The Buddha's First Noble Truth (of four) -- the truth of dukkha, or the inevitable suffering, anxiety/fear, and dissatisfaction found in human life -- seems like a downer way to start learning about Buddhism or its more secular version, mindfulness. It sounds like we must resign ourselves to a depressing, burdensome life, scrambling pointlessly for what little pleasure and comfort we can before we croak. S*** happens, and then you die.
It's true that we do suffer when we face pain and the crises of loss, illness, dying, and death. More often, though, we experience an uneasy discontentment with life in general or with something as small as a wish that this moment were different. This, too, is a form of suffering, and it can sour our lives.
Recently, I heard an interesting interpretation of the First Noble Truth in a podcast by Koun Franz, a Zen teacher in Nova Scotia:
There is an aspect of our mind that measures our experience of this moment against a moment we are not having. We imagine alternative realities. If it's snowing outside, I'm capable of imagining it not snowing. When you feel the gap between the two, between what is and what could be, that's dukkha. It's the dissonance between what is and what I can imagine. It works in us all the time, even when we think we are perfectly satisfied, that you're having a perfect day, there is still a part of us saying, "I wish it would be like this all the time." In that thought, then, you're saying, "I wish the other days to come would be better days" or "tomorrow can't possibly be this good." We measure our experience against another experience, yet the other experience is false.
Dukkha can also be translated as fear. We're afraid that this moment isn't quite the moment that it should be. Something maybe has gone wrong... We play these games forever: "If only I'd studied this at university instead of that one, think of the person I might be!" We fear what's missing or ending or not realizing our full potential or our full potential is not that great. Something is supposed to be starting, but it hasn't started yet. We imagine that our real life is somewhere around the corner in a place we can't see, that this life we're having right now is not the actual one because some parts aren't working out quite right.
Franz's interpretation of the First Noble Truth rings true, doesn't it? Reflect on thoughts you've had at various points in your life... or throughout any given day. Here are some golden oldies that many of us have:
--I was happy with the college I attended, but then I visited <fill in the blank> University. Wow. Imagine if I'd been able to go there. The resources and opportunities are unlimited! I could have been <fill in the blank>.
--This job, this field, sucks. I'd be more fulfilled by now if I'd trained in <fill in the blank> instead.
--I shouldn't have moved to this city. I made the wrong decision. I'd have been a lot happier in <fill in the blank>.
--What would life have been like if that romance had worked out? I'll now torture myself by fantasizing about The Perfect Relationship that I ditched that undoubtedly would have been a non-stop love fest.
--I enjoyed this apartment at first, but now I see it has so much wrong with it. Unfortunately, I'm stuck in a long lease. I should have chosen the other one. Every dang day I'm going to have to live with these limitations.
--Boy, today was perfect, but tomorrow I'll be back to the same old grind. Why can't I get on a roll with a whole string of great days? Other people seem to.
--I always dreamed I'd be a <fill in the blank> person, with certain characteristics, living a fabulous life. But I'm not. I couldn't. I wasn't <fill in the blank> enough. How disappointing I am.
--Imagine all the things I could have been and done if only I hadn't gotten sick.
The grass is always greener. Regrets, we've had a few: the choices we might or might not have made, the happiness or pleasure that does not remain unchanged, idealism (read: delusion) hijacked by reality. The human brain, focused solely on survival and threat in prehistoric days, is still wired to compare reality negatively with the unknown future or past unchosen options.
Franz says that Buddhism exhorts us to cultivate not so much gratitude as acceptance:
Acceptance of what-is sounds like apathy, like we don’t see a way to make it better. But acceptance doesn't mean that you like it. Acceptance doesn't mean you're happy with how things have turned out. It means that you really believe that this reality is actually reality, that there is no alternate reality in which it turns out differently. If you're convinced something could be something else, you can't act skillfully to change it. You're acting out of a fantasy. You must see what this moment is, even if you hate it. Look, unblinking, at whatever is in front of you.
What do you notice in this very moment?
for Mindful Monday
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