Four Noble Truths

The Fourth Noble Truth — the Eightfold Path

Introduction

The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Buddha’s Noble Truths, and he described it as the way that leads to the uprooting of the causes of suffering, and thus to increasingly stable and profound peacefulness, wisdom, virtue, and happiness.

Each of the eight elements of this Path is described by a word that is typically translated as “right” or “wise.” Both meanings are useful to reflect upon regarding your own suffering and your yearning for its end. Each element of the Path is right, in the sense of being correct, moral, and a pointed instruction about how to live. Each element is also wise, in the sense of resulting from deep understanding and leading to good results. In keeping with the weight of tradition and the value of the sharp edge of the word, “right,” that’s what is used in this summary.

  1. The Noble Truth of Suffering
  2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  3. The Noble Truth of the End of Suffering
  4. The Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path

While the eight elements of the Path are presented here in their traditional sequence, they are not something you develop in order. They are all important, all the time. Yet some may become more prominent aspects of your practice at one time or another.

The heart of each element of the Path is non-clinging, the essence of the Third Noble Truth: the cause of the end of suffering.

[Note: Quotations are shown in italics, and in some cases have been edited for brevity, clarity, including female pronouns, etc. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from the Buddha are from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology, In the Buddha’s Words, shown as BW with page number(s).]

1. Right View

Introduction

Right View entails a deep, embodied understanding of the truth of things — in particular, the truth of the three topics discussed just below.

One who has fully developed right view is considered a “stream-enterer,” one who is certain of ultimate liberation.”

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha: “And what, monks, is right view? Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering.”

Please see the article on “The Four Noble Truths” in the Buddhist Wisdom section of this webpage.

The Unwholesome and the Wholesome

Right view also entails understanding what is unwholesome and avoiding it, and understanding what is wholesome and doing it.

What did the Buddha say were the causes of the unwholesome? They are any and all forms of greed, hatred, delusion, and the belief in a separate self.

What did the Buddha say were the causes of the wholesome? They are equanimity and renunciation, compassion and lovingkindness, wisdom, and releasing the “conceit” of self.

You might like to consider the causes of the wholesome and unwholesome as they occur in your own mind and life. For example, you could take a day or a week and investigate one cause in particular, such as all the manifestations of greed in your mind – or alternately, all the manifestations of compassion.

The Chain of Dependent Origination

Last, right view means understanding what the Buddha called “the chain of dependent origination.”

In its essence, this means simply understanding that everything is the result of causes, a restatement of the law of karma. In personal terms, this means that if you foster certain causes in your life, good things will result for you and others; on the other hand, if you foster other causes, bad things will result. Wisdom is knowing which is which!

In the formal, detailed statement of the chain of dependent origination, the Buddha gave a complex, circular, intertwining, and sometimes mind-boggling description of why things are the way they are. This description can be daunting at first glance. Take your time with it, and learn more about what the specific terms mean that the Buddha uses. Its depth and power will become clearer for you, and probably very useful. This is the chain, with thirteen links:

  • “Taints” (sensual desire, ignorance, and sheer existence) lead to:
  • Ignorance (not realizing the Four Noble Truths; presuming a separate self), leading to:
  • “Volitional formations” (wholesome and unwholesome intentions expressed through the body, speech, or mind), leading to:
  • Consciousness (linked to the five bodily senses and the mind), leading to:
  • “Name-and-form” (the cognitive and physical aspects of individual existence), leading to:
  • The six sense bases (sight, touch, mind, etc.), leading to:
  • Contact (the meeting of three things: a sense organ, an object appropriate to that organ, and the consciousness associated with that organ; with the five senses and the mind, there are six types of contact), leading to:
  • Feeling (meaning not emotion, which is a “mental formation,” but the tone of an experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral), leading to:
  • Craving (for forms, for mental phenomena, etc.), leading to:
  • Clinging (to sensual pleasures [including avoiding pain], to views, to rites and rituals, and a sense of separate self), leading to:
  • Existence (in one of the realms of Buddhist cosmology, ranging from hells to heavens), leading to:
  • Birth (through reincarnation, in one of those realms of existence), leading to:
  • Aging and death, and then carrying karmic tendencies which are:
  • Taints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There are repetitions and feedback loops within the chain of dependent origination. That means you can change your fate at many “links” within the chain. In particular:

  • Reducing ignorance sends huge positive ripples through the whole system.
  • If you can have equanimity toward your feeling reaction – toward whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – you can interrupt the tendency toward craving, clinging, etc.

2. Right Intention

Introduction

This is sometimes translated as “right resolve,” which conveys the determination, firmness of aim, heartfelt conviction, and persistence that are central to right intention.

Intention of Harmlessness

This is a broad aim of not causing pain, loss, or destruction to any living thing. At a minimum, this is a sweeping resolution to avoid any whit of harm to another human being. The implications are far-reaching, since most of us participate daily in activities whose requirements or ripples may involve harm to others (e.g., use of fossil fuels that warms the planet, purchasing goods manufactured in oppressive conditions). Further, in American culture there is a strong tradition of rugged individualism in which as long as you are not egregiously forceful or deceitful, “let the buyer beware” on the other side of daily transactions; but if your aim is preventing any harm, then the other person’s free consent does not remove your responsibility.

Taking it a step further, to many, harmlessness means not killing bothersome insects, rodents, etc. Even as you feel the mosquito sticking its needle into your neck. And to many, harmlessness means eating a vegetarian diet (and perhaps forgoing milk products, since cows need to have calves to keep their milk production flowing, and half of those calves are male, who will eventually be slaughtered for food).

Nonetheless, we need to realize that there is no way to avoid all harms to other beings that flow inexorably through our life. If we are to eat, we must kill plants, and billions of bacteria die each day as we pass wastes out of our bodies. If we get hired for a job, that means another person will not be.

But what we can do is to have a sincere aspiration toward harmlessness, and to reduce our harms to an absolute minimum. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Intention of Non-ill Will

Here we give up angry, punishing reactions toward others, animals, plants, and things. If such attitudes arise, we resolve not to feed them, and to cut them off as fast as we can.

Please see the article on “Ill Will to Good Will” in the Buddhist Wisdom section of this webpage: //www.wisebrain.org/articles.html.

Intention of Renunciation

Renunciation is founded on a disenchantment with the world and with experience, based on right view. You see through all the possibilities of experience: you see their ephemeral, insubstantial, empty qualities, no matter how alluring or seemingly gratifying. You see the suffering embedded in the experience, the “trap,” as the Buddha put it. And you see the happiness, peace, and love available in not chasing after pleasure or resisting pain.

Based on this clear seeing, you align yourself with the wisdom perspective and with the innate, prior, always already existing wakeful, pure, peaceful, and radiant awareness within yourself. In so doing, you renounce worldly things and worldly pleasures. If they pass through your awareness – a sunset, a child’s smile, chocolate pudding, Beethoven’s 9th – fine; just don’t cling to them as they disappear as all experiences do.

Renunciation is NOT asceticism, or privation for privation’s sake. It is a joyous union with the path of happiness that happens to include a relinquishing, casting off, abandoning, walking away from any seeking at all of worldly gratifications.

At its heart, renunciation is simple: we just let go.

“If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.” — Ajahn Chah

3. Right Speech

Abstinence from False Speech

Do not knowingly say what is not true. But note that this does not mean you have to tell people everything. The Buddha said that whatever we say should pass three tests at a minimum, and often a fourth: Is it true? Is it useful? Is it timely? (And the fourth: Is it welcome?)

Abstinence from Malicious Speech

This links to the intention of non-ill will. Malice has to do with intention, but those intentions are often unconscious or fleeting. If you are about to say something but you’re getting a funny feeling, you probably shouldn’t say it.

Abstinence from Harsh Speech

“Harsh” is a matter of both content and tone. Sometimes the best course is to say something that is true, useful, and timely – even if not welcome – and the art is to say it in a clean way. Imagine a video camera is recording you and will be played back later; act in such a way that you will not squirm but will feel at peace with what you see. Or try out what you might say (or write) with others and get their feedback about harshness, including some that might just be leaking through in spite of your filters.

Abstinence from Idle Chatter

This probably originated as an admonition to monks and nuns, but it is also worth considering in householder life. How much of the time are we jabbering away to no good purpose – not even our own well-being – wasting time and energy, consuming the attention of others, avoiding what’s really important?

