The Four Noble Truths: An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology (Part 7)


pathway in between trees at daytime

We are exploring the Eightfold Path of the Middleway, and the Four Noble Truths. The first of the eight suggestions for living a life free of extremes concerns how we understand life. The Buddha taught that there is a beneficial way of understanding life, of seeing the world, which will help us to live a more pleasant life. This first of the Eightfold Path is typically translated as the right view. I will use beneficial view, to avoid the idea of correct or incorrect; right and wrong.

The Buddha taught that the beneficial view of the world is the Four Noble Truths. If we understand these four truths, we will see the world and our lives in a way in which we can reduce suffering and live a life of contentedness. It is the central concept of Buddhist teaching, and requires us to examine our habitual, unproductive attitude, and adopt a different attitude towards life.

The first of the Four Noble Truths is that life will always involve suffering. There is no way out of suffering, it will always be a part of human existence. This seems simple, and maybe even paradoxical to our interest in a method for living a contented life. But, this first truth is an important one to meditate on and accept. If we examine the idea through mediation and through studying the teachings of others, we will find that suffering is a part of life. Death, illness, aging, loss, accident; these are all a part of life and are instances of suffering. That is it. Don’t anticipate entirely eliminating suffering in everyday life.

The second of the Four Noble Truths is: suffering comes from attachments. In other words, the majority of the suffering that we encounter in our everyday life comes from some desire, some craving, some action that we choose to make which contributes to our suffering. This second truth tells us that the majority of our suffering is not imposed upon us, but is in response to some belief and behavior that brought the conditions for suffering into our life. In short, we are responsible for the majority of our own suffering. This is not an easy thought to accept for some. Buddhist teachings suggest that our clinging to any other attitude might be preserving the poisons (ignorance, anger, and desire) in our life.

The third of the Four Noble Truths is: reducing our desire will reduce our suffering. Desire is a clinging, often described in psychology as an attachment to an idea, a belief, a person, an attitude, or an object. We see something, we believe that possessing that thing will bring us satisfaction. Through great struggle and at great cost to our peace, we take action to possess the thing we desire. Sigmund Freud described this cyclical process as cathexis and catharsis. The satisfaction lasts briefly, and the emptiness returns, settling back into the repetition compulsion of desire, satisfaction, frustration.

This third truth is that satisfaction of desires is not lasting, and that desire will always return, manifesting in a different object, belief, or person. Clinging to the next satisfaction is the life that most people are caught in; chasing the next, brief, satisfaction. The third truth tells us that if we truly want to escape from this cycle of suffering, satisfaction, suffering (called samsara), we should not look to satisfy desires, but rather understand the desire as something that is a substitution for another, more fundamental desire. This more fundamental desire is the neurotic clinging to the learned concept we have developed of who we are; the self-concept.

If we experience desire as an experience that we can choose to be aware of but not act on, rather than some demand that we must react to, we can become liberated from the false promise that fulfillment of the desire will bring lasting satisfaction. The thing to remember is that reaction is not obligatory, and that volitional action (karma) is a choice. The experience of desire does not require an action. Not acting, or choosing to acknowledge but not indulge the desire, is an option. Cultivating our awareness of choice, rather than habitual reaction, is essential in Buddhist practice.

My first encounter with distancing myself from my experience of desire was becoming aware that I was under no obligation to react to desire, typically experienced as physical and emotional discomfort that we call frustration. In other words, I began to distance myself from the experience of desire, embrace the feeling of frustration, and eventually come to understand that frustration is not such a big deal. Some of us fear and avoid frustration at a cost of greater suffering in our lives than the frustration itself. For example, a feeling of desire arises in the belief that some expensive car or title will bring us closer to what we would like others and ourselves to believe about who we are. The more people we convince of our specialness, the more evidence we have that we are special. The clinging to feeling special comes a great cost to our lives, a great deal of suffering.

