The first time I heard my Buddhist teachers explain the Four Noble Truths—beginning with “life is dukkha” (unsatisfying, painful by its very nature, unreliable even when it is pleasant because it is always changing)—I thought, “They’re telling the truth. These people are talking about exactly what I’m worried about. They know what the real problem is. And they promise a solution.”
The first of the four Noble Truths, the central teaching of the Buddha, is that life is fundamentally unsatisfying because of its fragility, its temporality. Nothing lasts. I was relieved to hear this as the starting point for practice. I had, by the time I discovered Buddhism, spent several years preoccupied with the notion that I was the only person I knew who recognized that life was tragically flawed, and yet here it was as the central teachings of the Buddha. It was such a relief! My reading of how life is was not a personal melancholy misperception. My response to it was melancholy, but here were teachers who said that it was possible to cultivate wiser responses. They were contemporaries of mine with backgrounds similar to mine, and they seemed happy.
The second of the Noble Truths differentiates between the inevitable pains of life and the extra pain created in the mind that struggles rather than accommodates. The words attachment and clinging are used to describe the tension that arises in the mind when it’s unable to accept what is true. When I realized how true that was for me, I longed for the ability to let go of clinging and discovered how hard it was. I didn’t feel l was clinging. I felt my attachments were clinging to me. Caught in the grip of a worry attack, or agonized when something was not well with one of my children, I resigned myself to passing through a particularly intense period in what seemed, at best, a life lived stepping gingerly between minefields of catastrophe. My heart was tense and guarded.
The third of the Noble Truths of the Buddha is the promise that peace of mind and a contented heart are not dependent upon external circumstances. I think it was this promise, so clearly articulated, that initially attracted Westerners.
The fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path of Practice, followed the promise of peace with straightforward instructions that were ordinary and accessible and made practice the context of life. Although for most of us Buddhism did not require a lifestyle change, we were committed to transformation. We counted on being changed by practice.
The Buddha was a monastic, but the practice of mindfulness in the context of any lifestyle is one of renunciation. Every moment of mindfulness renounces the reflexive, self-protecting response of the mind in favor of clear and balanced understanding. In the light of the wisdom that comes from balanced understanding, attachment to having things be other than what they are falls away.
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