Category Archives: First Noble Truth

Where does it hurt?

Once I told my mother I was feeling down. She said ‘Well, you shouldn’t.’ I knew she was right. It didn’t add up. I had all the prerequisites for happiness. Okay, but then what do I do with this feeling? (Don’t judge her. She was a woman of her time, before emotional intelligence was even a thing. She was of a generation that took pride in soldiering through any emotional turmoil.)

But the Buddha knew what I was talking about. He recognized this ongoing sense of angst and not-enoughness and called it dukkha, which has been translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and discontent. There’s no perfect word in the English language for dukkha, and besides the original Pali word is so perfect for us English-speakers because it marries two common words we may use for feces: doo-doo and caca. Doo-cah. Dukkha. Yup, that works to describe feeling poopy. We don’t need a specific reason to feel that way, do we? Sometimes we just do. We might say ‘I woke up on the wrong side of the bed’ which makes no sense at all but we feel the need to ascribe this feeling to something.

Sometimes the conditions of our lives do activate unhappy emotions, but often what we find to blame for this ooky feeling didn’t bother us yesterday. Yesterday we didn’t find someone’s habits annoying, but today for some reason we do. It has to be the fault of someone or something, doesn’t it?

No! According to the Buddha, it doesn’t. Dukkha exists. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to deal with it. The Buddha provides a brilliant set of solutions that we will be exploring in upcoming posts. But it’s important to first notice the existence of dukkha in our lives, and to notice that blame is not useful. Making an enemy of anything is not useful.

The Ill-fitting Axle Hole
In Pali dukkha literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole’. Such a great metaphor for how dukkha feels in our lives. Imagine riding along in a cart with a wheel that is wobbly or otherwise dysfunctional. It makes a continuous ker-thump. Some of the time the beautiful scenery or the delightful conversation distracts us from the ongoing ker-thumping, but it’s there. Sometimes we can’t sense anything else because the constant irritation of the rough ride makes enjoying anything impossible. And that’s just like dukkha. It’s an underlying irritant that creates discontent even in otherwise pleasant circumstances.

This recognition of dukkha’s existence, even in the lives of those who seem to ‘have it all’ was the starting point of Siddhartha Gautama’s quest to end suffering for himself and all beings circa 600 BCE in northern India. He was born into wealth and destined to rule. Yet as a young man he felt a sense of unsatisfactoriness. No one is immune to dukkha. Because he was born into wealth, he knew that luxury can be a source of pleasure but not of true happiness. This saved him a lot of time that many of us spend striving and seeking material success, fame, admiration, etc. thinking it will wipe out the dukkha we are experiencing. Can we take his word for that? If not, we can look around at the rich and famous in our own culture and recognize that whatever true happiness they experience is not a product of their wealth or position, and whatever sadness they experience cannot be cured by another villa, island or fancy car. (Many recent studies show that beyond an income that assures sufficient food, shelter and health, wealth is no indicator of happiness.)

(Not familiar with the Buddha’s life story? Take this four post pilgrimage.

The First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught when he, after years of meditative practice, became enlightened was the importance of acknowledging the existence of dukkha in our lives. Our lifelong patterns of trying to ignore it make this a challenge, but the regular practice and the exploration of the teachings with a group of others, our sangha, who share the wholesome desire to understand and to cultivate awakening, make it possible.

In the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching after awakening, the Buddha named the problem we face as human beings. Then he identified the causes of the problem, identified the solution, and shared the necessary steps to implement that solution. Seeing the truth of his words, his small group of fellow seekers became his first followers. Over the decades of his life, his followers grew, and they took it far and wide. His teachings have been passed down over millennia and they are as alive today — as we explore them, investigating their veracity — as they were in his day in the forests with his followers.

During the week, see if you can notice dukkha’s presence in your own life, from minor discomforts to overpowering mental and physical pain. Over the coming posts we’ll discover what causes dukkha and how to liberate ourselves from it.

That is the heart of the Buddha’s offering.

Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay

It’s not the road that’s bumpy!

