With the First Noble Truth we recognize the fact that there is suffering in life. Though it sounds harsh, this recognition to a degree relieves us of the anxiety about why we aren’t always perfectly happy. Once we have this recognition, once we sit with it awhile and mull it over in our minds, we may come to the Second Noble Truth.
The Second Noble Truth is an insight into the cause of our suffering. The Buddha had this insight when he sat under the Bodhi tree. He saw how there is pain that is a natural part of earthly existence, but that we create suffering on top of the pain. How do we do that?
The Buddha saw how we cause suffering by clinging to what we like and pushing away or denying what we don’t like.
He recognized a trait that has since been identified as part of the make up of all multi-celled creatures. These chemically-driven states of desire for pleasure and fear of pain are produced by our brains in order to help us survive.
So why would we want to get rid of these traits? First, we are not focusing on getting rid of anything. Instead we open to everything that arises in our experience, holding it in an open embrace of awareness.
As we become aware of these traits in our own nature and when we see them in others, we may see that often times we are not using them just for survival. We are grasping, clinging and pushing away or denying everything in our lives, not just things that are necessary for our survival or threaten it. These inherent traits of all animals have in humans turned into hyper-activated habituated tendencies.
Why is this so? Perhaps with our more developed frontal cortex — the part of the brain that enables us to imagine infinite possible outcomes — we are constantly activating physical and chemical reactions to imagined situations. Our overactive imaginations in our constantly thinking minds with all the re-runs, re-dos, application of acquired knowledge and sheer fabrications, have put us into mental over-drive. The result is an almost constant state of fear. This is not the fear of something we are actually facing in this moment, the way a deer will run away from anyone that comes too close. This is an ongoing state of mind that, lacking any current threat, will create imagined ones to fill the void.
What does fear do to us physically? If you’ve ever noticed a spider shrink into itself when it feels threatened, you know that that is what we do as well. A baby at four months is suddenly a little more wary of strangers, and her first response is to shrink a little into herself for a moment while she assesses the situation.
We adults do this too, but we easily end up staying there, tightened up into knots of tension, where we get stuck in a state of perpetual sense of alarm and isolation. We can’t sense our connection because we are locked into a hard separate stance. When we discover a connection with some particular person, situation or object, we are so relieved that we cling to them, and can’t bear to let this moment pass where we feel some relief from our ongoing sense of isolation. So we go from Teflon to Velcro with no place in between, with no way to inhabit our bodies and our being that is truly comfortable and easy.
Over the past weeks of exploring the First Noble Truth, I have been asking you to really notice how you cause suffering in your life. And what you have mentioned are the very tendencies the Buddha saw in his insight about how we create suffering in our lives: greed, aversion and delusion. Most of us fall more heavily into one of these tendencies, but all of us have some of each. So let’s take them one at a time.
When we experience pleasure and get attached to it, want it to continue, don’t want to let it go, begin to identify with it, start to need it like an addictive fix, go unconscious around it – a bit of a brain bypass that has a quality of time-out relief to it – this is the grasping, clinging, clamping down upon nature of the greedy mind.
The tendency toward aversion brings up critical thoughts, judgments about people, behaviors, environments, aesthetics, conditions and situations. Nothing is every quite right. Even the most delightful situation could be improved upon, if only….
This tendency is the head in the sand, or a certain grogginess that can be easily swayed and confused. If it takes a stand, it’s a stand of denial, not wanting to face facts.
Now all these traits have some positive aspects: Greed can be experienced as a zest for life. Aversion can be creative, transformational and problem solving. The delusive trait can see all sides of an issue and may pave agreement among disparate ideologies. But all can cause suffering.
These three tendencies – this grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying – are simply things to notice as they arise in our experience. Recognizing them is useful. Using the labels of greedy, aversive or delusive is not useful. We have more than enough labels already, thank you very much!
Seeing a tendency in ourselves is cause for celebration, not shame. It’s not our fault that these tendencies exist. Nature programmed us this way to keep us alive.
