Siddhartha sought out gurus and became a star disciple, yet did not find the answer to the question of “Why is there suffering?” After six years and two gurus he took to subjecting himself to extreme deprivations of food and shelter to attain spiritual enlightenment, and yet he was no closer to finding his answers. Finally, realizing he was stuck and starving himself, he accepted a bowl of rice from a young girl and then bathed in the river. He then meditated for six days underneath a Bodhi tree and finally awakened to the simple understanding that the answer he sought actually resided within his initial desire. That suffering is a product of wanting or attachment in all its forms. In that moment, Siddhartha recognized Four Noble Truths and became the Buddha (the Awakened One).
The Buddha as a Physician
The First Noble Truth, like in the practice of Medicine acknowledges the chief complaint or main problem - it states that “all life and existence includes suffering or being unsatisfied.” On the surface, this universal truth may seem obvious, but its power lies within its act of humility in accepting the truth. For things to get better one must acknowledge the problem first. With acceptance of the problem one can now ask, “Why is their suffering?” Naturally, like all creatures, humans try to avoid pain, but can mental pain serve as an opportunity? If so, what is it? To answer these questions we must first raise our awareness of common destructive ways of dealing with pain.
We may comfort pain with food, substance abuse, escapism, wishful thinking, pleasure seeking, etc. Covered up and ignored, the pain becomes another fossilized layer in our archaeological biography. Our emotions and their negative triggers become solidified and trapped. Locking us into unhealthy predictable future responses to dissatisfaction and pain. Automated and unconscious, our mental state becomes governed in a Pavlovian manner. The opportunity - the gift of deeper understanding fades into extinction, lost to the whims of distraction and our looking outward for happiness. Being present, looking inward and acknowledging our pain is the first step to the gift of a more deeper understanding, authentic existence and eventual freedom.
“You only lose what you cling to.”
Acceptance of The First Noble Truth naturally leads us to The Second Noble Truth by asking, “Why do we suffer? ” In his moment of clarity, the Buddha diagnosed that suffering originates from wanting or attachment to greed, desire, delusion, ignorance, destructive urges, hatred, etc. At the root of this is a source known as the “Self” or “I.” Many refer to this as ego with it’s natural tendencies for wants, desires, regrets, worries, fears, etc. The ego is about being better, special, in control and serving its own self interest. It is unaware of itself. Ego is part of who we are and serves a purpose, but unchecked it becomes an unconscious source of endless wanting and dissatisfaction. There is never enough money, power, fame, recognition, reassurance or longevity to keep it satisfied. Shakespeare summed up an ego driven life nicely, “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that frets and struts his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
We see this character when it performs acts of hatred, greed, attention seeking, self-delusion, selfishness and ignorance. All of these behaviors and mindsets distract us from what truly makes us happy and gives us health. Being aware of ego and its shape shifting forms awakens us to freedom and healing. We suffer because we are conditionally unconscious that ego is always scheming and wanting. It runs our life. It is never satisfied.
“Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.”
– Jack Kornfield
When we observe this tragic Shakespearean character, we are naturally repulsed from existing as a cliche’ of drama and entanglements. So how does one end the foolish buffoonery? The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth is about celebrating the cure for suffering. There is a way to put an end to the nonsense by unchaining ourselves from attachment-no matter what form it takes. Detaching ourselves from thoughts and acts of unhealthy wanting or desire are profoundly empowering. Wanting means chasing something for a future benefit. Freedom of want or regret leaves us with only one place to reside which is the present moment - this is the most natural locale for us to be. It’s the only place we can live our lives from. Yet, for most it is fleeting.
Our thoughts are like a tennis ball volleying back and fourth between the courts of past and future. The present is represented by the mid-court net. Our thoughts spend only a fraction of a second at the net before crossing forward or backward to some future worry or past regret. Yet, it is in the present where we become focused, create, take action, contribute to the world, connect with others, love, identify ourselves, show respect, experience value, gain new perspective, grow, see new possibilities and much more. We are skimming across the surface of the most meaningful and compelling place of our existence in the pursuit of ghosts and zombies - we are literally the living dead when preoccupied with nostalgia or sentimentalism. Even when there are moments of happiness and joy, they often prematurely slip into the past. Instead of embracing and savoring them in the present moment, the human mind compares them to past events that were “more” joyous. The stronger the clinging, the greater the dissatisfaction.
Our thoughts can bounce back and fourth so fast that we miss out on the beauty, joy and opportunity flowing right in front of us. Only by being still in the present can we tap into and express to the world the immense reservoir of possibilities and potential energy lying within us. The Third Noble Truth tells us that our minds can balance the ball skillfully on the center court net and free ourselves from regret and worry. This visualization creates stillness and a sense of fulfillment - close your eyes, take a deep breath and give it a try now before reading further and observe what you experience.
Many report an expansive feeling of fullness or calmness. Time loses meaning. There is no want or regret…just a focusing on keeping the ball balanced on the net. When a thought tries to enter your mind, notice how the ball begins to slip to future or past. The thought, however is quickly terminated so as to recenter the ball. This cessation of thought has been described as Nirvana which means to “extinguish.” This mental state creates a demeanor of naturally relaxed energy that is readily perceived by others. It makes us more receptive. In this state we are no longer abusing or being abused by our mind. We are aware without thinking and choose to think when appropriate - we skillfully apply thinking as a tool when needed. It is in this state of mastery that our potential is realized. We are now the thermostat that controls the climate of our reality. This in turn helps others to be more comfortable and experience a mindset that is curious, receptive, relaxed and in sync with ours. Now that wavelengths are dialed in, clear authentic connection may occur and give rise to a wellspring of contribution, value, creativity, wholeness and new possibilities. Conversations naturally take on deeper meaning versus small talk. This transforms not only ourselves but our relationships, community, nation and world. This is not a nebulous concept. It’s proven track record is echoed by the names Gandhi, King, Mandela and many others. By remaining detached from violence, revenge, greed and hatred peoples and nations were peacefully liberated from oppression and tyranny. Each of us has the responsibility and opportunity to liberate ourselves from a life of quiet desperation if we concentrate on the present.
With The Fourth Noble Truth the Buddha actually prescribes the cure for suffering in the Eight-fold Path. Interestingly, this strategy resonates with many of the major faiths and tribal belief structures globally. The Buddha’s teachings are not consider a religion but simply a practice that can be adopted independently or integrated with other beliefs.