We’ve been looking at the three characteristics of awakening as clues to what wisdom might be. We looked at anatta (no separate self) and anicca (impermanence), and now we will look at the third, dukkha, and how it relates to the other two.

deluxe-dukkha-delivery-serviceThe word dukkha has no exact English translation. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, it literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole.’ So imagine yourself driving along and one of your wheels is out of whack so that at every revolution you go ka-bum. Ka-bum. Ka-bum. Eventually you probably get used to it, but there’s an underlying discomfort and dissatisfaction with the experience, right? That feeling, that way of being in relationship with our experience, is dukkha.

What a perfect word! There’s no English word that comes close to so accurately describing this experience. Dukkha combines the scatological sounds of doo-doo and cah-cah. So whenever you could use the word ‘shitty’ in regard to your current experience, you’ll be reminded, ‘Oh, this is dukkha!’ And that is a really important bit of awareness! The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is about the importance of acknowledging dukkha.

Note that dukkha is not the external situation or the condition we are going through but the way we are relating to whatever is going on. We are ka-bum, ka-bum, ka-bumming along the road of life, dissatisfied and not knowing why.

When we pause to pay attention to this moment of angst or misery, we might notice how we take the naturally occurring pain of life — physical or emotional — and exacerbate it by piling on thoughts about the past and the future. We might say to ourselves, ‘Oh no, not this again! I thought I was over this pain,’ and ‘How long will this pain go on?’ imagining relentless agony for the rest of our lives.

Anicca, anatta and dukkha, the three characteristics of awakening, have a relationship to each other. Without the insight into the oneness of all being, we suffer dukkha because we struggle to connect, to be seen, to be loved. We are like fish swimming around in the ocean wishing for water, not knowing we are already at home.

Without the insight into into the dance of impermanence, we rail against the natural systems and patterns of life, longing for and fearful of change, thus creating dukkha.

Conversely, when we embrace the oneness and the impermanence that is this life,  the dukkha is released. We experience pain, sorrow, grief and all human emotion, but we don’t add to it.

Once we understand the nature of dukkha, it’s easy to see how we activate the Deluxe Dukkha Delivery System in our lives and the ways we make ourselves more dukkha-prone. Maybe we’re striving to be perfect. Maybe we are seeking approval and validation. Maybe we are caught up in longing or feel strangled by fear. But instead of making an enemy of dukkha, thus creating more of it, we can befriend it as a messenger. We maintain our practice of meditation and practice being mindful and compassionate in our lives to whatever degree we are able. In this way we set the stage for awakening to the wisdom of no separate self and the cyclical dance of impermanence, and thus free ourselves from the ka-bum, ka-bum, ka-bum of that ill-fitting axle hole of dukkha.

Dat Darn Dukkha

I always enjoy including this Uncle Remus tale when teaching and exploring the concept of dukkha. Now remember how Brer Fox was always out to catch Brer Rabbit? Well, this one day Brer Fox figured a sure way to get ‘em. He knew Brer Rabbit had a sociable nature and would always stop to talk to anyone in his path, so Brer Fox decided to build a trap with a lure in the form of a tar baby. He dipped some sticks in pitch mixed with turpentine, put them together and studded the figure with gewgaws until he figured it was gussied up enough to appeal to Brer Rabbit, then he stuck it along the road where he knew Brer Rabbit passed by on a regular basis, and hid himself behind a bush. He didn’t have to wait long.

