Happy New Year to all of you! It is a time of fresh starts and renewal for me. I love viewing the new year as a fresh piece of paper, a time to construct the next 12 months with focused intentionality. As part of that, I’ve found it’s useful to revisit the foundations of my beliefs — without a solid understanding of what I believe and why, it can be a bit more difficult to anchor my intentions in a way that aligns with the impact I want to have on the world around me.
Every year, I revisit some of the core tenets of Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, the Bodhisattva Vow, and the Metta Sutta. Today, let’s take a look at the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths are the foundation from which all Buddhist thought springs. The Buddha taught this first lesson after becoming enlightened beneath the Bodhi tree, so you’d figure it was a big deal. The truths are interpreted in many different ways, and I’ve found that knowing their original intent allows you to interpret them in a way that makes the most sense for you. The Four Noble Truths can be transmitted in ways that most sane people would bounce right off of them, so it took me a little while to find a way to express them that worked for me.
First: Suffering is inevitable in life.
Most people first hear this Truth as “Life is suffering.”, which is a stone-cold bummer to place at the center of your philosophy. While this can be a legitimate way of framing the First Noble Truth, I don’t think it’s the way that most people will come to understand and agree with it. Saying that suffering is inevitable gets the idea across but doesn’t equate all existence with a base state of suffering.
Still, what does this mean? It means that all living beings will go through a period of suffering at least once. The very nature of our existence ensures this. We’re born, get sick, grow old, and die. It happens to everyone around us — the people we care about, everyone we meet on the street, strangers we’ve never met before. Even our enemies. Existence is an ever-changing thing, impermanent, fickle. The good times never last. The bad times always come around.
One interpretation of the Four Noble Truths that helped me grok them is that the Buddha saw himself as a spiritual physician of sorts. At the time, medical diagnoses took on a four-part framework: the statement of the illness, the cause, whether or not there was a treatment, and what the treatment was. Here, the First Truth is just a statement of fact. Yes, there is an illness. We suffer in an ever-changing, unstable existence. That’s just the way life is.
Second: Our attachments are the cause of our suffering.
This is the cause of our illness, the fundamental dissatisfaction with life. Human beings are excellent at adapting to shifting circumstances. We’ve evolved to notice the differences in our environment. Our brains are wired to notice the things we lack, and we’re chemically rewarded when we go out and get them.We’re built for hoarding what we’ve worked for, to keep as much as possible as long as we can. But the good times never last. This fundamental disconnect — between our basic desires for stable comfort and the reality that can never happen — is exactly what makes life so unsatisfactory. We think we want things to stay a certain way forever, but even if they did, our brains would quickly grow bored, moving on to the other things we lack and need to strive for, or just being dissatisfied that there’s nothing new.
We become attached to specific ideas. We think that our lives would be better if we just got the job we wanted, landed the right partner, or even ate this pie that we wanted. The things we strive for become symbols of a life that can never be; if we just had this, we’d be complete and content. But what if we lose our job? What if our partner changes in ways we don’t like? What if the pie is disappointing? Our thoughts about what we experience influence the way we interact with them. Instead of accepting that no job lasts forever, that our partners will age and change, and that sometimes pies can be bad — we lament the difference between the pie in our heads and the pie on the table.
It’s not life that makes our existence unsatisfactory; it’s our expectations. We become so attached to an idealized, impossible existence that this one can’t help but be disappointing in comparison.
Third: By releasing our attachments, we can end our suffering.
Luckily, there is a “cure” for the fundamental dissatisfaction with our experience. We can just let that shit go.
We could accept that our existence is an ever-shifting experience. We could accept that we, and everyone we’ve ever known, will age and change over time. Our society is changing. Our world changes. This is happening all the time — even right now! — and nothing we can ever do will stop that.
Releasing our expectations of the way life should be — stable, fair, filled with delights — is the best way to stop being disappointed by it. The good times don’t last. The bad times always come around. But that’s OK. We know and accept this because there’s no other way life could be. It’s a fact of life that most of it will be spent in suboptimal conditions. We’ll be sick. Or in pain. We won’t have everything we need or want to be our best selves. That’s just out of our control.
The Third Truth is just another way of visualizing the Serenity Prayer. We want the courage to change what we can, the grace to accept what we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference, right? Releasing our attachments is one excellent way to do that. When we think or say, “I just wish that…” or “It should/shouldn’t be this way…”, it’s a sign we’re attached to an outcome over which we have no control. It’s an opportunity to let our investment in an alternate reality go.
Fourth: We can release our attachments by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
In some lights, this feels like an advertising scheme. Create a problem, make someone feel like they have the problem, and then sell the solution. The Noble Eightfold Path is the “prescription” put forth by the Buddha for the inherent dissatisfaction with life. If we follow this set of guidelines, it becomes much easier to ease the grip of our attachments and accept reality for what it is.
I’ve found that the Noble Eightfold Path isn’t an excuse for ignoring the unacceptable parts of our world; it’s a way to shift our perspectives so that we’re always working on the parts of our world we can control to make it better. None of us will be able to fight climate change or end world hunger, but following the Path makes us the kind of people who accept our responsibility for how we treat each other and the world around us. Then, we take action to ensure we’re responding to the world in the best way possible.
If we pay attention to what we learn on the Path and continually strive to incorporate those lessons into our daily lives, our heart lightens a bit. We can see past our expectations into the truth of our existence. The people we meet are scared, confused, or sad. The people who lash out at us or seem oblivious or uncaring have all kinds of things going on that make them this way. Seeing that a bit more clearly, and learning how to respond to that in a way that challenges their attachments, is a net benefit for everyone. Accepting the world — and ourselves — exactly as they are is the best first step to learning how to change it for the better.
Taken on their own, the Four Noble Truths can feel like a pessimistic, ultimately conservative dogma that inspires people to shrug at injustice. But I’ve found that’s not so in practice. Instead, they’ve helped me to change my perspective about what’s “wrong” with the world and given me better tools to fix the things I can whenever possible. They’ve made me feel more comfortable with the world around me and made it easier to interact with compassion and empathy. Learning to let shit go is a simple concept that’s exceedingly difficult to practice, even with the Noble Eightfold Path as a guide.
Why is that? I’ll have to consider it when I contemplate the Noble Eightfold Path on Wednesday.