Our impressively developed brains continue to make an increasingly complex system of technological developments. When we steep ourselves in this hive of activity constantly, when we keep pace with the rapid-fire nature of modern life in our culture, we quite naturally succumb to one or more of these traits that cause suffering. Needing a retreat from the hubbub, we may choose unskillful means to numb ourselves with drugs, intoxicants, gambling, shopping, mindless eating, and other addictive behaviors. These are the answers readily provided by advertisers, so they are usually the first recourse.
Yet it is not just in this advanced technological age that humans cause themselves suffering. The Buddha didn’t have a cell phone or a computer, nor was he a jet-lagged jet-setter. In fact he spent his whole life within a very small mostly rural area, living amidst nature. Yet he knew suffering, and he saw it manifest in all the humans he knew as well.
Sometimes people get misty-eyed about some more quiet ‘simpler’ time, thinking that happiness was much easier to come by in the old days. ‘Simple for whom?’ is what I always wonder, because when I look back I see intolerance, enslavement and injustice. I am so grateful to be living now!
Not to exonerate the era we are in from these same forms of blindness. We continue to disrespect and trash the earth and, because of our vastly greater numbers, the impact is much greater. We trash our own bodies with faux food, and our governments wage war against each other over access to resources. And we live at a pace that is unsustainable and cannot be compensated by a week on the beach every summer.
But we are also, to a much greater degree than in past centuries, recognizing ourselves in each other, recognizing our connection to all of the inhabitants of this small blue planet. There are many movements afoot — not just in spiritual communities — that are slowing down the pace of life, acknowledging the value of this moment, of staying present.
Regardless of what era we live in, the development of the human brain has created this potential for creating misery, for getting out of balance. And the further refinement of it, through the insights of the Buddha and many other awakened beings, offers us skillful means to end, or at least cope with, our suffering.
The first step on this path is being able to recognize these traits of grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying as they arise in our experience. This is a great step to awakening! Don’t shut down now just because it feels uncomfortable to acknowledge something that seems to reflect badly on you. It doesn’t! Relax! We’re all in the same boat here.
So now as we explore for ourselves the Second Noble Truth, the challenge is to stay open. Yes, I know, this feels so personal, but it’s universal. And if we can gently but firmly be present to notice these tendencies in ourselves, we can begin to experience more spaciousness.
The key to sitting with the Second Noble Truth is to tap into compassion. We approach it with a great deal of metta, loving-kindness so that we won’t be swallowed up by the aversiveness that might be prompted by this inner discovery. Agh! I don’t want to be like that! Or I’m not like that!
No one said this work is easy, but there are ways to make it easier. I had a wonderful teaching a few months ago, watching my newborn granddaughter sleeping peacefully in her bassinette. Then suddenly she started rooting and struggling, waving her fists and poking her tongue in and out, wanting, wanting, wanting something, anything to stick in her mouth. How strongly I related to that! I recognized myself, the way I will sometimes roam the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator and the cupboards looking for a little something to stick in my mouth.
What an awakening it was for me to see that this is something born in me. My granddaughter was two weeks old! I didn’t invent this craving, I don’t have to feel shame for it! Of course, it’s not a free pass to eat everything in sight, but it is a deep acceptance of my own nature.
And then she gave me another insight, one that reined me in from forging my way to the kitchen. I noticed that after 30 seconds or so, her wanting, wanting, wanting passed, and she slipped into deeper sleep. She let it go. It passed. And if I pay attention, if I don’t rush to fulfill my wanting, if I sit with it a bit, I notice that yes indeed, she’s right: the wanting does pass.
So working with the Second Noble Truth is both humbling and enlightening. We are not trying to see how bad we are. We are accepting that we are human and finding some peace in that awareness. And perhaps we can hold it lightly, take ourselves less seriously, and feel less as if we have some fortress to defend.
Acknowledging and noticing is a continual process of creating spaciousness and awakening. It is made more painful if we see ourselves as isolated individuals up on a stage with judges about to call us out. If we can let view go, let ourselves be held in loving-kindness, if we can see ourselves as the small children we once were and hold ourselves with parental love, then we can begin to see each of these traits as clues to suffering, rather than one more reason to beat ourselves up.
So I hope during the week you will allow this level of noticing to bring about insights. And I hope that you receive the insights with great compassion.
This is the practice.