Soon enough Brer Rabbit came hopping on down the road – lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity, just as sassy as a jaybird – and spotted this dark alluring creature sitting there and stopped to say hello. But the tar baby didn’t respond to his greeting. He tried to make civil conversation with her, and still the tar baby wouldn’t speak. He asked her if she was deaf, because if so he could talk louder, but still she said nothing.
All the while, Brer Fox, he lay low, having some inkling how this would go. And sure enough, the next words out of Brer Rabbit’s mouth were angry. “Well, you’re just stuck up that’s what you are. I’m going to have to teach you how to talk to respectable folk.” He warned the tar baby, but the tar baby didn’t respond, so Brer Rabbit pulled back and hit her on the side of her head.
But his fist got stuck and he couldn’t pull it loose. The tar held him. Now Brer Fox had to stop himself from laughing out loud as he watched from behind his bush. “If you don’t let me loose,” Brer Rabbit said, “I’ll butt you!” She didn’t. He did. And now his head was stuck too.
All the while the tar baby doesn’t say a word, which makes Brer Rabbit even madder. “If you don’t turn me loose, I’ll kick the stuffing out of you!” She didn’t, he did, and now his foot was stuck too. The more Brer Rabbit reacted to the Tar Baby, the more stuck he got. Sound  familiar?

This is how we are in our lives with our dukkha, the suffering we cause by the way we react to our experience. Perhaps there’s a person in our lives who brings out a lot of reactivity in us, and becomes our tar baby. We react, then we struggle to get free of all the dukkha that comes up around our reaction. But it doesn’t have to be a person, this tar baby. It’s any situation, cause or condition to which we automatically react with a set pattern of thoughts, emotions and behaviors that drag us deep into the tar of our dukkha.
How do we create the sticky tar of our suffering? That certainly wasn’t our intention. Or was it? It’s hard to know what our true intentions are without really paying attention to our experience. When we really are paying attention we might see that we hold some pretty dukkha-prone intentions.
This is something we have been discovering as we work with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. One of the Five Aggregates is Volition, aka urges, impulses and intentions. We might not even know we have these intentions until we become more mindful. They are likely rooted in one of the Hindrances that we studied — Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor and Doubt.
Let’s talk about a few very common mostly-unconscious intentions many of us have:

The Need to Be Perfect
The strive for perfection is laden with dukkha. The tar is very thick when we get caught up in comparing ourselves to some ideal that is unattainable, not just by us, but by anyone. We can see now that there is a dangerous mix of Hindrances in that concoction of an intention to be perfect. There’s desire as well as aversion and a quality of self-doubt. There is the belief that unless we are perfect then we cannot be at peace, we cannot be loved or respected. It’s rooted very deeply the fear of disappearing because we hold ourselves to be separate, we hold ourselves apart from the wholeness of being, and we create misery for ourselves and others.


The Need for Approval
Another closely associated dukkha-prone intention is our desire to receive approval from others. Talk about self-doubt! Talk about worry! This intention throws us completely off-balance as we try to imagine what someone else wants from us, then from that flawed imagining, try to modify ourselves to suit. Striving

The intention to achieve great wealth, fame or success, in whatever form that takes for us is the hindrance of desire, lusting after something that will shore up this separate self we feel we must defend. Goal setting where the goal post is a bigger presence in our lives than what is happening in this moment creates dukkha — a sticky place of disappointment, perhaps guilt over unskillful actions done in pursuit of our goal, and perpetual fantasizing.

Having Something to Prove
The intention to prove something to the world or to someone who once told us we could not achieve something can drive us even after that person is long gone. We internalize the words, never revisit the possibility that the person did not intend them as we took them, or even if they did it was coming from their own mindless dukkha misery.
But we still are stuck in the dukkha of reactivity. What hindrance or hindrances is this rooted in? There’s an anger there, maybe even hatred, so at least aversion, but probably other hindrances combined in that help to shore up that sense of separate self.
There are many more unexamined intentions that could be marketed as Deluxe Dukkha Delivery Systems because they are so effective at transporting us directly into deep sticky dense suffering.

