dukkha (suffering)

Let Go

The Butterfly in your handsWhat Are You Holding Onto?

I’ve done a lot of rock climbing, so I know firsthand the importance sometimes of not letting go! This applies to other things as well: keeping hold of a child’s hand while crossing the street, staying true to your ethics in a tricky situation, or sustaining attention to your breath while meditating.

On the other hand, think of all the stuff – both physical and nonphysical – we cling to that creates problems for us and others: clutter in the home, “shoulds,” rigid opinions, resentments, regrets, status, guilt, resistance to the facts on the ground, needing to be one-up with others, the past, people who are gone, bad habits, hopeless guests, unrewarding relationships, and so on.

Letting go can mean several things: releasing pain; dropping thoughts, words, and deeds that cause suffering and harm; yielding rather than breaking; surrendering to the way it is, like it or not; allowing each moment to pass away without trying to hold on to it; accepting the permanently impermanent nature of existence; and relaxing the sense of self and opening out into the wider world.

Living in this way is relaxing, decreases hassles and conflicts, reduces stress, improves mood and well-being, and grounds you in reality as it is. And it’s a key element, if you like, of spiritual practice. To quote Ajahn Chah, a major Buddhist teacher who lived in Thailand:

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.

Appreciate the wisdom of letting go, and notice any resistance to it: perhaps it seems weak to you, foolish, or against the culture of your gender or personal background. For example, I remember talking with my friend John years ago about a woman he’d been pursuing who’d made it clear she wasn’t interested, and he felt frustrated and hurt. I said maybe he should surrender and move on – to which John replied fiercely, “I don’t do surrender.” It took him a while to get past his belief that surrender – acceptance, letting go – meant you were wimping out. (All ended happily with us getting drunk together and him throwing up on my shoe – which I then had to surrender to!) It takes strength to let go, and fortitude, character, and insight. When you let go, you’re like a supple and resilient willow tree that bends before the storm, still here in the morning – rather than a stiff oak that ends up broken and toppled over.

Be aware of the letting go that happens naturally all day long such as, releasing objects from your hands, hanging up the phone, pushing send on an e-mail, moving from one thought or feeling to another in your mind, saying bye to a friend, shifting plans, using the bathroom, changing a TV channel, or emptying the trash. Notice that letting go is all right, that you keep on going, that it’s necessary and beneficial. Become more comfortable with letting go.

Consciously let go of tension in your body. Exhale long and slowly, activating the relaxing parasympathetic nervous system. Let go of holding in your belly, shoulders, jaws, and eyes.

Clear out possessions you don’t use or need. Let in how great it feels to finally have some room in your closet, drawers, or garage.

Pick a dumb idea you’ve held on to way too long – one for me would be that I have to do things perfectly or there’ll be a disaster. Practice dropping this idea and replacing it with better ones (like for me: “Nobody is perfect and that’s okay”).

Pick a grievance, grudge, or resentment – and resolve to move on. This does not necessarily mean letting other people off the moral hook, just that you are letting yourself off the hot plate of staying upset about whatever happened. If feelings such as hurt still come up about the issue, be aware of them, be kind to yourself about them, and then gently encourage them out the door.

Letting go of painful emotions is a big subject, with lots of resources for you in books such as Focusing, by Eugene Gendlin, or What We May Be, by Piero Ferrucci. Here’s a summary of methods I like: relax your body; imagine that the feelings are flowing out of you like water; vent in a letter you’ll never send, or out loud someplace appropriate; get things off your chest with a good friend; take in positive feelings to soothe and gradually replace the painful ones.

In general, let things be pleasant without grasping after them; let things be unpleasant without resisting them; let things be neutral without prodding them to get pleasant. Letting go undoes the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm.

Let go of who you used to be. Let yourself learn, grow, and therefore change.

Let go of each moment as it disappears beneath your feet. It’s gone as soon as you’re aware of it, like a snowflake melting as soon as you see its shape. You can afford to abide as letting go because of the miracle – which no scientist fully understands – that the next moment continually emerges as the previous one vanishes, all within the infinitely tiny duration of Now.