Extending these Standards to Thought

Much thought is internal speech: the verbal processes of the mind. Consider abstaining from false, malicious, harsh, or idle thinking!

4. Right Action

Introduction

These are restatements of three of the five basic precepts.

Abstinence from the Destruction of Life

At a minimum, this means not killing human beings through murder or through war. For example, unlike other major religions, there has never been a war in the name of the Buddha.

It is also often taken to mean (especially for monks and nuns) not eating meat from an animal that was killed specifically to feed you; on the other hand, if (hypothetically) a chicken were killed for a family’s dinner and some meat was leftover and placed in a nun’s begging bowl, she could eat it.

As with the intention of non-harming, the literal meaning of the abstinence from the destruction of life has far-reaching implications. Do you never eat vegetables that have been raised with pesticides? How about vegetables grown organically with pesticide control via the introduction of bugs that eat (and kill) pests? How about vegetables with no pest control at all but harvested by people who can’t help but crush tiny insects as they walk about the fields wearing leather shoes? Since absolute harmlessness is impossible, the question of balance is a serious one.

Abstinence from Taking What is Not Given

Beyond the obvious action of not stealing, it’s interesting to reflect on broader notions of not taking what is not freely offered. What about glancing at a letter sitting out on another person’s desk; were its contents freely offered to you? Or looking at the photo of an actress sunbathing snapped by a paparazzi; did she offer you her image voluntarily? There’s $10 lying on the sidewalk: do you pick it up?

Abstinence from Sexual Misconduct

Obviously, this means not engaging in infidelity, rape, molestation, or incest; for monks and nuns it goes farther and includes touch, being alone with a member of the opposite sex, etc.

But there are also realms of sexuality that involve shades of gray. For example, when is sexual exploitation involved in seduction or even flirting? We often know in our bones if we are starting to cross a line in which we are using another person for our own purposes, especially if there is any element of deception – but sometimes it’s not so clear. How about cajoling or pressuring our mates for sex when they’d rather go to sleep; is that misconduct?

Or consider viewing pornography. If you believe the people in the images are being exploited in some way – even if their participation is ostensibly voluntary – are you engaging in sexual misconduct if you participate in their exploitation by buying the magazine or simply clicking onto the website?

Practice is about wrestling with these questions mindfully, with a skeptical eye on the element of clinging, not robotically adhering to some fixed rule. If there is any whiff of clinging, grasping, or aversion in the action, it’s probably best avoided – and this applies to each of the elements of the Eightfold Path.

5. Right Livelihood

Introduction

Some of the Buddha’s general instructions on householder life are included here, particularly as they pertain to making a living or accumulating wealth. Obviously, many of the considerations of right livelihood and family life would not apply to monks or nuns, who are “homeless,” celibate, do not handle money or own property, and never ask for payment of any kind.

Avoiding Wrong Livelihood

The Buddha talked about many of the central themes of his teaching in terms of their negation, such as impermanence, not-self, and non-clinging. He did the same in his explicit description of what constitutes right livelihood:

“These five trades should not be taken up: trading in weapons, living beings, meat, intoxicants, poisons.” [BW, 126]

The Sources of Welfare and Happiness in the Present Life

Additionally, the Buddha offered guidance for how a householder should engage the world that have clear implications for right livelihood.

“Four things lead to the welfare and happiness of a family man or woman:

  • The accomplishment of persistent effort – Whatever may be the means by which a person earns a living, he or she is skillful and diligent.
  • The accomplishment of protection – The person sets up protection and guard over the wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his or her arms, earned by the sweat of his or her brow, righteous wealth righteously gained.
  • Good friendship – Wherever one dwells, one associates with people who are of mature virtue and accomplished in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom, and converses with and emulates them.
  • Balanced living – A person knows his or her income and expenditures and leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, so that income exceeds expenditures rather than the reverse. Just as a goldsmith or his apprentice, holding a up a scale, knows, ‘By so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up,’ so a family man or woman leads a balanced life.” [BW, 124-125]

“Four other things also lead to a family man’s or woman’s welfare and happiness in the present life: accomplishment in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom:

  • Accomplishment in faith – The person places faith in the enlightenment of the Buddha
  • Accomplishment in moral discipline – The person keeps the five basic precepts (no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false or harmful speech, or intoxicants leading to carelessness)
  • Accomplishment in generosity – The person dwells at home with a mind devoid of the stain of stinginess, freely generous, open-handed, delighted in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing.
  • Accomplishment in wisdom – The person possesses the wisdom that sees into the arising and passing away of phenomena, that is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of suffering.” [BW, 125-126]

Note the framing of faith, morality, etc. as accomplishments, as character traits in which one can become increasingly effective, skillful, and masterful. This reflects the fundamental theme in Buddhism of a progressive process of growing skillfulness. In other words, we all have the opportunity for spiritual realization – even of the highest sort – and we are the ones who are responsible for making use of that opportunity.

The Proper Use of Wealth

“With wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his or her arms, earned by the sweat of his or her brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, the noble disciple undertakes four worthy deeds:

  • He /makes himself happy and pleased and properly maintains himself in happiness, and he does the same for his parents, wife and children, workers and servants, and friends and colleagues.
  • He makes provisions against the losses that might arise on account of fire and floods, kings and bandits and unloved heirs; he makes himself secure against them.
  • He makes the five kinds of offerings: to relatives, guests, ancestors, the king, and the devas [religious spirits].
  • He establishes a lofty offering of alms to those ascetics and Brahmins [noble beings] who refrain from vanity and negligence, who are settled in patience and gentleness, who are devoted to taming themselves, to calming themselves, and to attaining Nibbana – an offering that is heavenly, resulting in happiness, conducive to heaven.

For anyone whose wealth is expended on other things apart from these four worthy deeds, that wealth is said to have to waste, to have been squandered and used frivolously. But for anyone whose wealth is expended on these four worthy deeds, that wealth is said to have gone to good use, to have been fruitfully applied and used for a worthy cause.” [BW 126-127 ]

Avoiding the Dissipation of Wealth

“Wealth has four sources of dissipation: womanizing, drunkenness, gambling, and evil friendship.” [BW 125 ]

The Happiness of a Householder

“There are four kinds of happiness which may be achieved by a layperson who enjoys sensual pleasures, depending on time and occasion:

  • The happiness of possession – When a person thinks, ‘I possess wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his or her arms, earned by the sweat of his or her brow, righteous wealth righteously gained,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.
  • The happiness of enjoyment – When a person thinks, ‘I enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.
  • The happiness of freedom from debt – When a person thinks, ‘I am not indebted to anyone to any degree, whether small or great,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.
  • The happiness of blamelessness – When a person thinks, ‘I am endowed with blameless conduct of body, speech, and mind,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.” [BW 127-128]

How to Cultivate Right Livelihood

  • Mindfulness of the body – By remaining aware of the body, you can stay present with the people and the activities involved in your work.
  • Not clinging to self – By relaxing attachment to “me and mine,” by not getting identified with views, by seeing oneself and others as simply parts of one whole thing, then one will be more likely to be caring and moral in one’s work.
  • Avoiding harms to oneself and others – We typically focus on avoiding harms that have to do with outcomes, with the results of our work, and that is certainly good. Additionally, consider avoiding the harms that have to do with the process or manner of our work, such as how we represent ourselves in the world, or do business, or speak with customers or colleagues.
  • Tend to the mental dimension – Note the frequent reference to blameless conduct of mind. It’s relatively easy to act well in one’s speech and outward behavior. But being blameless in thought or inner feeling: hmm, that is a much greater challenge – yet having a blameless mind will probably bring much greater benefit to you and others than blameless speech or behavior.
  • Focus on the fundamental causes (and that’s all anyone can really do): “Buddhism teaches us to make earnest efforts in the things we do, but our actions should not be mixed with desire. They should be performed with the aim of letting go and realizing nonattachment. We do what we need to do, but with letting go. We do our work according to our responsibilities [rather than because of a wish to get something]. If we act like this, we can be at ease. . . . It’s a matter of making causes. If the causes are good, the result is bound to be good. If we think like this, there will be lightness of mind. This is called right livelihood.” Ajahn Chah, Being Dharma, pps. 118-119.

6. Right Effort

Introduction

Right Effort is one of the three elements of the Path that focus particularly on your internal states of being (the others are Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration).