So what happened to Brer Rabbit and his dukkha?
Well, when he was as thoroughly stuck as possible, Brer Fox came out from behind that bush. He couldn’t help laughing and gloating over Brer Rabbit’s predicament. And he made it clear he was going to barbeque him for dinner. Or maybe he would boil him. Hmm, he discussed his choices, and Brer Rabbit just kept telling him to go ahead and do that, but begged him, no matter what, to please not throw him in that briar patch. Old Brer Fox had some dukkha issues too. Even though he had his meal in hand, his desire to make Brer Rabbit suffer was greater than his hunger. So he pulled the rabbit off the tar baby and flung him into the briar patch. Once there, Brer Rabbit laughed and called out, ‘Bred ‘n born in the briar-patch, Brer Fox– bred ‘n born in the briar-patch!’ as he used some handy briars to pick off the remaining pitch from his fur and went on his merry way.
Bred and born in the briar patch. Brer Rabbit freed himself from his tar baby dukkha dilemma by returning to his source, the place where he felt most comfortable in all the world.
So what is our briar patch? Where is the place in ourselves where we feel most at home, where we don’t have to defend ourselves or struggle? It’s ourselves fully relaxed in this moment, accepting ourselves as we are and this situation as it is in this moment, even if it is painful or challenging. This is the place where we are grounded, where the energy is spacious, joyous and supportive. It is a place of conscious awareness, of clear seeing and deep pure intention.
This is the place we come to know through sitting in meditation, through walking in nature in silence, through noticing moments of simple contentment in our lives. We rest in a state of gratitude for this moment of being fully alive.
For most of us these moments are fleeting. We enjoy them but then can’t help but wish they would stay longer, or that we would make ourselves available to them more often, and suddenly we’ve created a little tar baby to tangle with.
At these times maybe we can remember Brer Rabbit and get ourselves back to our briar patch – back to noticing the rising and falling of our breath, the sensations in our body, and the light in our surroundings. Because we were born in this state of being fully present, and we can return to it through our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover that we’re stuck in the tar of dukkha yet again.

Three Marks or Characteristics

Over the past many months of exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we have looked at the nature of impermanence. We’ve looked at physical form, the world around us and our own bodies, and we’ve seen that the only constant is change.

We’ve also come to understand that there is no separate self, that every time we think we can say ‘I am this’, when we investigate we see that we are not that. So there is no isolated fortress of self that we need to defend.

We have learned Anicca (impermanence) and Anatta (no self). These are two of the three Marks or Characteristics that are key to understanding the nature of things. The third mark or characteristic is Dukkha, the quality of unsatisfactoriness that is part of this experience of being alive. Understanding that there is dukkha is the First Noble Truth.

Let’s look more closely at what the word actually means. It’s tricky because there is no perfect English translation. The word dukkha, when broken down into root parts literally means an ill-fitting axle hole. Now that would be very uncomfortable wouldn’t it, to be on a journey and at every turn of the wheel there’s a jolt from the wheel not being properly fitted?


Staying with that image, we can all think of at least a time in our lives when this was certainly how it felt. And if we look closely at the nature of things, we might recognize that quality of ongoing friction or the wheels of our lives being slightly out of balance. This is the quality of suffering the Buddha asks us to acknowledge.

For many of us when we hear the word ‘suffering’ we don’t think of ourselves. We look around at all we have, where we live, all our good fortune, and we feel we would be ungrateful to see suffering in our lives. We put suffering outside ourselves in those who are victims of all the natural and man-made disasters in the news, and certainly there is pain in the world and our compassion is called upon to acknowledge it and perhaps act on that acknowledgement with generosity of spirit, time and resources.

But the kind of suffering we are talking about here is a chronic human condition that most of us ignore. When we tie suffering only to a particular cause or condition, then as long as the conditions of our life are fine, then we are not suffering. If we and our loved ones are healthy and none of them has died recently, then we are fine. We are blind to the chronic suffering of ourselves and others, because we just look at the nice house, the shiny car, the successful career, the healthy body, etc. and conclude that we or they must be happy. But if we are really paying attention, we might notice that even when everything is fine we hope these conditions will continue and fear illness, turns of fortune, aging and death for ourselves and our loved ones. This wanting things to stay the same or wanting things to be different is dukkha, and it’s universal.


We may feel we have no right to such feelings, given all these favorable conditions, so we hide our fear, subsume our feelings in self-destructive behavior, and/or focus on the ‘positive.’ We may ignore the truth that gnaws inside us and we create a false persona. Constantly trying to sustain that false persona is one bumpy ride where we never feel completely at ease, isn’t it?