If we begin to react to the experience of desire with the foreknowledge that the feeling is a lie, that the possession of the desired will not lead to fulfillment, but only to another desire, we can liberate ourselves from the feeling that we must react to every desire that we encounter. Our experience can be reconsidered if we accept a more beneficial view, something more like this: experience the craving and desire. Understand the experience as an essential part of being human. Understand that the desire will not be satisfied by our efforts. Choose to not react to the desire. Unsatisfied desire is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, harnessing desire might be more fulfilling than satisfying it. Often the idea of what we want is more satisfying than actually getting it.

There are some instances when we might choose to act on a desire. However, this is far different than the mindless reaction that most of us feel obligated to engage in, or perhaps, are not even aware that we have a choice to not react to desire.

The fourth of the Four Noble Truths, is following this Eightfold Path of the Middleway. In so doing we will come to an ethical, mindful, and wise way of being that will eliminate unnecessary suffering from our lives.

I would direct the interested reader to The Way of Zen by Alan Watts or the book of Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heat of the Buddha’s Teachings for further meditation on the Four Noble Truths. My personal favorite is the classic, What The Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.

Siddhartha’s First Lecture, The Eightfold Path of The Middle Way: An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology (Part 6)


Continuing our exploration of Siddhartha Gautama’s first lecture, The Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma Sutta, we turn to the central teaching of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path toward the Middle Way.

This lecture (Dhammacakkapavattana in Pali) was delivered in a deer sanctuary in Sarnath, India. It is taught that after Siddhartha awoke to the insights of enlightenment (Buddha means awoken one), he delivered this lecture to a small group of five people. This sutra (the Sanskrit word sutra is like the English word suture; it sews things together) is so dense and rich that we could spend years exploring the text. I would like to present a few concepts that are most relevant to psychology and life philosophy. This is the essence of Buddhist thought (presented in Part 4 of this series); the Eightfold Path of the Middle Way, and the Four Noble Truths. Continue reading

What Does The Buddhist Mean by Interconnectedness?: An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology (Part 5)

close up photography of mshroom

One of the first lessons that one learns in wild mushroom hunting is that even the choice edibles can be poisoned by the soil in which they grow.  Mushrooms that grow on a chemically-treated golf course, or along a roadside might contain toxins that are absorbed into the mushroom from the polluted soil. In this way, a choice edible can become poisonous to eat.

This brings an awareness not only of the characteristics of the specific mushroom variety, but also the soil or context in which it grows. Context becomes as important as the object. The ground becomes synonymous with the figure. We find a parallel in understanding our experience of ourself in both Eastern Buddhist and Western psychodynamic and existential psychologies.

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Siddhartha’s First Lecture: An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology (Part 4)

ancient antique asia asian

The first teaching I received from my Buddhist psychology teacher was regarding suffering as an opportunity for insight. After introducing me to the idea that suffering is a part of life that cannot be entirely eliminated, my teacher asked me to meditate on my suffering for the next week. This meditation involved being actively mindful throughout my day, and remaining aware when I felt anxiety or frustration that lead to certain activities, such as eating chocolate or smoking a cigarette. He asked me to simply become aware of the impulse; the desire, and to spend some time with the feeling of anxiousness before fulfilling the desire. Continue reading

Reincarnation or Rebirth: An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology (Part 3)

forest under brown sky

This week I would like to answer a question that someone asked me.

“Dr. Giobbi, do you believe in reincarnation? I like Buddhist concepts, but I don’t believe in reincarnation. Do I have to believe in reincarnation to study Buddhist psychology?”

This is a great question. Firstly, to most Buddhists, the concept of rebirth or reincarnation probably does not mean what you think it means. That being said, there are some Buddhists for whom reincarnation is very important. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism rebirth plays an important role in their worldview. There are other Buddhists for whom rebirth doesn’t enter into the conversation at all. Zen Buddhists, for example, tend to not be interested in the question. For those interested in Buddhist psychology, the question overlaps with a conversation going on right now in Western evolutionary psychology; that of  Lamarckian hereditary theory. A short answer to your questions is, American, Buddhist psychology is interested in this life. What comes after is not a topic of interest for most who study this form of psychology. Buddhist psychology is interested in insights into living now. Continue reading

