How can something so beautiful be tinged with such sorrow?
Earlier this week, a woman I sat with shared her visceral experience of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, though she didn’t begin by feeling very noble. For the first time, she was admitting out loud to another person — and therefore, to herself — that there has never been a time in her life that was truly happy. “I don’t mean that there haven’t been moments of satisfaction. I don’t mean that good things don’t happen.” she explained, “But I’ve never been really happy.”
By “happy,” my friend wasn’t referring to one of our modern-day euphemisms for “almost happy” like “well-being.” She also didn’t mean passing moments of euphoria that can be manipulated or bought. What she is longing for is an experience of being awake and aware and glad to be that way. To be able to appreciate her considerable professional success instead of immediately overtaken by the drive to the next milestone. To enjoy her delightful child without the constant sadness about the kind of world her little one has been born into, without the dread of eventual separation when that child leaves home. Not to mention the barely-acknowledged grief of her own painful childhood that has been rubbed raw by the experience of mothering. “I feel like I’ve been in a fog for 30 years.”
Grief over the realization of the degree of her suffering was painful enough, but there was an extra layer to it. There was a sense of shame, a feeling of failure. In our (US/western) culture, we are taught that we are good at being human to the degree that we can make life go our way. It sounds insane when we state it aloud like this. We know intellectually that no one gets to have everything their way; but as I explored in an earlier discussion of our basic human misperceptions, the difference between what we know intellectually and what we perceive can be tremendous. And the gap between how we think something should be and how it actually is becomes the measure of our suffering over it.
At the end of our time together that day, the world’s problems weren’t solved, and this successful mom still has plenty of trauma stored in her body. The trauma we’ll still need to process before her “inner child” will feel as cared for and free to be as her “outer” child already does. Yet she actually felt better after admitting that unhappiness was a constant companion.
By engaging her increasing awareness honestly, and being willing to explore out loud, my friend on the Path learned that unhappiness is not a personal failure. She discovered that even people without significant childhood trauma deal with stress, dissatisfaction, and sorrow if they’re honest with themselves. She learned she wasn’t broken: She was just awakening to the First Noble Truth.
This Noble Truth as taught by the Buddha is not that everything in this existence is suffering (a common misunderstanding) but that suffering is present in all aspects of life. The Pali language word frequently translated as suffering, dukkha, may make sense to you as suffering; or it may make more sense to you in its other translations — stressful, painful, or as Christian author M. Scott Peck said, difficult.
My friend felt relief upon hearing that a fully enlightened human being had admitted that birth is stressful, aging and sickness are stressful, being separated from what we like is stressful, having to deal with what we don’t like is stressful, and death is stressful. In other words; beginnings, middles, and ends are stressful at best, painful at worst. What part of life does that leave out, even for the most “successful” person?
People who come to understand fully the First Noble Truth feel the relief you get when someone finally says the thing you didn’t think that anyone would ever admit. Before coming into meaningful contact with the Buddha’s dharma, there is this feeling that there are two types of people in the world — unhappy people who wallow in difficulty and happy people who transcend, or worse, ignore it. My friend had been suffering not only the stress and pain that accompanies any life, not even only the weight of unprocessed trauma but the additional searing pain of the belief that unhappiness was evidence that she was as broken and ungrateful as her abuser taught her that she was.
The Buddha, to whom she’d been drawn without knowing why mirrored her experience so clearly that it actually relieved some of her stress. How could she be a failure, she reasoned, if a fully awakening being also saw the stress and pain attendant even in the good parts of life?
This brings us, not coincidentally, to the Second Noble Truth. Encountering the First Noble Truth viscerally, and hearing that she was not “wrong” or a “failure” to experience it, began the process of releasing the young mother from an internal insistence that she feels or be anything other than as she is right now. There is not total release, yet; but the clinging to something other than reality has begun to loosen.
The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is that the First Noble Truth has a cause. This cause is probably most helpfully translated as clinging, or clinging-to-self. It is too often translated as desire, which is not a great translation because there is such a thing as helpful desire, an aspiration to be free of unnecessary suffering. It’s sometimes translated as craving, of the toxic repetitive sort. That can be useful, but there is the danger of othering in that rendering. If you don’t relate to the craving of addiction, for instance, you may think the Second Noble Truth doesn’t apply to you.