So the Buddha asks us to look at dukkha, that ill-fitting axle hole of life experience, and acknowledge it. That is the First Noble Truth.

Fortunately there are three more Noble Truths that disprove the rumor that Buddhism is a gloom and doom tradition. In fact, there is infinite joy in the Buddha’s teachings. But the joy is not conditioned on external causes. As we explored in the Awakening Factors in the previous post, this joy is a pervading quality that arises out of the practice of being fully present and compassionate with ourselves when we haven’t been present. We can experience a quiet balanced sense of joy and gratitude regardless of what we are going through in our lives, regardless of the bad news we’ve just received. This is not a training to be insensitive or uncaring. It’s a training in being spacious enough to hold all that comes in loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.

If you’ve been following along in our investigation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, you might notice that this quality of dukkha pretty much sums up what it’s like to live with the Hindrances and Aggregates we studied earlier. The Five Hindrances are: lust/craving, aversion, sloth & torpor, restlessness & worry, and doubt. The Five Aggregates — our body, our preferences, our knowledge or understanding of the world, our urges and intentions, and our consciousness —  get us into trouble when we believe them to be permanent, separate and under our control.

Not understanding annata (impermanence) and annica (no self) leaves us with the experience of dukkha (suffering). Conversely, as we come to understand the nature of annata and annica, then we develop the ability to be soften and even dissolve patterns of dukkha.

So we can see why the Buddha developed the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Through them we can see for ourselves the truth of impermanence and no self, and we are given the tools to release suffering that we create in our lives.

This is an ongoing practice, so do not despair if you feel you haven’t ‘got it’. Just keep practicing the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with yourself when you discover you haven’t been present at all. Remind yourself that in this moment of recognition you are present! That is cause for celebration not harsh judgment.

Sukha – Being Present for Happiness

We have been revisiting the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: that there is suffering in life. In the Pali language this suffering is called dukkha, and we delved deep into the doo-doo of dukkha in previous posts. But there is not just dukkha in life. And particularly for me at this moment of time it would be disingenuous to focus exclusively on suffering, when I am so grateful for this moment where everyone in my circle of family and friends is in better shape than in past months, where crises have passed and in some cases new exciting ventures are being launched, and life is suddenly more light-hearted and fun. My thoughts are filled with playful creative ideas instead of deep problem solving ruminations. Staying present with my experience, I acknowledge this temporal state of affairs. I know that conditions will shift and change, but while I am experiencing this, let me fully acknowledge it!

So as part of that acknowledgment, today we will talk not about dukkha but about sukha. Literally sukha means having a good axle-hole. While at first glance that seems to have a lot to do with this doo-doo dukkha, in fact it means that the axle of the vehicle of your life is round and even, so the wheels that carry you turn smoothly, making the course of your life less bumpy, more pleasant. So sukha is this pleasantness when things run smoothly, and noticing and taking pleasure in this smoothness.

So we’re talking about happiness. When we get to the Eightfold Path we will talk in more detail about how we can skillfully create conditions that produce happiness in our lives and in the lives of others. But as I understand it, sukha is not the conditions of happiness but our experience of enjoying it, just as dukkha is not pain but our tendency to compound it into suffering.

In our last discussion, we talked about this difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens, arising out of life itself. Through mindfulness we can reduce our risk of getting into a painful situation, but pain is an inherent part of being born, living and dying in this earthly realm. Trying to escape it just creates more suffering.

There are also moments of time when conditions are such that we are pain-free and life seems good. Maybe the weather is beautiful, our health is good, we’re doing what we want to do and those we love are in a good place. All the makings for happiness! But because we have the ability, sometimes even the tendency, to take a happy situation and look on the dark side or look all around the edges, we may miss the experience itself. Sukha is the ability to truly appreciate the goodness of life in the moment.

Now, if we take this happy condition and are unable to appreciate it because we fear it is fleeting, or we are afraid our appreciation will cause it to disintegrate, or we get into wondering why life can’t always be like this, or how we could make it be like this all the time, or any of a hundred inner conversations of that nature, then we are back in dukkha!

