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.