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Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared

Self-compassion is the most radically transformative practice that I’ve stumbled upon in more than 30 years of exploring Buddhism. It’s helped me to cope with many difficulties I’ve faced, ranging from the mundane challenge of a child’s tantrum, to financial problems and even serious illness. It’s helped me to become kinder and more compassionate not just to myself but also to others. In fact I don’t know of any other practice that’s changed me so much. I’d describe self-compassion as “lovingkindness squared.”

Self-compassion is simply treating yourself kindly, responding to your own pain with compassion in the same way you’d respond to the pain of someone you care about. “Self-compassion” is a bit of a misnomer; we give compassion not to ourselves as a whole, but to any part of us that’s suffering.

I’d like to outline five steps that are involved in practicing self-compassion.

1. Drop the Story

The mind generates stories around our suffering. These may be stories in which we blame others, or tell ourselves that the discomfort we’re experiencing is unbearable or shouldn’t be happening. They may be stories of revenge, or stories that we are bad, or worthless, or are doomed to suffer. They may be stories about ways we can numb or escape the pain.

These stories themselves cause us further pain, and so as we notice them arising it’s wise to disentangle ourselves from them, just letting the words echo away into the mind.

See also:

Our stories are what the Buddha called, in a famous analogy, “the second arrow.” He pointed out that we’re all subject to discomfort and pain, whether it’s having our feelings hurt or having a toothache or experiencing loss. This is the “first arrow,” which arrives unexpectedly. This kind of suffering is inevitable. But our response to being hit by this arrow is often, the Buddha said, to indulge in the kinds of thoughts I described above, which he summarized as “sorrow, grief, and lamentation.” It’s these responses—our second arrows—that cause most of our suffering. Each thought like, “This is terrible!” or, “Why is this happening to me!” is a self-inflicted stab with the second arrow.

It can take a lot of practice to become mindful enough to stop these stories from arising, or even to catch them in the early stages. For a long time it may be that the first time we notice that something is up is when we’re in the middle of a reaction, having already created a full-blown inner (or outer) drama. So the first thing we do is to recognize that through our stories we’re creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves, so that we can drop the story line and become mindfully aware of the first arrow.

2. Recognize That Pain is Present

In order to practice self-compassion we have to notice that we’re in pain. But this may not be easy, because we have unhelpful habits such as taking our own suffering for granted, or denying our pain—perhaps seeing it as a sign of weakness—or just failing to notice it because pain is so common in our lives. We also may be so quick to jump to emotional reactions and stories—attempts to protect ourselves against suffering—that we don’t really acknowledge the suffering.

But whenever we’re frustrated, or angry, or lonely, or anxious, or longing, or when our feelings are hurt, we’re suffering. Every sub-optimal state we experience is a form of suffering. It’s important that we recognize this pain, otherwise we can’t practice self-compassion.

Let’s take an example: a friend saying something that hurts our feelings. First we hear the words and interpret them as an insult, even though they may not have been intended that way. Then the brain flags up the comment as something potentially harmful to you by creating a sensation of pain in the body, probably in the solar plexus. This is the mind’s way of saying “Here’s a threat! Pay attention to it!”

Another common place for painful feelings to arise is around the heart. The heart and gut are areas of the body rich in nerve clusters, and the brain generates sensations in those places as a way of catching our attention and provoking us to action. Sometimes feelings of hurt can be so strong it’s like we’ve been punched in the gut. No wonder we react strongly.

One fascinating thing that’s recently been found is that feelings such as the ache of isolation become less intense when we take pain-killers such as Tylenol. What we think of as “emotional” pain is just a special form of physical pain, induced in the body by the mind.

The kinds of internal sensations I’ve been discussing are what Buddhism calls vedanas. Vedana is a technical term referring to the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations that are generated to accompany every perception we have.