Preventing and Abandoning the Negative, Cultivating and Maintaining the Positive

“And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, a person generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he or she makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his or her mind, and strives. He or she generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states . . . He or she generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states . . . . He or she generates desire for the continuation of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecline, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development; he or she makes an effort arouses energy, applies his or her mind, and strives. This is called right effort.” [BW, 239]

Unwholesome States

At root, these are conditions of greed, hatred, and delusion — even in their subtlest forms. Such states also encompass sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and doubt (from the Five Hindrances), and wrong view (e.g., belief in a self). These are considered “evil” because they lead to bad results for oneself and others.

Wholesome States

These include non-greed, non-hatred, etc., as well as more affirmatively described conditions of generosity, diligence, insight, wisdom, equanimity, lovingkindness, concentration, bliss, and joy.

Cultivating Your Garden

Right Effort is an ongoing, conscious, and wholehearted application of energy and attention to cultivating the garden of your mind and heart. But what helps you – or could help you – keep weeding and pruning, planting and fertilizing, day after day after day? Each person has their own answers, but traditionally the Buddha offered three great resources (sometimes called refuges) to help you keep at the path of Awakening:

  • The Buddha – Both as a wise teacher you can have general confidence in and as a symbol of the natural wisdom and goodness we all have at the core of our being
  • The Dharma – Both the teachings of Buddhism, evaluated by each person for themselves, and ultimately, reality itself with all of its mysteries
  • The Sangha – Both the vertical dimension of our teachers and the horizontal dimension of fellow practitioners gathered together on the path

7. Right Mindfulness

Introduction

Right Mindfulness is one of the three elements of the Path that focus particularly on your internal states of being (the others are Right Effort and Right Concentration).

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is simply a continuous, non-judgmental, accepting awareness of your inner and outer world – especially your inner one: the flow of experience. It is a very grounded awareness, not some kind of lofty mystical state.

Why Be Mindful?

Mindfulness feels good in its own right: relaxed, alert, and peaceful. Additionally, studies have shown that it lowers stress, makes discomfort and pain more bearable, reduces depression, and increases self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Mindfulness is required for the “observing ego” everyone needs for healthy functioning. It detaches you from reactions to see them with gentle clarity and perspective, helping you change old patterns and respond more skillfully. The mindful acceptance of a difficult experience, opening to it without resistance, often allows it to move on. Mindfulness brings you into the present, the only place you can ever be truly happy and free. All this is reason enough to cultivate this quality in our lives.

Further, the Buddha described mindfulness, when fully developed, as the direct path to enlightenment and the end of suffering:

“This is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentations, for the passing away of pain and dejection, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana – namely, the four establishments of mindfulness.

“What are the four? A person dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, and mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world.” [In the Buddha’s Words., p. 281]

“Contemplating body in the body” (or feelings in feelings, etc.) means being simply aware of immediate, experiential phenomena as it is without conceptualization or commentary. Just the sensations of the rising breath in the belly. Just the subtle feeling of a sound being mildly unpleasant. Just the sense of consciousness being contracted or spacious. Just a single thought emerging and then disappearing. Just this moment. Just this.

This pure awareness – which becomes increasingly absorbed by its objects with growing concentration, to the point that there is vanishingly little difference between the observer and the observed (see the handout on Right Concentration) – is a kind of spotlight illuminating the nature of mind and reality in more and more breathtaking detail. This brings insight into the causes of suffering, and into the causes leading to the end of suffering. (In Pali – the language in which the teachings of the Buddha were first written down – the word for insight is “vipassana.”)

Mindfulness is the counter to our habitual state of mind, which is beautifully characterized in this story: A renowned Thai meditation master was once asked what his take on the world was. His concise summary was, “Lost in thought.”

Imagine being in a lovely and peaceful meadow, with a train full of thoughts and feelings and desires rolling by in the distance . . . Normally, as this train approaches we tend to become fascinated, drawn in some significant way, and we hop on board and get carried away . . . lost in thought.

On the other hand, mindfulness allows you to see the train coming but have the presence of mind . . . to stay in the meadow! And whenever you get swept along by the train, as soon as you notice that, whoosh, you return immediately to the peaceful meadow, to the refuge of mindfulness.

Where Is Mindfulness to Be Established?

The Buddha named four “establishments, “foundations,” or “frames of reference” of mindfulness (depending on how the original term is translated):

  • Body, both as an objective entity and as a subjective experience of sensations, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes
  • “Feelings” which mean not emotions but the tones of pleasant or unpleasant or neutral that come with every experience
  • “Mind,” which means consciousness and states of consciousness
  • “Phenomena,” (sometimes translated as “formations”) which means all the other contents of mind, including thoughts, emotions, desires, images, plans, inner conflicts, views, murky psychological dynamics, transference from childhood, etc.

Mindfulness in Meditation

Meditation is the preeminent opportunity to practice and to cultivate mindfulness. This is a progressive process in which ” . . . the mind is steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated,” leading to liberating insight.

Buddhism is a 2500 year tradition of dedicated practitioners using skillful means to achieve these deepening states of awareness. And recently, research on the brain has both corroborated and enriched that tradition with findings that have practical implications for how to have meditation be as effective as possible.

Some of these findings are specific to steadying the mind . . . or to quieting it . . . or to bringing it to singleness . . . or to concentrating it. Others are more general, and these are presented in the rest of this article. Think of these as practical tools that you can pick and choose among to find whatever might be helpful.

Continuity of Mindfulness

But mindfulness is not reserved just for some special period of meditation in the day, but is to become as continuous as possible, whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down . . . or doing acts of the body, speech, or mind . . . . or answering the telephone, responding to emails, arguing with a family member, doing the crossword, eating, watching the news on TV, and so on.

Consider this story from the book, Knee Deep in Grace (p. 83), about Dipa Ma, the great Indian teacher – and housewife and grandmother:

“Dipa Ma was a living example of how to live in this world, of how practice and the mundane activities of our day-to-day existence can be made one. She insisted that the practice be done all the time, and that we do the things we do throughout the day without making them into problems. Dipa Ma wanted to know, “How awake are you in your life? Are you just thinking about being mindful, or are you really doing it?” Dipa Ma said that even while she was talking, she was meditating. Talking, eating, working, thinking about her daughter, playing with her grandson—none of those activities hampered her practice because she did them all with mindfulness. “When I’m moving, shopping, everything, I’m always doing it with mindfulness. I know these are things I have to do, but they aren’t problems. On the other hand, I don’t spend time gossiping or visiting or doing anything which I don’t consider necessary in my life.”

For more information about ways to weave mindfulness throughout daily life, please see the article at www.WiseBrain.org/articles.html titled “Continuity of Mindfulness.”

Some of the key factors promoting mindfulness are summarized below.

Being Awake

When you can, meditate during the times when you are maximally alert within your own sleep-wake cycle. (Of course, this is irrelevant on a retreat where you are meditating 10 or more hours a day.)

Minimize drains on your wakefulness, such as lack of sleep, fatigue, illness, hormonal conditions (e.g., thyroid problems), or depression.

In sum: take care of yourself. Pay attention to physical factors, rather than trying to muscle through them or beat yourself up for not being able to overcome them.

Being Alert

Several factors increase alertness:

  • Posture – Provides internal, somatosensory feedback to the reticular formations that lead to alertness. Being upright says to the mind: “Wake up!”
  • “Brightening the mind” – Here you deliberately activate an internal sense of energizing and enlivening your mind. In physiological terms, this is probably linked to a surge of norepinephrine, which helps you feel both alert and relaxed.

This is distinct from epinephrine – adrenaline – which indeed wakes the whole body up, but also has a kind of jangly, fight-or-flight quality to it. And adrenaline decays into secondary metabolites that remain in the body for hours and have a stressful, disturbing quality to them.

Sometimes you may want to trigger an adrenaline-based surge of “darn it, focus, get here now!” in order to wake yourself up. But only in small doses, and consider the “brightening the mind” approach instead.

  • Oxygen – Oxygen is to the brain what gas is to your car. By taking several deep breaths, you increase the oxygen saturation in your blood and thus “push the pedal” with your brain.

Feeling Safe

To help us survive, the brain is naturally vigilant, routinely moving attention across the environment to look for threats. Feeling safe encourages the brain to withdraw the sentries from the battlements, so to say, and put them to work internally (e.g., keeping watch on the breath).

