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How to be happy: the four noble truths

This week we come to the question of happiness! The Buddha’s teachings assert that happiness is our true nature, that when all of the struggle, fear and worry are seen through there is simply luminous, clear consciousness – unborn, uncreated, outside of time and full of bliss, compassion and wisdom. For those of us not yet dwelling in that state we have what the Buddha described as the Four Noble truths – both a description of our dilemma, of the unenlightened state, and a guide to freedom from that state of struggle.

This week I’ll give an overview of the Four Noble truths and the reflections after the tea break will use these as a focus over the next four weeks.

The Four Noble Truths are:
1. There is suffering
2. Suffering has a cause
3. Suffering can be brought to an end
4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

Buddhism is often described as pessimistic. But essentially it is optimistic, even idealistic, as it believes that everyone has this capacity to awaken and be free from suffering. This capacity for freedom is innate in all of life and is not only for Buddhists! The Buddha offered a path that he considered most conducive to realising this freedom, but he encouraged his followers to be open to any other teachings that one experienced as leading to freedom and if they worked to use them.

Likewise he said to question everything he said, and not to take it on faith. Rather than saying “this is true because the Buddha said so”, he encouraged his followers to learn from their own experience so that they could say this is true because I have found it to be so. Buddhists are human so unfortunately Buddhism is not without its dogmas, as humans seem to like to belong to a group they can identify with, thereby excluding others as wrong and seeking security by following ‘the one true way’. But there’s the encouragement in the Buddha’s teaching to question this tendency and to be open to other faiths and teachings, seeing from one’s own experience if they lead to freedom or prolong suffering through keeping one rooted in greed, hatred and confused thinking.

1. There is suffering

This four fold examination of the human condition is based on the medical tradition at the time the Buddha:
1. there is a certain sickness;
2. that sickness has a cause;
3. that sickness has an end;
4. there is a course of treatment that can lead to the end of this sickness.

Thus, although the list starts with suffering, which gives Buddhism the reputation of seeing life as a place of unremitting pain, within this context we see that it does this with the intention of the essentially hopeful message: that for whatever ails you there is a cure. Having been cured you are returned to good health and it is this state of natural good health that Buddhism sees as our true nature; not the state of sickness that is an aberration from our natural good health.

Anyone hearing this teaching at the time of the Buddha would have recognised its cultural reference and seen the teaching as a reference to a doctor instructing his patient. Just as the patient then has to follow the course of treatment prescribed by the doctor and no amount of the doctor’s desire for the patient to recover will make them well if they do not follow the course of treatment, likewise the Buddha was not a magical saviour who could do the work for you, but a man who shared his experience of what had worked of him. It was then up to each individual practitioner to follow the prescribed remedy until returned to good health.

As we look at our lives we see that it is inevitable that we experience suffering: our bodies become ill and there is physical pain; the things we own and love can be lost or broken; relationships come to an end, and even those we love at some point will die and we experience the suffering of loss. The way humans can treat each other, with hatred, greed and lack of empathy likewise leads to pain, emotional wounding and suffering. Then there is the existential level of suffering. The still small voice in our heart that tells us that however good life is there’s something we are not seeing, a bigger truth that on seeing will make sense of life in a way our pursuit of success and gain can never satisfy. This is simply how it is. But this is not all there is.

If the Buddha only identified the malady but gave no cure then it would be a depressing teaching! Instead this is an acknowledgement and a reminder to notice and accept that we suffer. When we don’t accept this we can so easily try to run away from our own suffering through whatever we use to mask the pain: drugs, sex (or both together!), excessive work, or even an obsessive regime at the gym! We can feel that we are failures. That everyone else is sorted and happy but we alone have screwed up and are defective for not being totally fulfilled. Then we try to fill the emptiness, numb the pain, though activities which take us further into suffering.

Instead the first nobel truth is a gentle and compassionate acknowledgement that what we all share as living beings is the feeling of struggle, of loss, of fear, of sorrow on losing that which gives us security. The Buddha taught that everything that has a beginning has an end. As such there is nothing in this world we can look to that will not end, and if we base our happiness on these things it means we are always insecure as in our heart we know that everything is transient, impermanent, shifting – it’s like trying to build a house on shifting sand, the cracks will always be appearing: we then either spend our whole time trying to repair the cracks or simply realise that we need to leave the house. The rest of the noble truths outline how we see through the illusion that the dilapidated house is who we are and instead leave it to live the rich free life that exists beyond its confines.