The mental processing that leads to the arising of these feelings takes place in parts of the brain that aren’t accessible to conscious awareness. We can’t, for example, choose not to be hurt. We do, however, have some ability to chose how to respond to the perception of hurt.

3. Turn Toward the Pain

We can choose to respond to pain with acceptance. In practicing self-compassion, it’s important that we learn to accept our pain—that we allow it just to be there, without having aversion toward it. To respond skillfully to suffering we have to be prepared to turn toward it.

Taking a mindful approach to our pain means recognizing that it’s OK to experience suffering, and even to take an interest in it. It’s especially helpful to notice, as precisely as we can, where the pain is located in the body, and to observe its size and texture, and how it changes from moment to moment.

Accepting our pain in this way means that we’re no longer stabbing ourselves with the second arrow—no longer creating stories that intensify and prolong our suffering. Instead, we’re simply mindful of the first arrow. If we find that the stories start to creep in again, and that thoughts are arising, we keep letting go of them, just as we do when we’re meditating.

The Buddha pointed out that another way we turn away from pain is to pursue pleasure. Often we’ll do that through numbing ourselves with food, or alcohol, or busyness, or television. We may not actually get much pleasure from these activities—it’s the pursuit of pleasure that’s the distraction. As long as we’re leaning into the future, seeking pleasure, we’re no longer being with the pain of the present moment. So, just as we need to drop our stories, we need also to drop our avoidance. The most effective way to deal with discomfort is to turn toward it.

It can be hard to turn toward pain in this way. In evolutionary terms, pain evolved as a protective mechanism. The whole point of pain is to alert us to the fact that something is wrong, so that we can escape the painful situation. The way I think about turning toward our pain is this: imagine that a friend has turned up on your doorstep in a state of distress. What do you do? Well, hopefully you won’t respond with aversion, trying to get rid of the discomfort by slamming the door and running into the house. Ideally, you’d invite your friend in, sit them down, and take a kindly and compassionate interest in what’s going on with them.

Sometimes it can be useful to say, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this,” just to remind ourselves to stay with our discomfort.

Being mindful of our feelings in this way creates what we call “the gap.” This is a pause—I think of it as a sacred pause—in which we can choose not to let our normal reactions kick in. Instead, we create an opportunity for compassion to arise.

4. Give Your Pain Compassionate Attention

Having accepted a painful feeling mindfully, the next stage is to give it your compassionate attention. This means treating your pain with the same gentleness and kindness with which you would treat a friend who is suffering. Sometimes I think of my pain as a small, wounded part of me that is in need of love and comfort—like a small animal.

To relate to your pain compassionately, regard it with love. Look at it with your inward awareness in the same way that you would look at a child that is in pain, offering it comfort, reassurance, and the knowledge that it isn’t alone. Remember that your pain is not an enemy. It’s a part of you that’s suffering, and that needs your support.

Wish your pain it well. Talk to it. Soothe it. You can use the same phrases you would use in lovingkindness or compassion meditation, saying things like, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.” But sometimes those words can seem hackneyed, so I’m more likely to say something like, “I know you’re in pain, but I’m here for you,” or “I love you, and I want you to be happy.” With intense suffering I’ll sometimes resort to the deep trust expressed by St. Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

You can also lay a hand compassionately on the part of your body where your emotional pain is manifesting most strongly. This is usually the heart or gut.

5. Respond Appropriately

As you become more skilled at recognizing and accepting your pain, and with responding to it compassionately, you’ll find that it’s easier to respond in an appropriate way to situations that give rise to pain in the first place.

There are no rules for how to respond. It depends on the situation, on your skills in communication, etc. But when you’re mindful of your pain and cultivate compassion toward it, you’ll discover you have more creativity at your disposal than you’d imagined possible. You’ll probably find that having responded with empathy and compassion toward yourself, you’ll quite spontaneously behave the same way toward others.