For example, there is the Buddha’s recurring instruction to find a place of seclusion – i.e., safety – and then sit down at the base of a tree – where he found his own enlightenment – with your back to it, protecting your most vulnerable flank. Other traditional practices help one get used to, and thus relax about, perceived threats – such as meditating on the jungle side of a well or simply being alone in the forest at night. And some practices have a welcome side effect of helping one to overcome fears, even if that is not their primary purpose (e.g., charnel ground meditations, lovingkindness meditation).

Some methods for feeling safe:

  • Diaphragm breathing
  • Relaxing the body
  • Imagery
  • Taking refuge
  • Disputing or detaching from worries or other views that make you anxious

Feeling Happy

Commonly used Pali words that refer to positive emotions are “sukha” (happiness, contentment, tranquility) and “piti” (rapture, bliss). These are also two of the five factors that cultivate deep states of concentration, including those known as the “jhanas.”

Positive feelings:

  • Have vigor and pep, and thus foster greater alertness
  • Activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces the distractions of the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic system, and brings relaxation and attention to the body
  • Increase overall resilience, so you’re less likely to be bothered by something when you meditate
  • Counteract negative emotions, which consume attention (plus feel lousy)

Feeling happy is skillful means!

Here are some ways to generate positive emotions:

  • The “soft smile” recommended by Thich Nhat Han triggers feedback loops within the emotional circuitry of the brain, activating the feelings associated with smiling.
  • Metta practice – compassion, lovingkindness, etc. – bathes you in positive emotion.
  • Remember past states of positive emotion (“taking in” them helps support this memory). Then access that bodily/emotional memory to rekindle the positive feeling.

9. Right Concentration

Introduction

Concentration is a natural ability that everyone has, and everyone can get increasingly better at it. It’s like a muscle: by exercising it, you make it stronger.

To do that, alas, we must accept “failing” over and over again. For most people, especially those new to meditation, it is difficult to stay engaged with more than a few breaths in a row – or less! – without the mind wandering off to something else.

So it’s especially important to find that middle way between being uncaring and being harsh with yourself. When your mind wanders, try not to be self-critical, but simply get back into full awareness of the next breath. It’s not what happened in the past that matters but what you do now and now and now.

Benefits of Concentration

Cultivates the will.

Trains the mind to a greater steadiness, thus aiding both sila and insight.

Overcomes the hindrances (greed/lust, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and doubt). The deepest states of concentration known as “jhanas” or “samadhis,” eliminate the hindrances for the temporary (i.e., impermanent) duration of the state; this is one of the rewards of the jhanas/samadhis.

Breeds conviction and faith: The deeper states of concentration are not ordinary states, and when you experience them, it becomes palpably clear that the fruits of practice include increasingly stable, profound, wonderful, joyous, magnificent conditions of the heart and mind.

Factors of Concentration

  • Applying your attention – This is the deliberate focusing of attention on an object, whether a teacher’s presentation, the sensations at the upper lip, or interesting stillness between two thoughts.
  • Sustaining attention – This means staying with the object of attention. Sometimes the metaphor of rubbing is used, like two sticks rubbing together, staying in contact throughout. Sally Clough, a Spirit Rock teacher, combines applying and sustaining attention (especially applicable for the breath) into a single metaphor from ice skating: applying attention is like planting your foot, and sustaining it means gliding along; then at the end of the inhalation (for example), you plant your foot again ( = focusing on the exhalation) and then glide along the length of the exhalation, staying in contact with every part of it.
  • Rapture – A strong sense of bliss, often felt particularly in the body, often with an energizing, upwardly moving sense to it.
  • Happiness – Also a definite, unmistakable feeling, that sometimes shades into a quality of contentment or perhaps tranquility.
  • One-pointedness – This is the mind brought to singleness, in which there is a kind of unitary state in which all elements of experience are experienced as a whole; there is often a sense when this factor arises of a kind of ka-chunk, of all the pieces coming together.

These factors can vary in their intensity from sitting to sitting. In particular, the factor of rapture can be experienced over time as a bit jangly and too intense, and give way increasingly to the factor of happiness.

Try to register a clear sense of each factor, so that you know what it feels like and can find your way back to it again.

To an extent (and which usually grows with practice), you can invite, call up, or invoke each factor. Traditionally, you can say in your mind, “May rapture (or happiness, etc.) awaken (or arise, or be present).” If it comes, conditions are ripe. If it does not come, be patient and keep cultivating the causes of its arising and have faith that it will come.

Getting tense with yourself or impatient will not serve. Relaxation and happiness are the immediate causes of concentration. Striving is a form of clinging.

Access Concentration

This is a state in which the five factors are present, but you haven’t yet tipped fully into the jhanas. Applying and sustaining attention take little effort; the mind is quite quiet, with thoughts apparent as discrete entities, coming and going; the body commonly feels both light and grounded. Get to know this state well so you can readily settle into it.

The Jhanas

These are progressively deeper and more subtle states of deep meditative absorption. There are four “form” jhanas, in which there is still a clear sense of ordinary physical reality. Then there are the four “formless attainments,” which can – if the causes are ripe – culminate in Nibbana.

Descriptions vary regarding what is a jhana and what isn’t. In our experience, these are unmistakable, remarkable, non-ordinary states of being that have a self-evident persuasiveness when they come upon you.

In the Buddha’s description, which is repeated verbatim or with minor changes throughout the Pali Canon:

“And what, monks, is right concentration? Here monks, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a person enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination [i.e., applied and sustained attention] with rapture and happiness born of seclusion.

With the subsiding of thought and examination, she or she enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has happiness and rapture born of concentration.

With the fading away as well of rapture, the person dwells equanimous, and mindful and clearly comprehending, he or she experiences happiness with the body; he or she enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He or she is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’

With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, the person enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity.

This is called right concentration.”

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The strange myopia of Buddhist teachings on suffering

woman having caesarian section

I wanted to draw attention to a strange myopia that affects many people who comment on the Buddha’s teachings about suffering.

In the four noble truths, the first truth is that of suffering (dukkha), and it’s described in the following manner:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the disliked is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

Here the Buddha lists a number of occasions for suffering that arise in life. Some, like birth and death, don’t happen in our lives very often. Others, like sickness, are quite frequent. Some, like separation from what we like and being in the presence of things we don’t like take place multiple times in the course even of just one day.

The first instance of suffering that the Buddha gives is birth. It’s a natural place to start, perhaps.

What I find curious is that many, many writers on Buddhism interpret “birth is suffering” solely in terms of “being born is suffering.” This is a long-standing tradition. Fifteen hundred years ago, or so, Buddhaghosa, in his treatise, “The Path of Purification,” listed several ways in which birth is painful. He tells us it’s painful:

  • to be confined in a womb
  • to be physically jarred in the womb when your mother moves around
  • if your mother has a miscarriage
  • to be forced through the birth canal
  • to have your sensitive skin touched after you’ve been born

You’ll notice that this is all focused on the one being born.

Was your birth painful? I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember. Presumably it was traumatic at the time, but my brain wasn’t developed enough to commit the details to memory.

Now, would your mother say that birth was painful? Probably! She experienced much more pain than anyone else involved. Was it psychologically painful for her? Probably. It’s a worrying thing to give birth.

Was it painful for your father? Not physically, but he was probably anxious about the health of your and your mother.

Lots of other people were probably anxious too, and relieved when you were born, hopefully healthily.

The Buddha was of course born at a time and place where birth was much more dangerous than it is for most of us reading these words. His own mother is supposed to have died not long after he was born, presumably from complications of childbirth. In many parts of the world, death during or just after childbirth is still common. In fact both of my adopted children’s birth-mothers died this way.

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For me, the most bizarre part of Buddhaghosa’s list is the bit about miscarriages. To consider the suffering involved in such a thing and not give any thought to the experience of the mother is just bizarre.

Buddhaghosa remains an important influence on Buddhism to this day. A lot of Buddhist teaching is essentially what I call “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” And so his myopia becomes the myopia of contemporary Buddhist teachers — or many of them, at least. Just today I listened to a teaching on suffering by a very talented contemporary teacher who explained “birth is suffering” as “being born is suffering.”

Probably because Buddhaghosa was a man who had lived all his life in cultures where men were the focus of attention, he just didn’t give much thought to the experience of women. And he was talking to men. But even those men had mothers and sisters who gave birth, so there’s a kind of misogyny, or at least myopic gender-bias, in operation.

