The second truth: The origin of suffering is attachment

Man in silhouette trying to grasp a star

When I first read the second truth, I had goose bumps, because I knew my life was heading in the direction of suffering. All the choices in my life were on the path of suffering, and all the things I was doing in my life too, kept me on the path of suffering.  At age fourteen I had chosen to live on the streets. I had gone off the rails. Eighteen months with my biological mother from the ages of eleven to twelve and a half had taught me to self medicate. No adult could tell me what to do. I was going to take complete control of my life. And so I had made my choices, with clarity. I chose to live on the streets, and when I realized I had made a wrong decision I didn’t know how to make a new decision. My only way out was the hope that I would be caught for my unskilful actions. This choice led me to be locked up by the age of fifteen.

The Four Noble Truths

‘Every decision is a good decision; you can always make a new decision’ says my teacher the Venerable Sangharakshita. I was resistant to the pain of my bad choice. I could not face the pain of knocking on a social worker’s door and admitting I had made a stupid decision by living on the streets. And so I numbed my pain with more shoplifting. I got a high out of it, and it made me feel good. So many things had been stolen from me as a young child: my virginity, my spirit, my voice and my feelings. I resisted the pain of this, did not even know how to come into relationship with it at such a young age. So I self-medicated through the buzz of “taking the not given” from shops.

I fitted neatly into Shinzen Young’s formula S=PxR  (suffering equals pain times resistance.) I was not aware that my resistance to my pain during my adolescence was rooting me quite firmly on the path that leads to more suffering. Unbeknown to me I was just multiplying pain every time I resisted it with my addictions of self-hatred and shoplifting.

Shoplifting and pickpocketing were my second addictions, that covered up all my toxic and messy feelings. I knew I couldn’t continue living this life, and I thought I needed something else to cover up my feelings. I had learned during the brief time with my biological mother not to show or express one bit of emotion or feeling. If I did I was sadistically punished. I had learned to take immense physical pain without flinching. And I was not going to let go of that power. She stole my spirit and it took everything I had inside me to survive her brutality and not leave my body forever. I learned self-hatred, and hatred of her. Self hatred was my first addiction. It was the place of self-pity I fled too. Self-pity rendered me helpless and on the path that led to more suffering. I was passive, I didn’t ask for help, just hoped that Jesus Christ or God would rescue me.

I got out alive. God didn’t rescue me — my school friends finally did — and I was taken away by the police. However I was spiritually dead, with a heart full of hatred. I was unable to speak of my experience for years. I numbed the pain, and on the surface appeared the most together, happiest and sorted adolescent in the orphanage — and I was drowning inside.

I became anorexic/bulimic. I had found an acceptable way of dealing with my feelings. Eating and throwing up. The only feeling I had was the physical pain of collapsing on the floor, the battering of my stomach, the hoarseness of my throat. But it soon became unacceptable, and I became an extreme bulimic. All other feelings were stuffed down and then purged out. I had become so skilled at not feeling that I was not aware of the fact that I was suffering. Some say ignorance is bliss, but in retrospect, my ignorance was a delusion. I knew I was unhappy, but all I had known my whole life was unhappiness and, so, I had nothing with which I could compare my unhappy life. And so, in my times of unhappiness, I felt a false happiness, most probably stimulant or alcohol-fueled.

The origin of suffering is attachment. What was I attached to? I had spent a whole lifetime in my late teens and early adulthood running away from all the attachments in my life—or so I thought. I ran away from all the orphanages I was placed in. As soon as something difficult came up I was out of the door like a flash of lightning, and lived on the streets. I had no possessions, just a heart full of toxic luggage. I had become attached to not feeling; as soon as a whiff of sadness arose, I pushed it back down so that I would not have to feel it. I was only allowing myself to feel the highs in my life, but even when I felt good, I  would squash that feeling too. It was too scary to inhabit such exciting feelings. The smile had been beaten off my face, and trampled into the ground by my biological mother. I was not allowed to be happy or sad. Pushing down all feelings had saved my life. Ironically this was my path that led me to more suffering.