These five steps can be worked through very quickly. I’ve run through them while driving at 65 miles per hour on a highway: Someone cuts me off, I start up with an angry storyline “Idiot! How dare you!” I realize that this is causing me to suffer, drop the story, notice the pain that (it’s usually fear, located in the solar plexus), accept it, and then send it some compassionate thoughts (“May you be well; may you be free from suffering”). And my having done that, the anger vanishes and I find that I’m not only compassionate toward myself, but to the other driver as well. This may take just a few seconds.

I’ve found it useful as well when I’m stressed. For example while I’m cooking and being bombarded with demands from my children. I’ll notice a knot of tension building up in my gut, give it a moment’s compassionate intention, and find that the desire to snap at the kids has gone. It works for sadness, depression, and anxiety. Self-compassion is the Swiss Army Knife of spiritual techniques.

One myth I’d like to dispel is that if you’re reacting to a situation, it’s too late to find the gap. The pain of the first arrow doesn’t disappear just because you’ve started reacting to it! Every time you let go of your stories and drop your awareness down into the body so that you can notice your initial feelings of hurt, fear, etc., you are bringing the gap into being, and with it the freedom to respond creatively.

It’s only through treating my pain compassionately that I’ve realized the extent to which the way we treat ourselves is related to the way we treat others. Once we are able to respond to our own pain with compassion, we find that compassion for others flows freely. It’s lovingkindness squared.

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How to love: Legendary Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on mastering the art of “interbeing”

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings: “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”

What does love mean, exactly? We have applied to it our finest definitions; we have examined its psychology and outlined it in philosophical frameworks; we have even devised a mathematical formula for attaining it. And yet anyone who has ever taken this wholehearted leap of faith knows that love remains a mystery — perhaps the mystery of the human experience.

Learning to meet this mystery with the full realness of our being — to show up for …

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Pain entered my life unannounced — now, I manage chronic pain with mindfulness

Vidyamala Burch, Huffington Post: I am on more than nodding terms with chronic pain. I was 16 in 1976 when pain came into my life and basically took it over. Before the pain, I was a fit, sporty, young woman — I loved to be outside hiking in the awe-inspiring New Zealand hills. Being active, moving without having to think about it, and enjoying what my body could do were absolutely fundamentals in my life. Like most people, I took these things totally for granted.

My …

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Meditation master Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn breaks down the Jedi mind trick

wildmind meditation news

Leslie Anne Frye, Fusion: Meditation has gone mainstream and is no longer the exclusive practice of yogis, peace-loving hippies or Jedis. Univision’s Enrique Acevedo caught up with world-renowned scientist, writer and meditation teacher, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to discuss the ancient tradition.

In fact, Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness mediation technique is being implemented in classrooms and board rooms across the country as well as in medicine, the U.S. military, legal and social justice domains. What’s the big deal about mindful meditation? According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, “greed, hatred and delusion lead to tremendous suffering. We’re capable of actually holding our own impulses to acquire in such a way that we actually begin to think about the larger field of benefit of the planet, of all beings.”

Dr. Kabat-Zinn strongly believes that mindfulness meditation “is for every single person who is breathing, as long as you’re breathing you can practice.” No one’s saying that you’ll master the Jedi mind trick overnight, but the simple practice of taking some minutes from your day to be aware and meditate can yield a lot of well-being for yourself and those around you.

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“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” — St. Julian of Norwich

This was revealed to St. Julian by Jesus in a vision, and recorded by her in her Revelations of Divine Love: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” These words have been of great comfort to me in times of stress and anxiety.

Meditation practice can reduce, but doesn’t erase, anxiety. In fact meditating makes us more sensitive to what’s going on within us, both emotionally and physically. When we meditate we feel more. Meditating can also lead to us being more present with those feelings, so rather than than avoid or bury them we experience them full-on. In these ways, meditation can cause our anxiety to be stronger!

If this sounds like bad news, it should be balanced by the fact that meditation also gives us the ability to stand back from our anxiety and to befriend it, so that it becomes less threatening and is less likely to lead to worry.