It becomes clearer that this Second Noble Truth does apply to you when you admit to the constant (even if low-grade) nagging wish for things to be other than they are. Our wishes may refer to things about ourselves; such as our bodies, our basic personalities, our intelligence. Or they may be things about the rest of the world that are equally out of our control. This constant wanting for things to be other than they are running the whole gamut from mildly stressful to full-scale mental and emotional anguish. And ignoring it when it’s mildly stressful is not the way to prevent anguish.
Let’s pause to notice what the Buddha is not saying. He is not saying it’s wrong to want things to be different. He is not saying it’s wrong to want at all. In fact, there are some “wants” that are very skillful. What he is saying is that wanting causes a maze of stress and suffering and that we become more lost in that maze the more we identify with our wants.
If we want to know how much we identify with our wants, we can make it a point to notice how much of our mental, verbal and behavioral activity is an effort to “influence” or force life to be what we want. This identification with our wants is the clinging to self, is the suffering we can do something about.
What may or may not be immediately clear when we begin to come out of the fog is that we have minds that currently cannot identify with that longing. The identification with the wanting is our addiction, we might say, and we are powerless over it. The identification is the trap.
The Buddha taught in the Third Noble Truth that there is a way out of that trap. We have the potential — as living human beings — to come to a place where we can experience a want without that constriction of self around it, without feeling that they want has to be fulfilled before we can be happy. My friend experienced a momentary glimpse into the possibility of this freedom when she loosened her demands upon herself for just a moment. When she allowed herself to be aware of how far she feels from happiness right now.
The Buddha shared from his own experience that it is possible to develop in such a way that genuine long-term happiness is really possible. This didn’t mean he never again had a selfish thought or the possibility of irritation. As Ajahn Sumedho says in his generous book Intuitive Awareness, being in a human body is irritating. What it meant is that the Buddha had gone beyond identifying with those thoughts at any level of his being, so they didn’t stick.
When the Buddha had the thought soon after his awakening that he might find teaching “tiresome and vexing,” nothing in him clung to that. Instead, the compassionate response arose, the realization that even if only a few people in every generation understood his teaching, it was worth doing. Far from martyring himself with resentment while still grasping for the comfort of inactivity, he spent the next 45 years teaching while being known as “the Happy One.”
Just as the First Noble Truth of suffering has a cause expressed in the Second Noble Truth, the Third Noble Truth of freedom from suffering also has a cause. The Buddha taught that this cause, this Fourth Noble Truth, is not just a decision, not just a good attitude, not even just faith in the Buddha, but an entire program or Path that involves all aspects of life. We know it as the Noble Eightfold Path.
Beginning with the Wise View of our situation described thus far, this Path leads with practice to structural change in our experience of being, loosening our grip at ever-deepening levels of awareness, until we let go of the suffering that feels as though it has a grip on us. I’ll explore this Noble Eightfold Path in more detail as time goes on.
When you see your problem clearly, the solution has already begun. This was my assurance to my friend. She was always interested in Buddhism in theory; but now, with her increasing mindful awareness and her direct real-time experience of the First Noble Truth, it has become more than an interesting philosophy. A Path is opening up to her.
5th Posture Prompts for Written Contemplation
See my first article on the 5th Posture for some instruction on this form of mindfulness practice.
Some possible reflections from this article might be…
· In what ways have I sought to hide from my own suffering, and what laid it bare?
· When I hear the Buddha taught that it’s noble to see the reality of stress and suffering as it threads through life, I feel…
· When I need to be able to speak the truth, I go to…
I’d love to hear some of your reflections.
Christie Bates is a writer, Buddhist minister, and contemplative trauma therapist in Mississippi and Tennessee. She grew up in Alabama, spent young adulthood in Tennessee, and now lives in Mississippi to enjoy her grandchild. In her Dharma practice, writing is the 5th Posture of mindfulness.