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The Fifth hindrance to meditation: doubt

The Five Hindrances

The mind states that disturb the natural clarity of our heart-mind have been described as the five hindrances. Each hindrance has its own flavour and over this set of five emails I’ll explore each hindrance. But first, to give an overview here are all five:

1. Sensual desire
2. Ill-will
3. Lethargy and drowsiness
4. Restlessness and remorse
5. Doubt

Each hindrance is compared to the natural clarity of the still heart-mind, which is said to be like clear water. Doubt is said to be like a pot full of muddy water.

5. Sceptical Doubt

The Buddha encouraged his followers to question his teaching. He even spoke of the belief that things are true just because tradition tells us they are as a hindrance to real awakening, as it leads to a tendency to hold on to beliefs and opinions that have simply arisen over time as part of a tradition, rather than seeing wisdom for ourself. He encouraged his followers to question all of his teachings and not take them on blind faith. Only after exploring them in their lives and seeing for themselves if they held true were they to believe in them.

This last hindrende then does not mean we are to take all we hear from a teacher on blind faith. But as we meditate, a certain attitude can sometimes arise where we stop testing the efficacy of mindfulness or the teachings we have heard, and instead we loose any belief that change is possible, that it is worth meditating or that things can be other than how they are.

It is this skeptical doubt that this hindrance refers to, which can be enough to make us stop meditating or drop away from our path of practice. This state of mind is strongly linked to the sense of inertia that keeps us locked in our habit patterns, it is the way of thinking that does not want to make any effort. Thoughts such as “what’s the point of meditation, it seems too hard”, “meditation may be good for people who can go away to a retreat or live in a monastery but how will I be able to get any benefit from it”, “does it really matter what I do”.

With all of these we can either sink into the muddy state of inertia these thoughts encourage, or we can look at our experience and reflect on how we have benefited from the meditation we have done. We may remember how a session of meditation helped us shift a mood, or embrace something we had wanted to push away – and how this changed our relationship to it. We may remember that our actions have led to feeling happier or to sorrow depending on if they were rooted in skilful wishes or unskillful intentions. If you have started to explore Buddhist teachings you might reflect on how “actions have consequences” and look back in you life and see if this is the case or not. In this way we use conscious reflection on the teachings we know to bring about a clear understanding of how meditation is of help to us, or not.


Doubt may play out in other ways in our life as well. For me it has been doubt about my skills or abilities. It took a friend’s persistent encouragement over three years before I set up the Monday class, as my inner doubt told me I would fail. As it is the group has now been going since April 2009 and next year will be our 10 year anniversary!! Then over the last few years as I’ve explored working as a mindfulness teacher in the corporate world it is this same doubt that holds me back – feeling I’m not yet ready, that I have more to learn, that I have nothing of value yet to bring to a workplace mindfulness teaching until I have read one more book on workplace mindfulness, or attended another seminar. 

I was lucky to have a call two years ago from the head of learning and development at Kensington and Chelsea council. He was looking for a mindfulness provider to run courses for council staff. After a year and half of running these sessions I could see that people enjoyed and benefited from the sessions – the thought I still needed to perfect my skills in teaching in the workplace was just a way for my doubting mind to hold me back from taking action. Of course, I have had more to learn, but that is what life is – a place for learning, and standing on the side lines waiting to know all the intricacies of the game just means one never plays the game at all – which is the only place to learn!

This year I have resolved to finally step forward into working more in the corporate world, in companies and organisations and with mindfulness initiatives such as teaching mindfulness in schools. It is part of me feeling into “following my bliss”, the saying of Joseph Campbell’s that always inspires me. Rather than seeing getting work as a mindfulness teacher as a chore to be got through, if I see it as an expression of living my bliss, and sharing my joy of living a life informed by presence, awareness and self-compassion, then it is not work but play. 

Where does your doubting mind hold you back? Where do you hesitate to step in? How does the habitual mind try to keep you small and stop you realising your potential?

The Five Hindrances

Last week I was talking about dreams and how we can wake up within the dream to a state of lucid awareness. In the previous weeks I’ve been looking at how we can bring greater clarity to our emotional world though recognising our habit patterns when in a relationship – being avoidant, anxious or secure. The key to both lucid dreaming and lucid living is to be able to rest into a clear awareness of our present moment experience as we meditate. Mindfulness practice is not about controlling the mind or making it other than how it is – but of resting in a state of open attentiveness to the present moment, recognising how certain movements of the heart-mind lead to greater well being and calm, whilst others lead to stress, unhappiness and upset.

In a way it is not that we meditate to make the heart-mind better and different to how it is right now, but  rather our meditation allows our heart-mind to settle into its natural state, which is calm, expansive and luminous – just as the ocean will be still and calm when the winds stop whipping it up into towering waves.

The winds that disturb the natural clarity of our heart-mind have been described as the five hindrances. Each hindrance has its own flavour and over the next five emails I’ll explore each hindrance. But first, to give an overview here are all five:

1. Sensual desire
2. Ill-will
3. Lethargy and drowsiness
4. Restlessness and remorse
5. Doubt

Each hindrance is compared to the natural clarity of the still heart-mind, which is said to be like clear water. Sensual desire is said to be like water filled with dye. The bright colours make it impossible to see the natural clarity of the water in its pure state.

1. Sensual desire

The Buddha taught that what ‘we think we become’. In the opening verses of a collection of teachings called The Dhammapada the Buddha says:


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Whilst food, beautiful sights, sex and sensual experiences can all be enjoyable in the moment, allowing the attention of our heart to dwell on the desire for them is not helpful to resting into the natural state of calm abiding that can be experienced through meditation. If you really investigate how it feels to be sitting in meditation with desire you’ll notice a subtle aftertaste to the sweetness of desire that is slightly sour. The grasping heart-mind that looks outside of itself for pleasure presents us with the belief that if I can find what I want then I will be happy. But in the act of wanting there is a sense of frustration with the present moment experience that makes it hard to feel the peace that is here right now. 

If we are eating a meal, then the experience right now in the moment is of noticing the flavours, the scent of the food, enjoying each mouthful. If we are having sex then the experience in the moment is of savouring the taste, smells and physical contact we are experiencing in the moment. As soon as this experience becomes a memory or a desire for some similar experience in the future, it takes us out of the present moment and into longing and desire. 

If I am sitting in meditation and a sexual fantasy starts to play out in my mind, or a memory of a recent experience presents itself, it can feel very alluring to go with this thought. It seems to promise a sense of pleasure and excitement. But if I investigate what is actually happening I see that this sensual desire for something that is not here right now creates a movement in the heart-mind which is like the storm winds stirring up the calm surface of the ocean and leads away from any feeling of calm abiding I may have been experiencing. 

Wanting something I cannot have right now does not give me an experience of pleasure, but of lack. It makes the heart-mind restless, thinking about how it can get what is desired. In contrast, the moment of letting go into being here right now with the simplicity of bodily sensations and the happiness in the heart of being content in the moment gives a subtle sense of joy and peace that needs nothing outside of itself. 

As you meditate, notice what it is like to have desire for something that is not here right now – the sense of longing, slight feeling of lack of contentment, the increased sense of arousal it might cause that makes it harder to rest attention on something as simple and subtle as the breath. 

This is not to say you have to deny yourself that cream cake when in the tea room – enjoy the experience of it when it is there, but also notice that desire for a cream cake when no cream cake is present as a subtle form of suffering. The thought I want, I do not have, I desire all creates a sense of unfulfilment. The Buddha never told his followers that sex or luxury were wrong. Monks and nuns were expected to be celibate but not his lay followers. What he did say was that pursuing desire would not lead to the end of desire, whereas meditation can lead to a state fo freedom from wanting anything. Notice that however many cream cakes you have, or amazing sex, once this experience becomes a memory, there is an almost immediate desire for it to repeat.

I have never found the end of a desire by pursuing desire. There’s always that wish for just one more wafer thin mint at the end of a delicious meal! It becomes a case of the middle way – if we are not going to embrace a life of monastic celibacy and sensual restraint, how can we enjoy the pleasure of the world, without letting them become a source of distraction and dissatisfaction? In meditation we can notice what it is like to have desire for sensual pleasure arise as we sit, notice how it starts to stir the calm ocean of the heart-mind, how agitation and longing can arise and how these feel in contrast to a heart-mind that is at peace in itself. 

Another aspect of this hindrance is that by pursuing thoughts of sense desire we may then act in ways that lead away from peace of mind and heart. Think of the issues in the news right now of sexual abuse by people in positions of power, or our own unskilful actions when we attempted to grasp at something we were desiring without thought for how it might impact on another, these are all examples of how sensual desire may lead away from peace, ease and contentment.

I remember I was traveling through Italy when I was 19. I was in an hotel in Southern Italy where I had had a coffee on the last evening of my stay. It was in a lovely large mug and saucer. I had it in my room, and suddenly I felt desire to have it. I washed it and put it in my ruck sack. Latter the owner was so helpful in making arrangements for my journey back home I felt really bad about having taken the mug, but also embarrassed at putting it back out clean and washed in case it was obvious I had planned to take it….so I left it in my ruck sack. But on getting home I gave it away as it could no longer give me pleasure knowing I had taken it without permission and with greed in my heart. This was before I learnt to meditate or knew anything about Buddhism, if I had been meditating at that time I may well have felt in my meditation how the desire for this object was giving rise to suffering rather than pleasure and might well have just left it in my room rather than take it away. 

In contrast, when we let go of sensual desire for things of the past or anticipated in the future or desired right now, we can rest in a state of calm abiding that is pleasant and easeful right now without needing any external source or stimuli to give rise to the pleasure. As this happiness is based on the heart-mind resting into its natural state rather than reaching put for some external thing to give us happiness  the happiness of the heart-mind at peace is a state of freedom, as we can rest into it at any time without needing to find an object or sensory experience to give rise to our experience of pleasure.  

For a more detailed essay on the stages of calm abiding mediation click here

What happens when we feel out of relationship with another or a group? Healing hatred through love.

The theme over recent weeks has been “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. Last week I reflected on how the Buddha placed compassion and non-violence at the heart of his teaching. The Loving Kindness practice was taught in response to some monks who were having difficulties with some tree spirits in the forrest grove where they had set up their residence. In the time of the Buddha people still believed that all of nature was inhabited by spirits and divinities so it was not unusual for the Buddhist scriptures to describe meetings between the Buddha or his monks and various nature spirits who lived in the tress or streams of the wilderness where the monks made their home. In an age when we like to show how much the Buddha’s teaching matches modern scientific findings there is little reference to this! And for many of us it may mean very little. But the story illustrates an important principle so is worth listing to even if considered a fable or symbolic.

The significance of the Buddha teaching his disciples to extend love to the tree spirits rather than feel resentment or anger illustrates the Buddha’s teaching which I reflects on in last week’s email: “hatred does not cease through hatred but by love”. He did not teach the monks to destroy or annihilate the tree spirits, but to radiate love to them, the very beings that were trying to frighten and disturb the monks in their meditation. This attitude is very contrary to many of our human instincts, which on seeing another as an enemy or obstruction leads to a wish to escape from them or anhiliate them.

And now we come back to the 21st Century and neuroscience! I was watching the excellent BBC documentary about the brain recently and in episode 7 it covered the very troubling and difficult issue of why we hate, and how genocide or inter-group violence can happen. What happens to a group of people that causes them to stop seeing another group as humans and instead be able to unleash untold misery and harm on their fellow human beings? What might we learn about our own individual tendency towards hatred and how to own it but not act on it by looking at what happens on a massive social scale when humans fall out of relationship?

The programme followed a number of experiments that were using brain imaging to observe what happens in the brain in different situations.


The Pain Matrix

In the first experiment they looked at what happens when we feel excluded from a group. The experiment was conducted online by having three people play a game. Two of the participants were secretly part of the experiment so only the third person was actually being observed. At first the game of online ‘frisbee’ included all of the participants, but after a while the two who were part of the experiment threw it only to themselves and excluded the third. As this happened the brain scan of this third person started to show the activation of the pain centre located at the front of the brain. This is something normally associated with physical pain, but they found that the brain also experiences this exactly the same if it is a mental event arising form the feeling of being excluded.

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From this they deduced that if the experience of being excluded is felt as pain, then as human beings it is natural that we will look for a way of feeling included – by looking for a group of like minded people by whom we are accepted. This is great for our own sense of self-worth, but what happens when our group then defines itself by making another group ‘other’: less worthy, impure, unholy, or to to be despised?

The Loss of Empathy

The next experiment looked at exactly this. What would happen when people identifying with a specific group saw a syringe needle enter various hands? Each hand was labled with a group identity:

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People who identified with one of these groups then watched as the needle entered the hand of each person. The usual empathy response was that the brain would recognise that another was experiencing pain and there would be activity in this area of the brain, shown here by the sudden peak of activity:

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This is what happened when there were no labels. But as soon as the hands were labeled something significant happened. On viewing the needle go into the hand of someone who was in their ‘out group’ participants showed no activation in the empathy centre of the brain. The blue line shows the lack of activation compared to the green line which shows their response to the in-group.

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Their brain was literally no longer registering the other person as another fellow human being who was suffering and for whom they might feel empathy. Instead they were a blank, something rather than someone. Even the atheists identified more with fellow atheists and less with the other humans! So it is not just an issue of religion, but of identifying with a group and then not empathising with those belonging to other groups or groups who hold opinions contrary to your own.

The findings of this experiment were confirmed when a group of people were shown random images of people, including one of a homeless person. When people they looked at images of various people a certain area of the brain lit up connected with recognising fellow human beings:

But on looking a the homeless person there was a marked reduction in this activation in many of the participants:


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The top right hand image shows the lack of activation in the brain when looking at the homeless person compared to viewing other images of people. This showed that for these participants on the experiment they had learnt not to see homeless people as other humans: they no longer recognised them as a person, but could walk past them as a thing.

“Love thine Enemy”

Having looked at these experiments the programme went on to surmise that it is this process that is at work when two groups oppose each other in war or conflict. Having established your ‘in-group’ in order to feel safe and not feel excluded, this group may often be defined by an ‘out-group’ – those who hold opposite views and opinions, who worship different Gods, or worship the same God but with different rituals and dogma. If there is then conflict between these two groups the brain is capable of literally switching off from recognising the members of the ‘out-group’ as other humans, and instead see them as objects. And it is from this that the atrocities we see throughout history and right up to this present day can take place. When we no longer see another as a fellow human being, or feel their pain, then we are capable of doing anything to them.

This is where we return to the Four Divine Abiding meditations and the Loving Kindness practice. The Buddha did not demonise the tree spirits, he did not say to hate them as they were obstructing the monks in their meditation and were ‘enemies’. Instead he taught the monks to be patient, forbearing and loving towards them. It is the same message that Christ shared, although historically this part of his teaching has tended to be conveniently forgotten by many throughout history!

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” Mathew 5:44

“If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” Luke 6:29

What these teachers are telling us is that hatred does not cease through further expressions of hatred. Hatred ceases through love, and love enable us to see the ‘other’ as a fellow human being. The third stage of the loving kindness practice gives us the opportunity to locate the people who are our ‘out-group’. For us this might not be due to racial or religious distinctions, but by their position in society or in relation to how we see ourselves and our values and how we then despise those who hold different values or beliefs.

Learning to make the wish that others may be happy (the Loving Kindness Practice) have empathy for all who suffer (the Compassion practice) and rejoice in the good fortune of others (Sympathetic Joy practice) counteracts any tendency to feel contempt for some or lack of compassion for others. The Equanimity practice, the fourth of the Divine abiding meditations, encourages us to see that we all inherit the consequences of our own actions, so it is only for us to focus on our actions and wish others well, not to judge or condemn others. These four divine abiding meditations encourage us to explore seeing all those whom we know as simply human beings wanting to be happy and well, who fear pain and sorrow – just as we do.


Learning to own my own hatred rather than project it out onto another

When I first learnt the Loving Kindness practice I had to learn to love my step-father. I saw him as bigoted and intolerant in his racism and homophobia. I hated him for his intolerance. Until finally I realised that I was simply hating that which I was feeling myself! I was intolerant of his intolerance and used this to justify feelings of hatred towards him, even hoping he would die. On seeing this the work became more internal. I couldn’t change him, but I could change how I was reacting and relating to him. As a result of this process I felt much happier. He also changed and softened in his outlook as we were not in conflict but in dialogue.

If you have someone or some group you know are your ‘out-group’ I invite you to explore holding them in the third stage of the Loving Kindess practice. Learn to recognise them as a fellow human being, with their own hopes and fears, their desire to be happy just as you wish to be happy and their sorrow at loss and pain just as you feel sorrow of these things. In this way we can create an opening for peace in our heart. And that is the only part of the world for which we have any direct responsibility. But as we plant the seed of peace in our heart it may grow and bloom and the scent reach others, influencing their thoughts and actions – and in tis way we may indeed create a kinder world. In the end it may be that you find that, as Jung says, those who annoy you shows you what we need to see in yourself.

To down load a guided version of the Loving Kindness practice click here



The path leading to the end of suffering, the fourth Noble Truth

This week we come to the fourth noble truth: that there is a path that leads to the end of 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.

Having diagnosed the illness, the Buddha goes on to give the cure, the way of practice that leads to freedom.

The Buddha summarised this most succinctly by saying: cease to do that which harms, learn to do that which nourishes, and purify your heart and mind.

This is outlined in more detail in the eight fold path:

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As you can see the path is divided in to three sections. Buddhist love lists and subdivisions of lists!

The path is not linear, it is often depicted as a wheel and as such it is all arising at the same moment. But it can be broken down into the separate parts, just as a wheel has spokes. Without one of the spokes the wheel looses its strength. In the same way all parts of the eightfold path interact and work together.

1. Looking at it as a list the first section relates to Wisdom.

Right view is the intuitive and felt understanding that actions have consequences. This understanding motivates one in one’s practice. Ajahn Sumedho describes this as knowing something to be true in your gut as opposed to an intellectual knowledge. It is the intuition that there is suffering and that there is an end to suffering which leads one to begin the spiritual journey and in its maturity it is the direct knowing of the end of suffering through letting go of all clinging. It’s the feeling that brings us to meditation, knowing that there is something out of balance in our lives and sensing that another approach may give a way of rebalancing ourselves. It’s also the insights and deeper understanding we gain as we meditate and see how holding onto thoughts and feelings or rejecting what we do not want gives rise to suffering, whereas learning to let go and embrace things as they are in the moment starts to open up a space of greater contentment and ease.

Right Intention, or right aspiration arises out of right view. It’s the wholesome desire to aspire to freedom from suffering for ourself and others out of a sense that this is the freedom we are all naturally born to but have forgotten. It’s the intention to follow the path out of compassion for ourselves and others rather than out of any desire for selfish gain.

2. The second section relates to ethical conduct. Living ethically is said to be the support for meditation, which is the third section.

Right Speech is that which avoids lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter and encourages telling the truth, harmonious speech that brings people together, kindly speech and conversations with purpose. Sounds quite demanding especially on a Friday night out! What we can notice in our speech is how often there is a sense of using our conversation to hold on to a sense of bing right, of wanting to gain power over another or gain advantage for ourself through being economical with the truth! Right speech encourages us to consider what effect our words will have. They are like a flock of birds, once set free it is hard to net them. How often have we said something in a moment or anger or hurt only to regret the impact it has? Reflecting on what we say and how it impacts on others, taking a breath before saying that cutting remark, feeling the wish to hurt another and then letting it go and feeling compassion for the other person can transform an argument into a place of healing. When we let go of being right we may open to new possibilities for being happy.

Right action brings attention to how we use our bodies through abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and sexual misconduct. The first two seem fine – don’t kill or steal. But is the third another religious assault on sex, making it liked or wrong? By sexual misconduct is meant any action that harms another or is done against their will – rape, incest, abuse – but because it includes actions done against the will of another it can include a normally consenting partner if they are then forced to do something when not willing. It means respecting and being sensitive to anyone with whom we are having sex.

This part of the path encourages respecting life – as all beings wish to live and not to have it taken from them, to respect the property of others and note our greed to acquire, and if possible shift it to sympathetic joy (being pleased for the good fortune of others and their enjoyment of the things they have rather than envy and covetousness). This can lead to greater peace of mind and heart. The Buddha never said sex was wrong or a sin. He had courtesans as disciples and treated them no differently to the kings who visited him. Monks and nuns were obliged to be celibate. But lay followers were encouraged to use their sexual energies wisely, to note the way sexual desire opens the door to a sense of lack, craving, longing and to see how one can find fulfilment through consenting and caring sexual relationships with another or others.

Right Livelihood refers to earning a living though honest and ethical business dealings which do not involve cheating, lying or stealing. The following were specifically prohibited:
Business in weapons: trading in all kinds of weapons and instruments for killing.
Business in human beings: slave trading, prostitution, or the buying and selling of children or adults.
Business in meat: “meat” refers to the bodies of beings after they are killed. This includes breeding animals for slaughter.
Business in intoxicants: manufacturing or selling intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs.
Business in poison: producing or trading in any kind of poison or a toxic product designed to kill.

3. The third section, Meditation or concentration is said to be supported by living an ethical life as it is harder to meditate with a bad conscience! This raises an interesting question for modern mindfulness teaching which focuses on teaching meditation but without addressing the ethical behaviour of those learning it. But I’ll leave that as an open question! Meditation in turn provides the support for wisdom to arise. Hence the end of the list brings us back to the beginning – and in this sense it is not a list but a circle. And even as a circle each aspect of the path interrelates and supports the other so there is no one point or simple progression from one aspect to the next – each is mutually supportive of the other and to be applied as needed and appropriate in one’s life.

Right Effort is the diligent exertion to maintain skilful states which lead to peace of mind and heart that are already arisen and to avoid acting on unskilful motivations that may lead to unethical behaviour or actions that do not lead to peace.

Right mindfulness, the cultivation of attentiveness and alertness, which according to the Buddha involves bringing awareness to the body and physical sensations; feelings; thoughts; and all mental processes.

Right concentration which is the state of focused meditation on a single object. Right mindfulness in this sense is seen as more of a moment by moment awareness that may occur at any time whether meditating or not. Right concentration is the experience of bring attention to a focus on one object, such as the breath.

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

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