(What’s the difference between anxiety and worry? I see anxiety as being an initial unpleasant feeling in the body, produced by parts of the brain that are not accessible to conscious awareness. Worry, on the other hand, is where the mind responds to this initial unpleasant feeling with a succession of “what if” thoughts, that again and again turn toward what we’re anxious about, and in doing so intensify our anxiety.)

Also see:

Sometimes I can be with my anxiety mindfully. I can accept it. I can recognize that I don’t have to turn it into worry. And to prevent my mind getting caught up in worrying thoughts, I can keep myself grounded in my experience of the body. I can especially be aware of sensations low down in the body, like the movements of the belly or sensations of contact with the ground, my seat, or whatever else is physically supporting me. I can relax the physical tension that accompanies anxiety and worry by really letting go on the out-breath. I can offer my anxiety (or the anxious part of my mind) reassurance and kindness. I can say to it, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at peace.” The point here is not to make the anxiety go away, but to be a compassionate presence for it while it’s in existence.

But there are times when I turn to those words of St. Julian (or of Jesus, depending on your perspective).

One thing they remind me of is that all things pass. I’ve had intense worries in the past. I remember one time being in utter despair because of financial problems (although really those fears were more to do with concern that I wouldn’t get support from others). I even had some suicidal thoughts, although I knew I had no intention of following through on them. But where are those particular financial problems now? The debt I was struggling with at that time has just gone. (I may have new debts, but they are new, and not a continuation of the same problem I had before.) Where is the isolation that I feared before? That’s gone too. Where is the anxiety I experienced in the past? It’s no more than a memory, and not even a very vivid one. I can recall feeling despair, but in recollecting it I feel compassion for my old self rather than falling into despondent once again. The past is gone. Memories are just thoughts. They’re like dreams or mirages.

So even though there are things going on in my life right now that prompt anxiety to arise — health concerns, housing concerns, financial concerns — I know that from the perspective of my future self they too are going to have a dream-like or mirage-like quality. And so I can remind myself, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian had been concerned with the question of sin: why did God allow it, since if he hadn’t then all would have been well from the beginning. The reason is to do with sin, pain, and faith. Sin, she tells us, is another kind of mirage: “I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being.” She did believe that the experience of pain was real, however, even if it was impermanent. “Nor could sin be known but by the pain it is cause of. And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time.”

The value of pain, in Julian’s view, was that it could cause faith to arise. It causes us to reach out to God. Had we not had sin, and therefore not had pain, then we would, in some sense, have been god-like. And so God allowed sin.

Buddhism doesn’t use the word “sin,” but it does say that our pain is caused by spiritual ignorance. And one key manifestation of this ignorance is that we see things that “hath no manner of substance” as being real and substantial. And as in Julian’s view, it is pain (dukkha) that impels us to seek happiness and peace — that drives us toward awakening.

Julian’s view of “sin” was quite remarkable, and it would be misleading not to point out her belief that because God allowed sin to exist, he therefore shows no blame to any who shall be saved. We don’t, after all, choose to have spiritual ignorance, or to be born with sin.

To Julian, “all shall be well” because we’ll find God in heaven. To me, “all shall be well” not just because pain will pass, but because we’ll awaken to the nature of reality, and will see that pain itself (such as the pain of anxiety) “hath no manner of substance.”

Anxiety isn’t just dream-like or mirage-like when we look back on it from the future. It has those illusory qualities right now, whether we see that or not. Right now, when we look closely at our anxiety, we’ll see that it’s not really there. It’s just patterns of sensation in space. When we can see our experience in that way, then “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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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 third arrow

Three darts in a dart board

The first arrow: Think of a time someone said something hurtful to you, and let’s try to break down what happened. A comment was made, and you probably experienced actual physical pain, most likely in the solar plexus or heart. (When the hurt is particularly strong, we sometimes say it feels like we’ve been punched in the gut, don’t we?)

What went on was that some fast-acting part of your brain believed you were being criticized or marginalized, and so identified the comment as a threat to your well-being. That part of your brain then attempted to alert the rest of the mind to this threat by sending signals to pain receptors in the body. This all happens in a fraction of a second, and automatically. You don’t “decide” to feel hurt.