Sukha, the ability to enjoy ourselves in a way that is beneficial or harmless, is something we can cultivate within ourselves through concentration, insight and awareness practice. We have been spending a few weeks really paying attention to how we create dukkha in our lives, compounding any pain we find by dragging in the past and future, and we will bring more attention to that in the coming weeks. But this week, and from here on out, I ask you to also notice what is pleasurable in your life.

We talked last week about embodiment. Sensing in to our bodies is a big part of our focus in meditation practice. Sometimes we focus on the strongest sensation. But when the strongest sensation becomes overwhelming, it is skillful to find another sensation in our body to focus on, one that is neutral or pleasurable.

Because of the way our brains work and the requirements for survival in our history, we have a tendency to focus more on pain and the potential for future pain. So cultivating an ability to focus on what is pleasurable can be skillful, bringing us closer to the truth of the whole of our current situation. We don’t focus on what is pleasurable in our experience in order to escape or mask pain. We are not trying to run away from the pain, but to remind ourselves to open our embrace to hold all experience, not just the most difficult. We are bringing balance into the moment, acknowledging all of what is.

What we notice when we focus on any sensation for a long time is that it changes. What we labeled ‘pain’ may become a symphony of changing sensations. This is also true for pleasure. The most pleasurable sensation in the world may become intolerable if prolonged. It is valuable noticing to see the truth in this, to understand the impermanence of pain and pleasure. We can even take comfort in the truth of impermanence. ‘This too shall pass.’ And it serves as a reminder of how important it is to stay present with our experience so that we won’t miss the moments of our lives in pursuit of other moments, which, if we continue in this trend, we won’t be present for either.

Happiness sometimes scares us. We tell ourselves it won’t last. Of course it won’t. So what? This is life. This is the deal. Why should we ignore what is right in front of us, bouncing with delight, in favor of pondering the universal problems that abound in the world? Of course we use skillful means, compassion and wisdom to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, but it is not required of us to oppress ourselves constantly with the plagues that are ever present in the world. There has never been a perfect world and there never will be. We do a disservice to this gift of life if we are always in a state of finding it lacking. It is, once again, a matter of finding balance.

So, notice happiness. That’s your homework. Notice when it arises, when the conditions of happiness are there, and then notice what you do with them in your thoughts and emotions. I’m not asking you to “Look on the bright side” or to “Put on a happy face.” I’m asking you to bring awareness to what is pleasant, and then really notice your relationship to that pleasant condition. Make note of any phrases that come up, things you tell yourself, like, “I don’t deserve this.” Or “This is silly. I’m a serious person. To focus on happiness is frivolous in a world where there is so much suffering.” Or “If I pay happiness too much attention, it will disappear.”

Noticing our relationship with whatever arises is a part of the practice, whether it’s how we relate to pain or how we relate to happiness, how we create dukkha and how we cultivate sukha in our lives.

To deepen our investigation, I once again offer up embodiment, an anchoring into our senses. This is letting go of seeing consciousness as a little know-it-all pilot inside our heads operating the controls of this big vehicle of our body, navigating through the mine fields of the outer world.

Embodiment encourages us to take a more realistic view, once based in the facts. We are made of the exact same stuff as the earth and all the beings on it, the same stuff as the universe and beyond. We are stardust. Believing ourselves to be separate may have its uses, but it is just a construct, not meant to be taken as truth.

The truth is we are not just interconnected; we are one and the same body of being as all that is. Consciousness therefore is not a little navigational device, but a shift of awareness into a broader and deeper understanding. Expansive beyond imagining. Infinite, in fact!

When I spent a year on a personal retreat meditating most of the day, healing from the exhaustion of believing myself to be separate, what came quite naturally to me was sensing into my light nature. This sounds odd, I know. But I have sense learned that working with light is an accepted Tibetan Buddhist practice, and though I haven’t studied it and am not a Tibetan Buddhist, my own experience taught me that working with light energy is a universal part of awakening to the reality of consciousness.