Part of what’s going on here is how people tend to pass on presentations of the Buddha’s teachings in much the same way they had first learned them — including the mistakes and the myopic omissions. So you learn from a book or a talk that “birth is suffering” means “it’s painful to be born,” and that lodges in your brain. And then having learned what this, you stop thinking about the subject. You don’t reflect on it. You don’t compare it to the lived experience of people around you. It’s just a “factoid” that inhabits your brain, in some way isolated from everything else you know.

This lack of reflection on what the Buddha taught bothers me. Not connecting what the Buddha taught to your own lived experience (a teacher may not have given birth, but they’ve surely heard women say how painful it is) bothers me. And of course ignoring the painful experience of half of humanity bothers me. Aren’t empathy and compassion meant to be part of the Buddhist path?

Buddhism is about suffering, and responding wisely and compassionately to suffering. And yet most of the suffering around the topic, “birth is suffering,” gets ignored. That’s kind of weird.

Similar things can be said about death, although that’s a less gendered topic. There’s a form of myopia where “death is suffering” becomes “dying is suffering.” But it’s not just dying that’s painful. It’s painful to have a loved one die. It’s painful to think that one day they will die.

There are many other ways in which Buddhist teachings are passed on from generation to generation in a habitual, unreflecting way. In another article here I tackled a few recurring myths about the Buddha’s life. I’ve written about another mistaken teaching about suffering that is commonly passed on. I could write a book full of these.

All of these repeated misconceptions weaken and dull the teaching of Buddhism. The less teachers (and their students) are able to connect Dharma teachings to their lived experience and to the experience of others, the more abstract the teachings seem. They exist as the “factoids” I mentioned, floating in the mind, untethered to our real lives.

So the next time you hear a teacher talking discussing “birth is suffering” purely in terms of the suffering a fetus and baby go through, I’d suggest that you gently bring up the topic of all the others involved in birth who suffer in more significant ways — the mother above all. It might end up changing Buddhist culture in the west.

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Making the most of this precious human birth

Six shuttered windows in a honey-colored concrete window

Someone asked me the other day whether there was a contradiction between the Buddha saying that “life is suffering” and the teaching that this human life is a precious thing. It was a new take on an old misunderstanding, but it led to an interesting discussion.

First of all I had to point out that “life is suffering” is not something the Buddha ever taught. All he did was remind us that there are various kinds of suffering in life.

So here’s the first noble truth — the truth of suffering — as it’s recorded in the early scriptures, supposedly in the Buddha’s own words:

Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

So this doesn’t say that life is suffering. It doesn’t say anything about “life” as such at all. What it does is point out that there are various instances of suffering in our lives. Life contains suffering.

The Buddha constantly pointed out that there are also instances of peace, joy, and happiness in life as well. And he also pointed out that we can reduce the amount of suffering in our lives and, potentially, even eliminate it altogether. That’s what the third noble truth is about:

Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.

So it’s because we have this choice — remain unaware and continue to suffer, or cultivate awareness and free yourself from suffering — that human life is precious. That choice is not available to all living things. I’ll say more about that shortly.

But first my questioner had a follow-up: is human life “precious” because it is “better to exist than the alternative (to have never been born, or to no longer exist).”

This reminded me of the more cosmological side of Buddhism that I tend not to pay much attention to. It’s not very scientific, it makes claims that can’t be tested here and now, and it’s not directly related to the task of ending suffering. But I was glad that my questioner pointed me in that direction.

In traditional Buddhist teachings the alternative to human existence is not non-existence but existence in other, less advantageous, forms. The belief was that there are so many non-human beings that the chances of being reborn as a human were — in a wonderful image — as unlikely as a one-eyed turtle in the ocean coming up once every hundred years and happening to put his head through a yoke floating on the surface.

And human existence was seen as the most likely one in which freedom from suffering through spiritual awakening (or “bodhi”) could be found. The early scriptures talk about five realms into which we can be reborn: animals, hell, and ghostly forms (collectively the three lower realms), our own human realm, and the realm of the gods. Sometimes the realm of the gods was seen as twofold: gods that were more peaceful and “chill” and those, called “asuras,” that were more war-like and competitive. The realm of the asuras was added to the list of lower rebirths, bringing them up to four in number.

The human realm offers advantages in terms of spiritual development.

  • Animals don’t have enough self-awareness.
  • Beings in hell are too caught up in their own suffering.
  • Ghosts are too caught up in painful longings.
  • Asuras are too obsessed by power.
  • And gods have so much pleasure that they have no sense of urgency and rarely practice (although some are depicted as doing so in the scriptures).

Incidentally, Gods in Buddhist cosmology are mortal. They do die; they just live for a long time. But because they aren’t bothered by impermanence they aren’t motivated to develop insight. And because they’re not used to dealing with painful feelings they tend, when they die, to plunge straight into the lower realms. (Think of a junkie experiencing a high for millennia, and then crashing badly.)

Human existence allows for self-awareness. It contains (on average) enough suffering that we’re motivated to work to improve our condition, but not so much pleasure that we become complacent. Therefore human life provides good conditions for spiritual growth. But it’s also very rare, and therefore it’s a precious opportunity.

Most contemporary practitioners see all these “realms” as symbolic of psychological realities, because it’s hard for many of us to take them literally. An animal existence becomes one in which we’re fixated on gratifying our appetites for food, sex, and sensory stimulation. We don’t think much, we don’t reflect on life, and maybe our constant self-gratification is a way of avoiding doing so. Hell is the reality of depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. Ghosts are people caught up in addictions or helplessly longing for things they can’t have. The gods are hedonists, with pleasures that are more refined than the animal state. Asuras are obsessed by competing for power, like certain business people. We’re only truly in a human state when we’re self-aware, living a relatively ethical and emotionally healthy life, and open to learning more about how to live well. We might, as individuals, actually cycle through all of these realms during our lifetime, and might possibly visit several of them in the course of one day!

So the Buddha taught all this not as something we should believe literally, but as an encouragement to practice. The law of supply and demand says that the price of something goes up when it’s scarce, and when it’s abundant its value goes down. And so if we perceive human life as being unlimited, then it has less value. If we perceive human life as scarce, then we value it more.

Another way to achieve this sense of urgency is to reflect on the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. Doing this can help jolt us into wondering what we’re doing with the precious time that’s available to us. We can also reflect on the uncertainty of our lives. Right now my dad is 87 years old and in good health. My maternal grandfather lived to be 95. And I find myself assuming that I’m going to live for a similar amount of time. On the other hand I’m now 17 years older than my paternal grandfather was when he died and nine years older than one of my great grandfathers was when he passed away, so I could also see myself as living on borrowed time.

And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s possible for us to slip into different realms. We sometimes sink into a numbing and unthinking animal state. This might be comfortable in a way, but it’s not very satisfying. So we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life, and that we’ll be happier if we’re curiously exploring our potential.

We can get sucked down into the hell of depression, or into the ghost-like realm of unsatisfiable longings. And in the throes of those kinds of suffering we have to remind ourselves that practice helps. It’s not an instant fix, but it does help us to find more balance in our lives.

We can find ourselves obsessed with competition and status, and this is a major distraction, because it’s satisfying in its own way. We really think we’re achieving something. But it’s fraught, because there’s always an underlying fear of loss, and we’re always aware on some level that what we’re doing is meaningful. We have to bring those contradictions into awareness.

The most unhelpful state, paradoxically, can be the realm of the gods, or devas, because the besetting sin of that condition is complacency. When we’re happy, we often think we’ve “made it.” We think we don’t need to practice, because we have the happiness that we think practice is all about. But the gods are not immortal. They all die, and when they do it often isn’t pretty. So it’s especially important that when we’re happily cruising though life we remind ourselves of the reality of old age, sickness, and death. As the Buddha said:

Whatever beings there are, or will be,
They will all go hence, leaving the body behind.
A skillful person, understanding the loss of all,
Should live the spiritual life ardently.

So really we have two tasks: to recognize that we have the capacity for self-awareness, or mindfulness, and to make use of that opportunity in order to find ways to live a meaningful life. If these become strong habits then we’ll find that when we end up in states of suffering (or of extreme joy) we’ll remain mindful of our practice. We’ll remember to be kind to ourselves and each other. We’ll remember that things change. We’ll remember that this life offers us a precious opportunity.

