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The Third Noble Truth: suffering has an end

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.

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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.

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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.

The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering

This week we come to the Second Noble Truth – the cause of suffering,

The Buddha left his life as a Prince to live as a seeker after truth after seeing that all those whom he loved, and he himself, would one day sicken, grow old and die. It was out of compassion for those he loved and hoping to find what he described as “the path to the deathless” that he left home. His wife had only recently given birth to his son, a future King if the Prince stayed and obeyed his father’s wishes to take on the kingdom after his death. But the Prince who was to become the Buddha saw that he could find a greater inheritance for his son, one that would not disappear in the sands of time but that was eternal, due to existing outside of time.

In the time of the Buddha there was already the notion of reincarnation. Death was not seen as the end, but just part of a never ending cycle of birth and death and rebirth. This was part of the suffering the Prince saw and that he wished to wake up from – the tendency to grasp at existence and the idea of I, me and mine that leads to ongoing rebirth into a state of suffering.

We may not believe in life after life now. But we see that we go through a number of incarnations in this life. We wake each day to inherit the consequences of our decisions from the previous day and as we age we become aware of inheriting the consequences of experiences and actions from the past that impact on us now even though the original self that experienced them is no longer here. Even moment by moment we see that we are coming into existence as our moods shift and change – you’re feeling happy at a party then someone spills their red wine on your new shirt and you feel upset and angry, in a moment one experience of selfhood has died to be replaced by another.

Hence, although we may not seek to end the rounds of rebirth from one life to another – we can identify with the Prince who was to become the Buddha and his wish to be free from constantly being held hostage by the past and our identification with what is arising in the present moment as being ‘me’ and instead be free in the moment through experiencing it with an open and non judgemental awareness of it as it is, rather than adding anything to it or wishing it were different which leads to suffering.

Why is there suffering? This is the central question so many of us ask and so many religions seek to answer.

What the Buddha saw and taught was that suffering is caused by three types of grasping:

1. Grasping at sensual desire (which leads to rebirth – the ongoing process of being someone wanting something)

2. Grasping at the desire to become (identity, being someone doing something)

3. Grasping at the desire not to be (rejecting identity, wanting to annihilate oneself)

In contrast letting go of desire and being at peace with things as they are leads to freedom.

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How can this teaching be relevant to us and the question of how to be happy?

The Buddha does not say we are wrong to have sensual desire. We are in a body and as such we will experience pleasure. The suffering comes when we look to this sensual pleasure as being the source of ultimate happiness. If I look to sex, drink, drugs, food etc as being all there is to provide happiness then there may arise the feeling that I need more and more to touch the levels of pleasure they once opened me to. This way so easily leads to addiction. To searching for yet more intense ways to experience these pleasures until the pleasure no longer sets one free but has become a prison.

One’s life is consumed by the question “how can I get more?” More money, more sex, more exquisite music – whatever our sensual desire might be. And so we reach the point of eating that final wafer thin mint at the end of a gigantic meal of epicurean dimensions – and burst!

I’m sure we have all seen that following sensual desire as an end in itself has not led to happiness but to a deeper sense of lack and loss, of feeling that the hole we wish to fill is deeper and darker the more we run to the mirage of sensual desire.

This can open us up to a wish to change. But at this point the other two types of desire can hijack our real wish to be free.

We may pursue the desire to become: to become evangelical about what we see as our way of being saved – AA, religion, yoga, being a monk, being celibate etc. We seek to become the ideal student, to follow the teachings in a way that we become the best in our recovery group or a pure follower of the Buddha’s teaching. I did this by seeking to abandon sexual desire and embrace a life of celibacy aged 22. But in all of this there is still attachment – attachment to the idea of being pure, of being someone struggling to be better. There is still a strong sense of I, me and mine.

This struggle may then lead to the third type of desire: the desire for cessation, to no longer exist. We may come to a point where we see that our desires do not lead to happiness, that trying to be pure or become free does not work and so we just want to annihilate ourselves. This might be through suicide. It might be through following a spiritual teaching with the wish that we could disappear into the void and our suffering ceases. Still in trying to destroy ourself we are acting out of the idea of I, me and mine.

When I came across Buddhism I wanted to meditate to the point that I ceased to be, hoping that if ‘I’ disappeared then the suffering it experienced would cease. On one retreat I sought to challenge sensual desire by reducing my eating to a minimum. The result was that I went down to about 7 stone. (44KG). I then had even more suffering as I spent a year recovering my health! It was only after recovering and regaining some weight that I saw I had been lost in the desire to push away, to cease to be, in my attempts to challenge the desire to hold and posses, that this did not lead to freedom any more than grasping at the idea of becoming the ideal student and follower of the Buddha’s teaching.

Rather than this extreme of pushing away or grasping the Buddha taught the middle way. This middle way is the path leading to the end of suffering and is a gentle encouragement to be fully present to one’s experience, to enjoy what is there in the present moment and open to a sense of gratitude for what is in one’s life. With this attitude a meal or a caress from a lover can feel full and perfect rather than leave one wishing for more or better. Being mindful – fully alive to the present moment – can make that moment full and perfect as it is. This shall be the theme for the following two emails which will cover the final two Noble Truths:

The third Noble truth – suffering has an end

The fourth Noble Truth – there is a path leading to the end of suffering.

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