When I think of sukha, the ability to truly experience happiness, I think of being fully aware of that light energy that permeates all life. At this time of year when we have just had the Summer Solstice, I am especially aware of light, as I take walks in the cool of the evening when it is still light at eight o’clock.

As we explore sukha for ourselves during the week, if it feels comfortable for you, let the practice include the exploration of light nature. Breathe in light; let it dissolve the imagined boundaries of your being. Let light shine through every pore and dissolve the capsule of skin you once believed to be the edge of your being. Radiate light out; allow your light body to grow as large as it wants. Radiate loving-kindness; wrap the earth in your light body awareness. Feel empowered by this radiance to hold the world and yourself in a loving open embrace of light. Ah sukha!

First Noble Truth: Embodiment as Awareness

We’ve been exploring the First Noble Truth, that there is suffering in life. We have re-visited a couple of dharma talks on the topic and discussed our own experience of the First Noble Truth.

When we revisit a subject, especially one as big as the First Noble Truth, naturally we see areas that were not covered in the first go-round. For me, one of these areas is embodiment. What is embodiment? It is, quite simply, coming home to our bodies, to the sensations in our bodies, to anchoring our awareness in these sensations in order to stay present in the moment.

In class we do a lot of embodiment practice as we settle in to our meditation. We come into awareness of the whole body, as an energetic field, and we practice concentration practice on specific areas of the body, or on specific sensation, like the rising and/or falling of the breath or the sounds we hear as we sit.

But I don’t believe I have focused on this embodiment in my dharma talks, and as I reread the talks, with an eye to editing them into book-form, I see that this is a gaping hole in my writing, especially since I happen to be reading a book of essays titled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment.

Exploring our relationship with our bodies is a vital and valid practice. It is a primary relationship and for most women, one that is fraught with much suffering — physical, emotional and mental. So it is a very useful place to explore the First Noble Truth. There is suffering. Yeah! So I’ve noticed! Ouch!

I just read an essay by Linda Chrisman titled ‘Birth.’ As a Buddhist practitioner and a woman who had done a great deal of body-focused awareness practice in many different forms, she had a hard time accepting the fact, in retrospect, that she had experienced so much pain in childbirth. She had thought all her meditation and body awareness practice would exempt her from the pain that birthing women have experienced throughout history.

She writes, “..it was only after giving birth and feeling like a failure that I realized I had expected these practices to protect me from pain.”

Through the process of writing about her experience, she saw that the point of all her practices was not to protect her from pain. Instead, they had given her the gift of being conscious and fully present for the powerful sensations that are a part of the birthing process.

This brings up such a good question about our own motivations for meditation practice. Are we expecting our practice to protect us from pain? When we experience mental, emotional or physical pain, do we feel like we must not be doing something right, that an awakened being is beyond pain?
Let’s be clear that the only being beyond pain is a corpse. And even though that’s where we will all end up, practice or no, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

As you may recall Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, wrote a book titled Be Here Now, and was a key figure in turning people on to awareness in the 1960’s. In the late 1990’s he had a stroke, and I remember his account of being strapped to a gurney and being pushed through the hospital corridor. He felt that all his years of meditative practice had forsaken him. What was it all for, if, at this moment of crisis, he was absolutely terrified and confused?

His experience of a stroke momentarily threw him for a loop. But after that initial derailment, his lifelong focus on awareness gave him a way to be with his experience, with all the losses of ability, with the loss of the life as he had known it, and he was able to find his way again. He was able to complete his book on conscious aging, titled Still Here.

That moment when he felt forsaken reminds me of how Jesus on the cross asked God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I imagine that Jesus must have previously felt so supported in his own ‘practice’ of sensing his connection to God and to his fellow beings. But on that cross, in that moment of extreme physical and emotional pain, despair arose within him as it would for any of us, as it did for Ram Dass. And one can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s the point? If in the moment you most need support, the rug is pulled out from under you, what’s the point of the practice?’