Life is short. Let’s make the most of this opportunity that we’ve been given.

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The Third Noble Truth – the Noble Truth of the end of suffering

photo of standing buddha, with one hand held out in a gesture of fearlessness

The Third Noble Truth comes directly from the Second one: The end of suffering comes with the end of clinging.

As Achaan Chah said, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you’ll have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely . . . you’ll be completely happy.”

You can do this at the macro level, in letting go regarding lights turning green, or payments arriving, or your teenage children giving you a hug. Sure, you’d like things to turn out well, and that’s fine. You take practical steps toward them turning out well, and that’s also fine. But you can simultaneously have a peaceful, accepting attitude about however it turns out.

  1. The Noble Truth of Suffering
  2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  3. The Noble Truth of the End of Suffering
  4. The Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path

And you can let go – practicing non-clinging – most fundamentally at the micro level, with moment to moment experience.

For example, when you observe your experience, you will see that there is always a feeling tone automatically associated with it – a tone of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That tone – called “feeling” in the Pali Canon (distinct from emotions) – usually triggers craving, which is the seed of clinging.

But if you can simply be mindful of the feeling tone without reacting to it – then you can break the chain of suffering!

In the short-term, we can’t do much about the feeling tone. So you’re not trying to change the feeling tone itself. But you are trying to not react to it via one form of clinging or another.

The epitome of non-clinging is equanimity — which is not, according to a teacher, U Pandita, “. . . insensitivity, indifference, or apathy. It is simply nonpreferential. . . . One does not push aside the things one dislikes or grasp at the things one prefers.”

He goes on to say:

“The way to bring about equanimity is wise attention: to be continually mindful from moment to moment, without a break, based on the intention to develop equanimity. . .

In the deepest forms of insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity. . . .

Freedom comes when we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. . . .

In Buddhist practice, we work to expand the range of life experiences in which we are free.”

When we do this, much of what we see is how we fall away from equanimity, from perfect balance, again and again. But seeing that ever more deeply and precisely . . . slowly but surely helps us tip over less often.

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The Second Noble Truth – the Noble Truth of the cause of suffering

The Second Noble Truth describes the principal cause of suffering. It is clinging. . . to anything at all.

The bad news is that we suffer. The good news is that there is a prime cause – clinging – that we can address.

There are lots of words that get at different aspects of clinging. For example, the original Pali word is “tanha,” the root meaning of which is thirst. Here are some related words, and you might like to pause briefly after each one to get a sense of the experience of it: Desire. Attachment. Striving. Wanting. Craving. Grasping. Stuck. Righteous. Positional. Searching. Seeking. Addicted. Obsessed. Needing. Hunger.

  1. The Noble Truth of Suffering
  2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  3. The Noble Truth of the End of Suffering
  4. The Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path

As a general statement, clinging causes suffering by causing it to arise in the first place or to increase further, and by blocking factors that would reduce or end it.

The inherent suffering of clinging
For starters, any moment of clinging – in all of its forms, gross or subtle, and regardless of its objects – inherently contains suffering in two ways.

First, as you’ve probably noticed, the experience of clinging itself – in all of its forms – is unpleasant. It feels contracted, tense, uneasy, and at least a little stressful. And this is true even if what we crave is enjoyable: the craving itself robs the enjoyable experience of some of its savor.

Second, as the Buddha observed, one of the three fundamental characteristics of existence is impermanence. Everything changes. Nothing of mind or matter lasts forever. Every single moment changes instantly into something else.

That’s the absolutely universal nature of outer reality and of inner experience. But what is the nature of the human mind?

The mind evolved to help us survive, and it does so by trying to figure out stable patterns in the world, and in our life, and to develop lasting solutions to life’s problems. As a result, our mind is forever chasing after moments of experience or moments of reality — trying to hold on to them to understand them, to get a grip on them, to control them.

At the most basic, microscopic level, it is the nature of mind to cling. As a strategy for passing on genes, it has worked spectacularly well. But Mother Nature doesn’t care if we suffer; she only cares about grandchildren!

Because, unfortunately, by the time the mind has gotten mobilized to pursue a moment of experience in order to make sense of it and figure out a plan for dealing with it . . . . POOF! It’s gone!! Moment after moment . . .

Truly, we live life at the lip of a waterfall, with reality and experience rushing at us – experienced only and always NOW at the lip – and then, poof, zip, zap, it’s over the edge and gone.

But our mind is forever trying to grab at what has already disappeared over the edge.

As the 8th century sage, Shantideva put it:

Beings, brief, ephemeral,
Who fiercely cling to what is also passing
Will catch no glimpse of happiness
[In this or any life].

Four objects of clinging

In addition to the two ways that suffering is inherent within the very fabric of clinging, the Buddha described how suffering arises from the four main targets of clinging:

  • To sense pleasures – which includes resisting unpleasant experiences
  • To the notion or sense of self
  • To views
  • To routines and rituals

Systematically developing insight into your clinging in terms of these “targets” will really help reduce your suffering. As an extended example, let’s explore the first one.

The suffering of clinging to sense pleasures

First, life inevitably has lots of painful experiences. There is no way around them, no matter how much good fortune we have.Things like death, old age, illness, trips to the dentist, kids leaving home, traffic jams, etc.

Whenever we resist an unpleasant experience – including desiring a better experience – boom! right there our suffering increases. Let’s say you’re in the dentist’s chair: wishing you were somewhere else just makes it worse.

In addition to what is happening in the moment, we resist painful experiences by fearing them before they begin, and by dwelling on them after they have occurred.

Of course, it’s natural to have other preferences when you experience pain. But when you get attached to those preferences, that’s when suffering begins.

Second, desires get awakened for pleasures we cannot or will not get to experience, and that’s frustrating, disappointing, sense-of-futility-creating . . . in short, suffering.

Consider these common examples: success or fame or beauty . . . attractive people to be with . . . fabulous vacations . . . fame . . . promotions . . . hugs from surly teenagers. . . etc.

Shantideva again: “O foolish and afflicted mind, you want, you crave for everything.”

Third, even if we attain them, most pleasures are actually not that great. They’re OK, but . . . Look closely at your experience: is the Oreo cookie really that mind-boggling? Was the vacation that outstanding? Was the satisfaction of the A paper that intense and long-lasting?

Fourth, even if we attain them and they’re actually pretty great, many pleasures cost us much pain. Alcohol and drugs and certain sexual relationships may be good examples here. But also consider the possible “collateral damage” of career ambitions, winning arguments, needing the house to be “just so,” and so on.

If you look closely: what is the cost/benefit ratio — really?

Fifth, even if we attain a pleasure, and it’s actually pretty great, and it doesn’t cost too much – the gold standard – because of impermanence, even the most pleasant experiences inevitably change and end.

For example, one day we will be separated from everyone we love by their death or our own. Ouch: but no way around it. The cookie will be eaten: all gone! as the little kids say. We’ve got to get out of our warm and cozy bed for work. Time to leave the nice hot shower. You turn in the big report and the boss and everyone else sings your praises for a day or two and then it’s over and on to the next thing. The orgasm lasts just a few seconds!

As the Buddha said, everything that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing. Period. No way around it.

Since pleasant facts and experiences will inevitably end, it’s both doomed and painful to grasp after them.

When the heart grasps what is painful, it is like being bitten by a snake. And when, through desire, it grasps what is pleasant, it is just grasping the tail of the snake. It only takes a little while longer for the head of the snake to come around and bite you.

Ajahn Chah, A Still Forest Pool

Enjoy pleasant experiences, yes, as they pass through, as long as (A) you do not cling to them, and (B) your enjoyment does not fan the flames of desire for them – a possible but very challenging thing to do. You really have to be on top of your game for that, with lots of mindfulness.

Pretty grim, huh? But it’s helpful to remember that the point of developing mindfulness of and insight into the causes of suffering is to become free of them – and thus relatively (and perhaps even absolutely) free of suffering itself.

To summarize, for all the reasons we’ve discussed, any experience is incapable of being completely satisfying. We have been looking for happiness, security, and fulfillment in all the wrong places.

So, what’s the right place?

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The first noble truth – the noble truth of suffering

The Four Noble Truths are the most fundamental teaching of the Buddha. Deceptively simple, they actually provide a profound explanation of human unhappiness, both gross and subtle, and how to attain increasingly positive states of mind, from stress relief in daily life to an unshakeable calm happiness and a selflessly compassionate heart.