Of course there are many other things that can put people on the path of suffering. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our minds are attached to impermanent things. We are not aware of the fact that our desire, passion, pursuit of wealth, or prestige, striving for fame, and desire for popularity are all paths that lead to more suffering. Why should we not strive for these things? If we are to live life in the present, accepting the impermanence of all these things, living an ethical life, some of these things may naturally occur as a result of our insight. The reality is such that there is no way to happiness. Rather, happiness is the way. Happiness is what people like Tom Maggliozzi and Rakesh Sarin call reality minus expectations.

I most definitely did not find my way by anesthetizing myself from life’s dramas, nor did I find it through the use of stimulants either, or in night clubs. Instead, I found it deep inside myself. The resentments, anger, fear and hatred in my heart muddied my happiness. I was unable to let go of the expectations of my reality, of things that I thought should have happened in my childhood. It was too painful to accept what had happened, and so I felt rage, anger and blamed. I had to do what Pema Chödrön advises, and lean into the pain, stop fending it off with my addictions and feel the pain. I had to learn that in pain there is joy, and that in joy there is pain. I had to empty myself of my addictions, and sit in the gap.

Learning to be with the emptiness of our lives, with the meaningless, the unknown, and the questions of what life is about, is a practice of patience. How many of us are patient, prepared to sit in the gap and reflect on these questions? It is easier to reach for something to put in our mouths or in front of our eyes, and to distract ourselves from the fact that life is fleeting and out of our control. Distractions and mood-altering substances point us in the direction of the path of suffering, and also the denial of impermanence leads to more suffering. Our denial, our distractions, are all part of the resistance that multiplies our pain. Letting go of our thoughts before they become thinking can help us step off the path that leads to more suffering.

We are the maestros of our suffering. We can determine how much suffering we create for ourselves and how much we want to get lost on the path that leads to more suffering. And it is possible to be happy without the addictions many of us have. To say we have no addictions is a delusion. Addiction can be when you cling onto something to such an extent that its cessation causes suffering or severe trauma. Living can become an addiction: we are attached to life, our health, our youthfulness. In that realization, there is much insight.

We can also meditate for positive emotion and integration, and become attached to this state of being. Or we can step on the path of spiritual death and spiritual rebirth that will truly take us to a place of enlightenment. Suffering can bring us to this realization. There is hope for the addict. Some psychotherapists say that some addicts are experiencing a spiritual emergency. Whatever the addict is going through, the fact is that it can be through the recovery from our addictions that we can turn our lives around. We can move beyond recovery and tread on the path of irregular steps to take us beyond self clinging and liberation. We can step onto the noble eight fold path.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks Vimalasara,
    I find your posts so very inspiring,but am so sorry you had to suffer so much.

  • Don’t be sorry — suffering brought the Buddha to enlightenment – we all have to suffer – pain is pain – my suffering is a gift i can share with the world – may all blessings be yours

  • Vimalasara,
    I am not sure how I landed on this page, other than my Higher Pwer guiding me. I relate to the addictions going to extremes to NOT feel. Although I have been sober for 12 years, I am only now addressing my extreme 30 year history with bulimia. What you wrote below is incredibly powerful, for where I am, today…in the gap. “lean into the pain, stop fending it off with my addictions and feel the pain. I had to learn that in pain there is joy, and that in joy there is pain. I had to empty myself of my addictions, and sit in the gap”
    I am just starting with mediation mantras and I am amazed at the calming effect. Please know that you have touched my heart and provided me hope today! Thank you!

  • thank you

  • I too am uncertain how I was guided to this article but I am certain there is a good reason. I am a recovering alcoholic and am in counceling and on antidepressants. I have been dealing with many Mid life changes, empty nest, un employment and marital discord but my most serious challenge right now is spirtualism and hope. For you see, I do not love my husband as he does not fulfill me emotionally or spiritually. I have been trying to meditate, yoga and searching for a deeper meaning to life. He does not share in these studies and proclaims to be an aethist…recent classes in reincarnation and past lives have been met with ridicule. Can you guide me to a way to rid myself of this pain without sacrificing my future in “somewhat” economic comfort and stability.


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