How to Meditate: An Introduction to Secular Buddhist Psychology (Part 2)

silhouette of man sitting on grass field at daytime

The final words that Siddhartha Gautama spoke before dying were “be your own light”. We can understand this as being one’s own teacher. Although we can learn from the teachings of Siddhartha and others who came before us, our main way of researching in Buddhist psychology is through meditation. There are many different ways to and reasons for practicing meditation. In Buddhist psychology we categorize meditation into four categories: concentrative, generative, receptive, and reflective meditations. After we briefly understand what each kind of meditation is, we will study the most basic of Zen meditations called Zazen. Continue reading

On Trusting The Process: An Introduction to Secular Buddhist Psychology (Part 1)

ancient art asia asian

Reading Heidegger was one of the biggest intellectual challenges of my life. So many people give up in frustration, and many deal with the inability to “get it” by dismissing it as nonsense. Noam Chomsky is notorious for this point of view. Today, of course, so many  people do “get it” that critiques like those of Chomsky’s reveal more about the critic than they do about Heidegger. When I went to my dissertation advisor, complaining that I just read words and had no grasp on what Heidegger was saying, he just replied, “keep reading!”. So I did, keep reading, and one day it all clicked. I learned from this process that “getting” something often involves letting go, surrendering; planting seeds that later grow and break into consciousness. It requires a certain “faith in a seed”.

Buddhist psychology has been a similar process. The ways of thinking that are involved in Buddhist thought are a challenge to comprehend. Often it is a matter of trusting the process to, over time, reveal the way of thinking, rather than immediate understanding. This kind of thinking is not like solving a math problem, it is more like familiarization in undoing the familiar. It takes time, patience, and faith that there actually is something to “get”. After nearly three thousand years, there certainly is something to Buddhist teachings. Continue reading

On Being And Time

92307._UY400_SS400_Martin Heidegger presented to the West a fundamental truth of Eastern thought. That is the very simple fact that Being, that is to say existence in the sense of I am, is a verb rather than a noun. Existence is not a thing, but rather, a process. This concept, as presented in Being and Time, is central to Buddhist thought. The implications for shifting one’s sense of being from an object to a process, one radically transforms their experience of existence. This is a radical shift that can have a liberating effect in one’s life.

The first consideration is that of what Heidegger discusses as living towards death. When one experiences the loss of someone close to us, whether this is through actual death or symbolic death (the end of a love affair or a friendship) we experience a sort of deathlike loss. Sigmund Freud discusses the loss that occurs and how this mourning leaves us with a sense emptiness and despair. It is during this time of loss that Heidegger describes a certain clarity that enters into our lives. We typically live, he tells us, in a state of forgetfulness-of-Being, a sort of mundane, taken-for-granted experience in which life or our existence, our finite mortality is forgotten. Like the gold benchmark that gives meaning to a currency, our lives lose meaning when we forget the benchmark by which it has value: death. When someone close to us leaves, or dies, we are thrusted into a mindfulness-of-Being, a state in which we are fully aware of the temporality of our existence. This shift into one of clarity is typically accompanied by a sense of wisdom, insight, and perspective. Living within a state of mindfulness-of-Being cannot be sustained, and after some period of time, we drift back into a state of forgetfulness-of-Being.

When loss of love, loss of friendship, or death brings us great sorrow we can also find great clarity and an opportunity for wisdom. We must make use of this moment of insight, because it soon slips away with our return to the illusion of being as an object, rather than a Being of time. This sense of time is not chronological, “clock time”. Time as we know it on the clock is an objectification of time, an artificial transformation into time as quantity. The Greeks referred to this as Chronos time. Instead, Heidegger points us to God’s time, what the ancient Greeks called Kairos time. This is the right time, time as a process rather than as an object. Time flies when we are having fun, or rather, when we forget Chronos we experience Kairos. When the machinery breaks down, when death and loss visit our world, we are forced closer to our own existence through a breaking-down of Chronos and entering into Kairos. This brings us closer to what is important, meaningful, and ultimately the purpose-giving wellspring or our lives.