With regard to the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha has been likened to a physician who diagnoses a condition, explains what causes it and what will end it, and then lays out in detail its cure.

Rick Hanson’s Four Noble Truths Series

  1. The Noble Truth of Suffering
  2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  3. The Noble Truth of the End of Suffering
  4. The Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path

The Noble Truth of Suffering
The first Noble Truth is that life contains inevitable, unavoidable suffering. (Some translators use the word, “stress,” to convey the broad meaning of the original word used by the Buddha in the Pali language: dukkha.)

This suffering encompasses the gross forms of pain, illness, and trauma we can all imagine, such as a broken leg, stomach flu, grappling with the devastation of a hurricane or the violent death of a loved one — or getting the diagnosis of a terminal disease.

It also includes milder but common forms of discomfort and distress, like long hours of work, feeling let down by partner, a headache, feeling frustrated, disappointed, hurt, inadequate, depressed, upset, etc.

And it includes the subtlest qualities of tension in the mind, restlessness, sense of contraction, preoccupation, unease, boredom, blahness, ennui, sense of being an isolated self, something missing in life, something just not fulfilling, etc.

What People Do with the Fact of Suffering
Because suffering is uncomfortable, we may suppress or minimize it in our own lives. And because it is unpleasant – and sometimes guilt-provoking – to see it in others, we sometimes turn away from it there, too.

We also live in a culture that tends to cast a veil over the everyday suffering of poverty, chronic illness, draining work conditions, aging, and dying while – oddly – pushing intense imagery of violence in everything from the evening news to children’s TV. Simultaneously, our media present an endless parade of promises that you can avoid suffering through looking younger, upgrading your internet connection, drinking Bud Lite, getting Viagra, losing 10 pounds, etc.

It can almost make you feel like a failure for suffering!

Personal Reflections
What are some of the kinds of suffering that exist in your life?

Can you accept the fact of your suffering? What gets in the way of doing that?

What happens inside you when you accept the universal truth of suffering, that everyone suffers? In a way, it becomes less personal then, and easier to handle. It’s just suffering. It doesn’t have to be a big deal that we suffer. It’s just what is. It is indeed true that we and everyone else suffers.

You have opened up to a truth . . . a great truth . . . the First Noble Truth.

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Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction

“A mess in process”

One of the indisputable realities about being human is that we all have weaknesses. No one escapes this.

Some of us are able to acknowledge these less attractive aspects without being unduly fazed. Others tend to cultivate strategies to help hide the cracks. Yet others convince themselves that their weaknesses are inherent aberrations, with this view then becoming a rationale for indulging in aberrant behaviour. It is the last of these views that I tend to work with in addiction.

Some of us convince ourselves that we are such a waste of space that really, we should commit ourselves to a life of substance-induced mayhem or simply rid the rest of the world of our miserable presence by killing ourselves. This is true suffering.

The Buddha could well have been the best Alcohol and Drug clinician the world has ever seen. His First Noble Truth states that life involves suffering, discontentment, disgruntlement, disillusionment. He then tells us in his Second Noble Truth that suffering (dukkha) has a cause and that that cause is craving.

Wanting things to be a certain way is suffering because it precludes openness to what is, now, in this moment. Not getting what we want involves suffering because we want it so much. Even getting what we do want involves suffering because then we are fearful of losing it. Also, often we realize it isn’t what we wanted after all and now what are we to do once we have married our heart’s desire and find that the beloved has turned into a cold, and rather clammy, green frog?

The Third Noble Truth states that suffering can cease. If we acknowledge that everything that comes into being must, one day, dissolve, we learn to not clutch onto life with such desperation. If we acknowledge that such grasping is tantamount to grabbing a handful of water or holding onto a rainbow, we may reduce this habit of clinging and free our hearts from suffering.

When we embrace the truth of impermanence and even begin to enjoy the ephemeral, fleeting nature of it, we move from desperado mindset to butterfly mindset. We can say ‘no’ to that contracted, grasping human, clutching our booty, hiding out in an emotional desert. With a meditation practice under our belts, we can begin to loosen and lighten up, psychically alighting gently on a leaf, ready to move to the next honeysuckle. Hence we move from contraction and limitation to expansiveness and new possibilities.

Problems arise when not only do we expect changeable, fleeting processes to stay the same but when we also imagine our painful emotions to be permanent, especially when we are lost in them. But in reality, our emotions are even more fleeting than our thoughts. It is often our attitude to our emotions that cause us the suffering. That is probably why the Christians talk of eternal damnation in hell. When we are in hellish states of mind, even a minute feels like an eternity. When we are in heaven, it goes in a flash.

“The First Truth is Sorrow. Be not mocked!
Life which ye treasure is long drawn out agony:
Its pleasures are as birds which light and fly;
Only its pains abide.”
Sir Edwin Arnold The Light of Asia

Why do we perpetuate this fixed view of ourselves as fundamentally flawed, as a complete failure, as incapable of fitting in with societal mores? If we begin to relate to ourselves as a process, we start letting go of the pain. A friend, when first warming up to this concept, referred to himself as “a mess in process.” This is the beginning of true liberation.

Part of the deconstruction of a habit pattern of the mind is in listening to what Behavioural Therapists call Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATS). These can be deconstructed further to reveal core beliefs we cherish deep in our hearts. Albert Ellis, the founder of RET — Rational Emotive Therapy — exhorts us to DISPUTE such distortions.

For example, we might have the negative thought, “I always screw it up because I am so impulsive!”

Ellis tells us to first of all replace the ‘always’ with “sometimes” so we could pathologize ourselves less by saying:

“I sometimes make mistakes because part of me has a habit pattern of the mind that leaps into things without due consideration.”

Let’s take a good look at the silver lining of our alleged dysfunction. For example: What are the benefits of leaping into life without due consideration? Impulsive people have the novelty seeking gene, which scientists attribute to mutation; people with a deficit of Monoamine oxidase enzyme (MAO) live more dangerously than the more balanced amongst us. Even though it may kill us, humanity benefits from people willing to take risks because they don’t take the time to consider the consequences.

One scientific theory is that, had a bunch of Africans with this mutant gene not gotten into their canoes without a clue where they would end up, we may not have been as global a species as we currently are.

Instead of grabbing our dysfunction to use as a weapon to bludgeon ourselves into self-pity, it can be helpful to ponder the more colourful, even beneficial elements to it. How can you be mad at a gene?

If we contain a kindly and light-hearted view of ourselves as a “mess in process” it means we can begin to feel more confident about ourselves and therefore work to align ourselves more with our values. If we see our profound dysfunction in less black and white terms, we can gradually transform our weaknesses into strengths. This moves us away from the pitiful, over-identified, victim mentality which keeps us, inextricably, stuck in the nasty old Slough of Despond.

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The Fourth Truth: There is a path that leads us away from suffering

Figure standing at the end of a path on a high point overlooking a lake

I used to be confused about why the third truth came before the fourth. And I realize now that if I could not accept or believe that there was an end to suffering, I would not have trudged the path. After all, I would not have known what would be at the end of the path—or if there would even be an end. If somebody had described to me the path that would lead me away from suffering before telling me that there is an end in sight for suffering, I would have most probably had an attack of horrified anxiety. And convinced myself that the life I was living was much more manageable than stepping on to the path that would supposedly lead me away from suffering!

The Four Noble Truths

The path that continues to lead me away from suffering is the threefold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Threefold PathEightfold path
Ethics/VirtueRight Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
MindRight Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
WisdomRight View
Right Intention

Ethics/Virtue

I cannot say how contented I have become, how much simplicity there is in my life, and how much stillness, too, since I have become more ethical. The five Buddhist precepts opened a door in my heart. They gave me tools to begin living my life differently. I remember becoming a mitra (a friend of the spiritual community) in my tradition. During my ceremony, I took on the five spiritual precepts. I knew as I recited them that they had given me a way to purify my heart. I took them on seriously, and recited the positive and negative forms daily for almost 5 years. Since my ordination in 2005 I have recited ten precepts daily. They have been the principals that have trained me to live my life with mindfulness. They are some of the tenets of right speech, right action and right livelihood: These are the five training principals that are universal to all lay Buddhist traditions. Many monastic communities can have as much as a 100 or more.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life. With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given. With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

(The positive and negative precepts appear as cited by Urgyen Sangharakshita.)