The first step to happiness then, according to this teaching, is to accept the potential for life to bring us experiences that will give rise to unhappiness and to see it as simply part of how things are, rather than a perceived reflection on our failings or inadequacies. It is not that if we were more successful at living our life we would then never suffer or experience sorrow. Rather we accept that the nature of life is such that at times suffering will be inevitable. The Buddha described suffering as being like sitting in a cart with an ill fitting wheel. No matter how comfortable you try to make yourself in the cart it will give regular jolts as it goes on its journey.

To see a two minute animation of Stephen Fry outlining the Four Noble Truths as part of the BBC’s history of ideas series click here

Finally, so that we don’t end on only talking about suffering, the attached article explores how we can find more happiness in our lives through taking actions that encourage the body to produce its own feel good hormones.


How to be happy

How to be happy 1

Being a “mess in progress”

Last week I was reflecting on my past experience of social anxiety and I had several people contact me to say that it is something they experience and find difficult to cope with. One of the things that helped me was when a teacher – I think the same one who talked of being a mess in progress – told me not to worry too much what others were thinking about me….as people are generally spending more time thinking about what others are thinking about them than actually thinking anything about others! It seemed wonderfully ironic – that everyone is trapped in worrying about what others think of them, when in fact no-one is thinking of anything but how they are being seen!

The first Buddhist group I was involved with encouraged open and honest communication. And the result was that when I was in men’s groups we would be truly open about our thoughts, feelings and fears. It doesn’t take long to see that even the person who seems most confident is carrying some fear or difficulty. In fact it seems to be what unites us as humans. We might worry about our bodies or looks, but then people I know who work with cover models say they are just as concerned that they are not good enough!

In the end we can only find happiness when we feel a sense of confidence that is rooted in the present moment rather than how we ought to be. Being willing to be “a mess in progress” rather than fearing we are not perfect! I wanted to fix myself as a young man, to find Enlightenment and escape the feeling of loneliness and fear that seemed ever present. I’ve been lucky to meet teachers who point to the truth that what we look for is closer than our breath, that happiness and freedom is here, now and not something we have to strive to find. But it does take a moment of letting go. In Buddhist teachings it’s called coming home. Realising that we were always where we wanted to be but were too busy looking to realise. Every time we let go in the meditation and come back to ‘being’, resting our attention in the moment, on the breath, we come back to this stillness, peace and joy that is there all the time. It’s just that we so often forget to notice it, like a fish looking for water but never realising that which it seeks is all around and within.

The irony is that we often need to go on the journey, searching of our answer, for stillness, for confidence, to finally realise what we looked for was there all along. The journey simply enables us to recognise what it was we were overlooking.

As you feel yourself being pulled into whatever your negative stories might be, take a moment to stop and breathe, to reflect that this is simply the habitual patterns of the mind playing out, like an old film that we’ve seen so many times we think its real or a record with the needle stuck. Then sense what it is that is being aware of this, the stillness, the silence, the love and bliss in that awareness and trust that that is your true nature, not the confusion and struggle.

In ‘The Pilgrims Progress’ Pilgrim catches a glimpse of Heaven from a window in House Beautiful. After seeing it he knows what Heaven is and it is similar for us in those fleeting seconds of resting in pure awareness. We glimpse something that is true, for Buddhist teaching say that our true nature is unborn, uncreated and outside of time. Therefore there is nothing we have to do to find this peace and freedom. It simply ‘is’ and we can only let go into experiencing it when the whirling of the mind and the story of self disperses, like clouds dissolving away to reveal the magnificent and vast blue sky that was there all the time.

It’s this that my teachers were alway inviting me to experience and I trust that as I learn to let go more freely then it will not be a cold emptiness that receives me but a warm and loving fullness of being.

Social phobia and the fear of groups

As a teen and in my twenties I had an extreme phobia of talking in groups. I only felt safe talking to one other person. As soon as it was no longer a one-one interaction I felt overwhelmed by fear. Fear of being seen to be stupid, having nothing to say, being boring or unwanted.

