This week we come to the third noble truth: That there is an end to suffering.
The first Noble Truth states that there is suffering. The second, that suffering is caused by grasping: grasping the desire for sensual experiences and at the objects of the senses, grasping at becoming and taking birth as a certain personality and grasping at the desire to cease.
In our meditation we can see how the mind reaches out to things, enjoyable experience from the past in the form of memories, or anticipation of future pleasure through fantasies, as a way of looking for happiness. And yet these things are all impermanent – for whatever has a beginning must also have an end. By looking for ultimate happiness in that which is by nature impermanent we will always come to a state of pain as we loose that which we desire. The path of reflection and meditation is said to open us to an experience that simply is, a state that is not born from our effort or given from an external source. As such this state is said to be timeless and thus can never be destroyed. This means it is always there and we have always know it – it’s just that we have forgotten. As many teachers from different traditions point out, it’s not that we have to become awake or enlightened, but wake up to knowing that that is who we already are! The more we open to this the more we have a refuge that can give true happiness. We can then embrace life as it is – be with the fleeting joys and pleasures of life but not look to them as our ultimate source of well being. We may also simplify our lives and look less to external things as we feel happy in ourselves.
In meditation as we reflect on our life the tendency to cling to becoming is seen in our desire to become a peaceful, happy, powerful or compassionate person – or whatever it might be we wish for as an identity. And yet all of these identities are born and thus will end and offer no permanent state of security. As we reflect on our experience we may also see the desire for cessation – to stop being in pain, the desire to end our struggle, wanting to silence the mind and stop. This may manifest through drink, drugs, sex which is unaware and unfeeling, zoning out watching the television or at its most extreme actual suicide or following a spiritual teaching that promises annihilation of the self.
The Third Noble Truth: there is an end to suffering
The third Noble truth states that suffering ceases when we let go of clinging to this process of becoming and rest at peace with things as they are. The Buddha once said that if one were truly mindful for seven days then one would be Enlightened by the end of that period. What then is mindfulness and how do we let go?
Mindfulness is not an activity. It’s not analysing and finding the answer. The Buddhist term from which mindfulness is derived is sati. Wikipedia tells me that “the word sati derives from a root meaning ‘to remember,’ but as a mental factor it signifies presence of mind, attentiveness to the present, rather than the faculty of memory regarding the past. It has the characteristic of not wobbling, i.e. not floating away from the object of concentration. It’s function is absence of confusion or non-forgetfulness.” Hence, mindfulness is remembering to be present in the moment, to wake up.
To paraphrase Jon Kabat Zinn mindfulness is a state of awareness that arises when one pays attention right now, in the present moment, without judgement. All you need to do is pay attention! No need to analyse, think or look for an answer. And when you notice that you’re falling into the autopilot of looking for an answer and wanting to let go – then be aware of that – how it feels in your body and what you are thinking. Start naming it the ‘I want to let go drama’ and then let it be. Simply say in your head “Hello ‘I want to let go drama’ – there you are again!” You see, there’s nothing to do when practicing mindfulness – but our doing mind can’t accept that and wants to take control by over-thinking – “am I being mindful now?”, “have I let go?”,”what will it feel like to let go?”,”why won’t I let go?”, and so we get to the autopilot mode of thinking – “what’s wrong with me?”, “This isn’t working”, “I’ve failed”, “I need something else”. Then we go around and around trying one therapy, then another, reading one book, then another – believe me – I’ve done it – all the time avoiding stopping and Being.
Mindfulness is Awareness. Awareness is presence. Presence is a gentle knowing of the present moment without judgment or fear. Being in the present moment is stopping and noticing. Noticing is waking up. Waking up is natural and spontaneous not an act of the intellect.
The mindful approach to life encourages you to explore being with your experience rather than trying to fix it. The desire to fix it is coming from the doing mode, and is adding another thought to the busy mind: “I have to fix myself”. The invitation of mindfulness training is to welcome and accept yourself as you are right now.
If I’m feeling anxious, then I’m feeling anxious. That does not mean I am an anxious person, only that right now there is a feeling of anxiety. It will pass. Allowing, accepting, being compassionate towards myself, all creates the conditions to help it pass by counteracting the tendency to fight what is there, to resist it, to grasp at wanting to become calm by rejecting the feeling of not being calm. The paradox of mindfulness is that it invites one simply to sit in the eye of the storm, and to see that the storm can cease by being allowed to be as it is. As my teacher Ajahn Sumedho would always say, “that which is Aware, is not the thing of which it is Aware”. Hence, being aware of anxiety puts one in touch with a gentle knowing that can witness the anxiety without being the anxiety.
But how do I let Go?
And so we come back to the question: “How do I let go?” Ajahn Sumedho would always say to me “just let go” and I would think “fine, but how?????” What I am learning is that I hold on because I want to hold on – there is a feeling of excitement, energy, vitality in the holding on, even if it is to something causing distress. There is a subtle fear that if I let go of my anxiety (or whatever it may be for you) I’ll be nothing and it’s preferable to stay with the familiar. What I also see is that letting go happens in a moment and on letting go there is stillness and bliss – a state that is deeper and way more nourishing than the state of holding on to whatever it is I’m choosing to grasp hold of.
But this still leaves the question how to let go? I know having Ajahn Sumedho say “just let go” only left me feeling that I was failing. I’m starting to see letting go as embracing. Embracing how I feel right now rather than wishing it were different. Embracing my fear. Embracing my anxiety. Embracing being skinny and not liking it. Embracing my loneliness. Because all I can be with is how I am right now. But how I am right now is not who I am. By embracing how I feel right now I create an opening for another state of awareness to arise.
Embracing is different to analysing and absorbing into the state. I’m not thinking – “I feel anxious…..I always feel anxious……what’s wrong with me for always feeling anxious….all of these courses and books aren’t working……I’ve failed…….there’s no end to this, I wish it would all end…….” Embracing simply means holding myself in my pain and confusion as I would hold a child who has fallen and grazed its knee. See how spontaneous your response would be to such a child. And yet we can be so harsh and demanding to ourselves, as if we were saying to the child “stop whining, get up, what’s wrong with you, and you were so stupid to fall over anyway, I’m embarrassed you’re making such a fuss, just pull yourself together….”
Thus, when a mental/emotional state of pain arises, notice the urge to push it away, notice the rejection of how you are feeling, and cultivate a gentle willingness to be with your experience – not to find an answer or stop it – but simply to notice how it feels in your body, what the emotions are and what you are thinking. And think to yourself: “It’s OK, whatever it is I’m feeling it’s OK”. Take a breath. Feel your body in contact with the chair if you’re sitting and notice the contact with the floor. Pay attention to the sensations in the soles of your feet, your heels and toes. Relax your jaw. Keep breathing and embracing yourself as you are in that moment. Remember – it’s ok to be a mess in progress! You don’t have to be perfect.