Mind

After a week of learning to meditate, I walked out onto the street and thought the whole world was changing. I had “beginner’s mind.” I paused and chuckled to myself as I realized it was I who was changing and that there was no going back. I had a glimpse of seeing things as they actually were. Meditation caused a revolution in my physical, spiritual and emotional self. I began to walk, think and pray differently. The practice of metta, cultivating loving kindness for (a) myself, (b) a friend, (c) someone I do not know, and (d) an enemy, continues to revolutionize my life. People I thought I would never speak to have come back into my life, because this meditation allowed me to forgive my enemies in the fourth stage (d). The fourth stage cultivated compassion in my heart for my enemies. As the hatred melted away, my self-hatred also melted away, and I am a much happier person.

However, after my beginner’s mind began to fizzle, the real work began. I had to apply right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration to develop my meditation practice. I committed myself to the path of transformation. I began TO study, took up a daily meditation practice and went on retreats. In 2005 I effectively went for refuge, hence placing the three jewels at the centre of my life. The ideal of enlightenment (buddha), the teachings of the buddha (dharma) and spiritual community at the centre of my life (sangha.) I had a lay person ordination into the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I was named Vimalasara (she who’;s essence is stainless and pure), took on the Bhodisattva vow, the ten precepts, and a visualization practice. My mind had most definitely changed; no longer were my decisions based solely on my sexuality, skin colour or gender. My decisions more and more are based on my going for refuge to the three jewels.

Wisdom

This part of the path, right view and right intention, brings me back to the fourth truth. I continue to develop my understanding of these truths. The Buddha says everything we experience has three characteristics, which are known as the three marks of conditioned existence. He says all life is (a) unsatisfactory, (b) impermanent, (c) unsubstantial, and nothing is fixed at all. These three marks have impacted my identity. I am not so attached to my female self, black self, or queer self. I used to experience everything through these filters. Hence I was often not open to others who were not female, black or queer. I was often judgmental and reactive. Although they had been part of my raft to help me along my recovery, if I was to continue to grow I had to let go of my fixed identities. They were at the centre of my life, and one could say I went to refuge them to them.

Letting go of identities meant I had to forgive those people who discriminated against me. Let go of those people who tried to label me with black stereotypes such as ‘intimidating, loud, aggressive, chip on my shoulder, athletic etc.’ I continue to learn to have compassion for those people who continue to discriminate against me. Without forgiveness, there is no room for wisdom. We must let go of fixed identities, thoughts and grudges. Integrate self and let go of self. Wisdom stops me from settling for the life I live now, which is much better than what it was 15 years ago. Despite how far I have come, I am committed to further understanding the truth. Training my mind, opening up to the possibility of real insight, letting go of self, practicing forgiveness and cultivating transformation, for me is a life time service.

Since stepping onto the path, the three jewels have become what is at the centre of my life. The majority of my decisions are based on going for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha.

The Path

So I am on a path that leads me away from suffering. But sometimes I fall off, I stumble, and sometimes I choose not to walk it. But I always get back on. Fear can eat away at my faith and keep me off the path. But my faith can also eat away at my fear, and keep me on the path. There is no vacation from the spiritual life—I must strive on. If I reflect on the day I first walked into a Buddhist centre 23 years ago I know there is no alternative to the path. The Buddha made it simple with the eightfold path: live by these principals and we will gain insight and, perhaps even enlightenment.

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The third truth: The cessation of suffering is attainable

Statue of the Buddha walking, with a sunset in the background

Whoa! Really? There’s an end to suffering? An end to our pain? Our inner conflicts? Yes there is.

Sadly some people don’t make it. Some people do not realize there is an end to suffering, and choose to shorten their life, rather than bear the load they have been struggling with on and off for years. They believe letting go of their life will be the end of their suffering. And who am I to say this is not true? What I do believe is it can’t be the answer to inner peace.

The Four Noble Truths

By the time I was 12 I had tried to take my own life, and again at 18. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know there was a way out of my misery. I thought I couldn’t cope. I knew it was an option as I had known friends in my life who had facilitated their own exit out of life. Fortunately my sincere attempts failed. My stomach pumped, laying alone in a hospital bed, I glimpsed that there had to be another way. I found it through traveling, getting away from my life, and I have to admit my time traveling with my best friend aged 19 was one of the happiest times I had in my teenage years. I was happy every day for eight months. Every other traveler I met was happy and if we weren’t we just moved on to the next place. But I had to come home and face my true inner self.

Traveling opened me up to the rest of the world. I witnessed suffering everywhere I went. I was touched by a Palestinian who told me his story, and in the middle of it he knelt down to pray. He asked me to tell his story. Perhaps it’s why I became a journalist, telling many people’s stories. As a journalist I realized I was not alone in my suffering, but still I could not see an end to it.

Simple life experiences continue to teach me to accept the fact that the cessation of suffering is attainable. A few years ago I experienced excruciating tooth pain for a week. I had become tight around my pain. I panicked, went into horrified anxiety, and began swallowing painkillers like candies. During that time, a new root canal was put in, an old root canal was dug out, and an abscess flared. My face was swollen, and it hurt even to talk. I wanted to get rid of the pain and I wanted to control it, but when I came to my third day on painkillers, I realized they were doing nothing to curb my pain. I threw out the drugs and observed my pain. Sometimes it was intense, and sometimes it was calm, but what I have to admit is that the pain became more intense when I resisted it. I was creating mental suffering.

The cessation of the mental suffering was most definitely attainable. But what about the physical suffering? I have to admit I still suffered with pain, but the pain did not stay the same throughout the week when I relaxed into it without panic or fear.

I had to surrender to the pain, and when I realized that, the physical pain became manageable. I lived with the same amount of pain, but without pain killers, and I witnessed how my pain changed. How at times it throbbed, at times it just ached, and at other times it thumped throughout my jaw, my gums and my head. My life became bigger again, for it was not just focused on my tooth pain; there was a lot more going on in my physical body and my life. My fear and panic narrowed my life. All I could think of was my tooth pain, and nothing else.

My tooth made me realize that my mental pain was causing my suffering. My physical pain was just sensation that was always changing, arising and ceasing. My mind created a suffering that made my pain feel torturous. I realized that mental suffering can cease.

In my youth I had created mental suffering that lingered for years. I had sentenced myself with self hatred, and had also sentenced my biological mother and all my other abusers with hatred. This inevitably caused me great suffering. I hated my biological mother and abusers with a vengeance for all the things they had done to me. I hated myself, and I began rejecting myself through an eating disorder. I had created my suffering that lasted many years. I had become a victim of my own mind. I used to be proud of being a survivor of physical and sexual abuse. But I soon realized as a survivor I was only surviving through the skin of my teeth. I was lucky not to have been dead, from the extreme anorexia and bulimia I had imposed on myself. I knew I had to start living. The third truth taught me that if I was to accept there is an end to suffering, I had to be compassionate towards myself. Self compassion allowed me to begin letting go of my self imposed mental suffering.

I realized through letting go of the suffering, that there was a clear distinction between physical and mental pain. It had all seemed the same. I learned that I could experience physical sensation without the self imposed mental suffering. But once I had created mental suffering, there was always going to be some kind of physical sensation. I have learned that I cannot be free of physical sensation, from the minute to the extreme, but I can be free of the mental suffering that adds to the pain.

It is not the physical pain that makes us angry. We make the physical pain angry. Our mental conditioning punishes us and makes life a trial rather than a journey of equanimity. If we can let go of our fears, we can cultivate faith. There is hope, and there is an end to suffering! If we let go of mental suffering we will begin to experience the beauty of inner peace.

When a negative mental state arises, that puts us down, criticizes us, judges us, or undermines us, just breathe and say: ‘Let it go, let it go”.

Or when any of the above arises, we could pause and say: ‘This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. This is a moment to be kind to myself. May I give myself the compassion I need?’

When you are feeling calm take some time in your day to reflect on impermanence. Impermanence is all around us if we open our eyes to it. If we are deeply honest with ourselves we will accept everything changes and that includes our mental suffering. We will see that it is possible to detach from the past, and let go of grasping for the future. Being in the present moment will bring about an end of suffering.

If all else fails – get down on your knees and pray. Call out to whatever your God of understanding is and ask for help. In these moments true insight can arise.

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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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