As a teen I realised that nothing I thought or believed was unique to me: all that I thought and knew was learnt from what I had read or heard. And I started to feel that I was somehow not real, that whereas others were themselves I was just a construction of borrowed thoughts, beliefs and ideas. This made me fear speaking as I felt I had nothing genuine to say.

It was only on coming into contact with Buddhism that I started to realise that this sense of being no one was actually in line with Buddhist teaching and not a deficiency in my personality! According to Buddhist teachings we are all simply constructs of our social and cultural conditions and there is no soul or real self at the core of this. Instead there can be a waking up to the non-self, Awareness, the ‘isness’ of Being. Through my involvement with Buddhist groups I started to feel more comfortable in myself, but I still feared talking to more than one person. On study retreats I was known as the silent one! Everyone else would be jumping in with their thoughts and opinions in the study group and I would sit in silence, not knowing how to join in the conversation.

People who know me now know how ready I am to get into a conversation! Although I still feel a certain fear in public groups, I have learnt not to believe in this and to let go into the free fall of not knowing as I open my mouth and let a conversation start. One of my biggest lessons was realising that no matter what I do I will never be liked by everyone. The burden of wanting to be approved of by all I met was too much. In the end it seems we have to accept some will like us no matter what we do, some will arrive at a balanced view of us depending on our actions, and some will dislike us no matter what we do!! So why worry about the impression one is making when there are some who will disprove no matter how much we try!

Over the last 24 years I learnt to relax and let go of the fear of being in groups. I know how painful it can be and if you experience it I know it can feel as if it will never change. Please be reassured though, it’s simply a self view – and Buddhism teaches that all self-views are in the end empty of any truth, they are simply a story about ourself we choose to believe. The talk linked to at then d of this blog gives a profound invitation to let go of the story. You may connect with what the teacher says or it may seem too abstract. I hope it will give food for reflection. And that you can see that if someone who once couldn’t speak to more than one person at a time now happily sits and talks to a room full of 40 these things can change!

The most important part of learning to let go of my fear was to realise I didn’t have to get it all right, that making a mistake didn’t make me a mistake, and that it’s all right to simply have a go and seem to fail. It requires lots of Loving Kindness to oneself to let go of the negative scripts we may have constructed that we are no good, unlovable, not worthy. As we give this Loving Kindness to ourselves the internal judgements that look on so critically at our performance softens and we can start to accept, in the fantastic quote from a teacher I met in my early years of Buddhist practice, that we are simply “a mess in progress!”

Click here to goto the talk by Gangaji

Habit 7: take time to feel gratitude

In the last of the seven habits its time to reflect on what there is in our life for which we can feel grateful.  It may be as simple as noticing a few moments of sunshine or smelling a rose as you pass it, or feeling a wider sense of gratitude for things in your life that it might be easy to take for granted. As one focuses on gratitude it opens the heart, gives a sense of fulfilment, rather than lack, and helps to direct attention to what we want to cultivate in our life rather than focusing on what we want to push away. As such it encourages a happy, creative and contented heart.
Gratitude is a gentle reminder to ourselves to turn down the voice that worries we don’t have enough, that our life is a failure, that we should be doing better. Our modern world of advertising and consumerism is based on selling the idea that we do not have enough. We are the products of a culture that bases its economic success on citizens who feel they are never good enough, always in need of the latest upgrade, larger car, better wardrobe, new style of haircut! Gratitude is a gentle noticing of what is there right now, of appreciating what we have even if it’s not what we want. Perhaps we want a job with more prestige that pays more money, and a larger house! We have a choice of focusing on the sense of lack, or of appreciating what we have: our job as it is,  what that income makes possible for us, the accommodation we have that gives us shelter, a bed, a place to eat, sleep and be with friends however small it may be! Thus gratitude can turn a glass half empty mind into an appreciative glass half full perspective. We can still seek to change and move into new work or find a new home, but from a sense of fulfilment rather than trying to escape a sense of lack. If we feel fulfilled in th present moment then what we move on to will also feel satisfying. If we are moving on motivated by a sense of lack then the next job or home will feel like just a step on an ever upwards journey with no sight of the summit ever coming into view!
One way to connect with gratitude as a regular practice is to have a book that you write down from 1 – 5 things you feel grateful for at the end of the day.  Or if you prefer to use your ‘phone there’s an App!
There’s a lovely video about how to establish a gratitude practice here
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