This kind of hurt is an example of what, in a well-known teaching, the Buddha called “the first arrow.” We can try not to get shot by arrows, but emotional pain like we’ve been discussing, along with purely physical pain — as when we’re sick or injured — is unavoidable. Even the Buddha experienced physical and emotional discomfort.

See also:

The second arrow: The existence of a first arrow of course implies a second! The Buddha explained the “second arrow” as the way that the mind reacts to physical or emotional discomfort in ways that create even more pain. We do this by things like indulging in self-pity, thinking about how unfair it is that we got hurt, blaming ourselves, being critical of the other person, or rehashing the hurtful event over and over again, thinking about how we could have handled things differently. The mind compulsively returns to the painful event we’ve experienced, and every time we do so we cause ourselves yet more pain, because in remembering the hurt, we re-experience it. So as the Buddha said, this is like someone being hit by an arrow, and then reacting in a way that causes a second arrow to be unleashed. You probably did something like this after hearing the hurtful comment.

So there are these two arrows — two forms of pain.

The third arrow: But wait, there’s more! In the teaching of the two arrows, the Buddha talked about a third kind of pain: pain that’s deferred because of clinging to pleasure. This is less often talked about, perhaps because he didn’t offer a colorful image to illustrate it. I call this third form of pain the “third arrow,” and I’m going to supply the missing simile.

The Buddha gave a detailed explanation of how the third arrow works. He pointed out that when someone experiences the first arrow of unavoidable pain, he or she can feel resistance to the pain, and then “seek delight in sensual pleasure.” This is because, not having learned to work with the mind, the person “does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure.” When we act this way we create a pattern of avoidance and denial that leads to yet further pain in the future.

This third arrow is an important teaching regarding addictive behaviors. Who among us is not afflicted with compulsiveness? Drinking alcohol, eating “comfort food,” watching TV, endlessly reading posts on social media sites, browsing the web, checking our phones for new messages — these are all ways of getting hits of dopamine, a neurotransmitter central to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. And each of these activities is an escape from a painful feeling that in all likelihood we barely acknowledged.

The “third arrow” of deferred suffering is like when a person has been hit by an arrow and sees yet another one coming, but chooses to ignore it. Pretending nothing’s wrong, he or she indulges in activities like eating, drinking, shopping, watching TV, and checking Facebook. It’s not that any of these things is necessarily very pleasurable in itself, by the way. The “pleasure” we feel is often more like the comfortable numbness of compulsive activity.

Of course we can ignore our pain for a while, but we can’t distract ourselves indefinitely. Eventually that airborne dart — the “third arrow” that we’ve been ignoring — finds its target.

Avoiding the third arrow

If we understand, as the Buddha put it, the “origin and passing away” of a painful feeling (the first arrow), then we can relate to it differently. We know it’s not permanent. We know that it will pass. We can simply experience it without aversion. And in the open space of mindfulness that we’ve created, a painful feeling arises and then passes away.

A recent study showed that painful feelings like shame, fear, and humiliation pass in mere minutes. The less we react with the second arrow of mental self-torment, the quicker painful feelings dissipate. Even if they last longer (the same study showed that sadness can be remarkably persistent), if we don’t respond with the third arrow of denial and distraction, we won’t simply be deferring the pain to some future time.

Putting this into practice

I can pretty much guarantee that within the next half hour you’re going to encounter some kind of dissatisfaction (boredom, hurt, confusion, frustration, etc.) and them immediately be tempted to pursue the next dopamine hit by indulging in some kind of escape activity.

See if you can be alert instead. See if you can stay with the discomfort. Tell yourself it’s OK to have this painful feeling. Recognize that it’s impermanent and that it’ll dissipate as we observe it mindfully. Stay with it long enough for it to dissolve. And when it does, the “third arrow” of deferred suffering will dissolve too, mid-flight.

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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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