But this moment passes. Whether it’s a moment in meditation where we feel we will never ‘get it’ or a moment on the scale when we feel no matter what we do we will never lose those pounds, or a moment where we have received awful news, personal or global, that leaves us wondering why bother going on when life is so sad or scary? Meditation does not make us immune to this experience. Meditative practice is not a vaccine that protects us from pain. To believe that is just one more prescription for suffering.

There is no practice, belief or behavior that will create a magic protective shield against life. And really, is that what we want? To arrive at death’s door untouched by life, as if we’d never pecked open the shell of our lives and allowed ourselves room to grow?

No, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that we want to experience this earthly life fully, not by simply checking off a bucket list of things we want to do before we die, but by being fully available for whatever experience we go through, planned or unplanned, deserved or undeserved, pleasant or unpleasant. We live fully by letting life in, by letting it carve our hearts a little deeper, fill our skin with wrinkles, sags and cellulite, and letting life use up our cartilage, leaving us aching. We let life in so that we may know what it is to be alive as soft complex animals on a verdant planet traveling through vast space.

So the point of the practice is to develop awareness, not to create an insulating shield. The point is to develop compassion for ourselves and all life, to feel deeply connected to this collective is-ness of energetic being, purring in the delight of being alive.

So if you have been feeling a failure because your practice has not yet delivered the pure perfect contentment you desire, ask yourself instead if it has delivered on the only promise it ever made: that you might become more aware and more compassionate.

If things are so painful, why do we want to be aware of them? Because when we are not aware, when we go numb or unconscious, we not only experience pain but we create incredible amounts of additional suffering for ourselves and others.

The distinction between pain and suffering is crucial. This earthly existence provides abundant opportunities to experience pain — pain in our bodies through accident or illness, and pain in our hearts through loss and misunderstanding. But when we compound this pain by borrowing from the past or the future — remembering previous pains and fearing this pain will go on forever – then we suffer.

Embodiment, the practice of centering our awareness in physical sensation, helps us to make this distinction. When we notice pain, with awareness we can distinguish between the sensations that we are experiencing as unpleasant, sometimes unbearable, and the emotions and thoughts that rush in around the experience. This is the practice.

The practice does not erase pain. And at moments of extreme pain, it might even seem as if the practice has forsaken us, as it did for Ram Dass in that moment of panic flat on his back on a gurney, his body screaming, his mind in anguish, being pushed through the hospital corridors.

But in fact, when our panic subsides, we find the benefits of the practice we have cultivated are there to support us. The practice doesn’t flatten the sea of our experience. Instead it provides us the means to navigate more skillfully, even allowing us to be present enough to surf the waves, savoring the experience of life as it is in this moment.

First Noble Truth – Uncle Remus Redux

We are staying with the exploration of the First Noble Truth. In class I shared again the First Noble Truth as Told by Uncle Remus. I also read some excerpts from a few essays from the book Being Bodies, Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon, and from Wes Nisker’s editorial titled ‘The First Noble Kvetch’ in the Fall 2009 issues of Inquiring Mind magazine. (Inquiring Mind is wonderful for exploring various subjects from a Buddhist perspective. Subscribe to it!)

Then we continued our discussion from the previous week about our own experience of suffering, what we noticed during the week. It’s an exploration that can take a lifetime.

One meditator shared that on her recent trip she was surprised to find herself somewhat hysterical when her carry-on luggage, filled with all her most necessary possessions, was lost by a small airline. She said she had thought she had evolved beyond such reactivity, and was humbled by her experience. But as she was telling it, we all noticed that she had in fact evolved. She had evolved into really noticing her initial reaction, and, as soon as possible, applying what she had learned through meditation to come back into balance. She apologized to those she had yelled at for her initial rush of panic-driven words, and she was able to use the experience for further learning. She exhibited increased awareness, an increased sense of connection with all of life, including those who lost her luggage, and a willingness to see where she strayed off the Eightfold Path into unskillful behavior, the ability to step up and do whatever possible to correct it, and compassion for herself and others. To ask more from ourselves than that is really stepping into deep dukkha!

So if you were not in the class, read the Tar Baby tale and give yourself the opportunity to further explore your own relationship with suffering.