease.