Exploring the First Noble Truth: Delving into Dukkha


In learning meditation, we focus heavily on direct experience. It really doesn’t matter what Buddhism is or if you’ve studied the Buddha’s teaching extensively. You can still benefit from simply sitting and paying attention to your breath.
But we would be foolish not to draw from the teachings that give us guidance through the fog of our own experience.

The core of the Buddha’s teachings are the Four Noble Truths. If you are not familiar with these, they are, first: that there is suffering; second, that there is a cause of our suffering; third, that we can end our suffering; and fourth, that the way to do this is through the Eightfold Path that helps us be more skillful in how we perceive the world and ourselves, in how we mentally process our experience, how we impact the world with our words, how to be more present with our experience, how to behave in a skillful way that does no harm to others or ourselves, how to tune ourselves like guitars — neither too loose nor too tight, and how to make a living in a way that doesn’t cause suffering to ourselves or others.

The Friday morning class at Spirit Rock has been working with Phillip Moffitt’s book on the Four Noble Truths, called Dancing with Life, and he has made what can seem a very dry and elusive topic very juicy and insightful. Since I have been recovering from my surgery, I haven’t been able to attend class, but have been enjoying reading the book and making my own explorations into the topic.

Moffitt says that a person could just study the First Noble Truth for their whole lives and have a very rich and rewarding practice. I’ll just spend a few minutes on it here, because he also says that many of us want to skip over it. An inconvenient truth, this first one! Ugh! Suffering, who wants to think about that! But apparently if we skip over it, like missing the first vital minutes of a mystery movie, we never really understand anything else! So, let’s face it head on!

The First Noble Truth: There is suffering. Okay, we know that! We see the images of starving children in Africa with their big bellies, people stricken with horrid diseases, homeless people begging on the streets, or victims of violence.

But the Buddha said we all suffer, that it’s the human condition. Well, okay, yes, we’ve all had periods in our lives where we had great loss or physical pain or went through a tough time in our relationships, careers, etc. Sure. But in general we reserve the word ‘suffer’ for those who really have it bad. We can hardly claim it for ourselves, and don’t have any interest in doing so! Thank you very much!

But apparently, according to the Buddha, if we don’t acknowledge the truth of our own suffering, the reality of its existence in our daily lives, we cannot come into relationship with it and deal with it skillfully.

The fact that we who feel blessed in the world have a hard time acknowledging our own suffering made me wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Maybe he didn’t mean that a rich man doesn’t deserve to get into the kingdom, but that the gate to the kingdom is through awareness of the suffering we experience in the present moment, and he doesn’t allow himself to think he could be plagued with anything so plebian as suffering.

I’m also reminded of the song lyrics, “So high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you’ve got to go in through the door.” What is the door? To Buddhist ears, the door is ‘this moment’. Whatever our current experience is, suffering and all, that is the door to a richer life than that proverbial rich man could even imagine.

And then I realized that the Buddha’s father must have known this to be true. If you don’t know the story of the Buddha’s childhood, briefly: When he was born a soothsayer told his father that his son would either be a great warrior or a great spiritual leader. Well, the father, a wealthy man with a great palatial estate, most certainly didn’t want his son following a spiritual path. He didn’t want him following the ascetics of the day, walking on fire, lying on nails, begging for food. Not for his son! So what did he do? He created a paradise within the palace walls where there was no visible signs of suffering! No death, no illness, no aging. All this to protect his son from any awareness of suffering, instinctively knowing it to be the door to the spiritual path he didn’t want his son to pursue. Aha!

The Buddhist term for this suffering or unsatisfactoriness is dukkha. Such a great word! Great because it really sounds like what it is: An amalgam of doo-doo and ca-ca. Dukkha. How totally appropriate! Because when we are aware of our suffering we’re very likely to name what we are experiencing with some more adult version of those baby words for bowel movements. Sorry for any crudeness, but it’s a great mnemonic device. If we think, “This is doo doo, ca, ca,” or words to that effect, we might remember, “Ah, dukkha! suffering, the human condition. Yes, here it is. Let me sit with it.”

According to Moffitt, the Buddha taught that there are three kinds of suffering: The first is physical and mental pain. The second is the dukkha of constant change – we paint our house, knowing that in time we will need to do it again; the end of summer comes too soon for us; our body ages; our loved ones die; our children grow up and move out; every day we are assaulted with news of the world in constant flux. And the third kind of suffering is the feeling that life itself is a little overwhelming, a little too much to bear. Even in the best of times, it’s exhausting.

These three kinds of suffering are part of our very nature. It is the human experience to have pain, to wish for some stability in our lives, and to feel at times overwhelmed by the experience of living. There is nothing we can do to avoid them. And that is not what the Buddha advocated.

Instead we are told to accept our suffering. When a pain arises, we accept that pain is part of our human experience in this moment. “This is how this feels,” we might tell ourselves. “This is how things are in this moment.”

This level of deep acceptance may sound defeatist. It’s part of our make up that we want to rush in and make things better. We want to avoid pain at all costs. We want to limit the damages. We don’t want to wallow. We are not victims. We are not losers. This is not us.

But through this habitual pattern of struggling to avoid the stinking dukkha, we just dig ourselves deeper into it, adding more suffering to the unavoidable pain we are experiencing.

Seven weeks ago during my hospital stay, there was a patient in the next bed who was deep in the dukkha of physical pain. But she was compounding her suffering immeasurably by struggling against it. She made up stories in her head about the doctors and nurses and how they were in league to keep her in pain. She tried to distract herself by watching television long into the night. She dragged the past pain into the present moment by constantly noting how many hours she had been experiencing it. She piled on a load more suffering by imagining this pain going on far into the future. She did everything BUT stay present with the actual sensations she was experiencing.

And we all do this! We make up stories to fix, explain or work around the pain. Our stories may be different: We may tell ourselves to bucker up, to put on a happy face. We may tell ourselves if we were better people we’d know how to get ourselves out of this. We distract ourselves with all manner of busyness and addictive patterns of behavior. We drag in the past and the future to compound the pain. This is our habitual way of dealing with suffering.

Amazingly, by being fully present with the dukkha, accepting it as our experience in the present moment, we and the moment are transformed. Slowly, and with full mindfulness, we begin to soften into our experience. Because we are no longer struggling against it, we are no longer adding more suffering to it. We aren’t projecting it into the future or dragging old suffering in from the past. We are simply being present with our experience.

Last Friday I finally was able to return to my beloved class at Spirit Rock. That day our teacher was Wendy Palmer who took this concept one step further. She says that by being full present and opening to the dukkha experience, the dukkha itself will support us, will be as nourishing as compost.

So I have this image now, of the doo-doo ca-ca of dukkha as manure, becoming a rich nourishing compost that – if I can stay present and aware – can deeply inform my experience so that I am not just surviving the experience but growing in my experiential understanding of myself and life.

And I realized that this poem that I wrote several years ago illustrates dealing with dukkha.

A Hole is to Fall Into

It’s so hard to remember that
every hole I fall into holds a buried treasure

because I am too busy clawing my way out
and cursing my fate to remember to:

let go!

fall deep!

and, upon reaching bottom : sit still!

Here in this quiet darkness of non-doing,
the steady rising and falling of the breath
slowly unearths the buried treasure.

— Stephanie Noble

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