What is in this mind, and what can we do about it?
I grew up in a loving family in an American suburb; compared to many, I was very fortunate. Yet most of my memories as a child include a sense of much unnecessary unhappiness around me, in both the grownups and the kids. Nothing terrible, but a lot of tension, bickering, worry, and strain. As I grew older, left home, caught the wave of the human potential movement in the 1970’s, and eventually became a psychologist, I learned that what had seemed like my own private unhappiness was in fact very common. It takes different forms, from the intense pain of trauma to a subtle feeling of unfulfillment. And between these extremes lie considerable anxiety, hurt, sorrow, frustration, and anger.
In a word, there is suffering, named by the Buddha as the First Noble Truth of human existence. This is not the whole of life. There are also love and joy, laughing with friends, and the comfort of a warm sweater on a cold day. Yet each of us must face the truth of suffering some of the time, and many of us face it all of the time.
Poignantly, much of our suffering is added to life. We add it when we worry needlessly, criticize ourselves to no good purpose, or replay the same conversation over and over again. We add it when we freeze up around an authority figure or feel ashamed of some minor fault. Life has unavoidable physical and emotional pains, and then we add suffering to them: thus the saying, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” For example, we get embarrassed about having an illness or drink too much to numb old wounds.
This add-on suffering is not accidental. It has a source: “craving”, the sense of something missing, something wrong, something we must get. Most craving does not look like an addict searching for a fix. It includes getting attached to our own point of view, driving toward goals that are not worth the price, and holding onto grievances with others. It is chasing pleasure, pushing away pain, and clinging to relationships. This is the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth – but happily we’re not stuck there. Because we are the ones who make much of our own suffering, we are also the ones who can make it come to an end. This hopeful possibility is the Third Noble Truth, and the Fourth Noble Truth describes a path of practice that fulfills this promise.
These four truths begin with a clear-eyed look at the realities of life, whether in rural India thousands of years ago or in high-tech cities today. I grew up in Los Angeles, and in its entertainment culture and then later in parts of the self-help world, I’ve seen a fair amount of happy-smiley pretense, fake it ‘til you make it. But we need to be honest enough and strong enough to see the truth of our experience, the whole truth, including the discontent, loneliness, and unease, and the unfulfilled longings for a reliable deep well-being. I once asked the teacher Gil Fronsdal what he did in his own practice. He paused and then smiled and said, “I stop for suffering.” This is where practice begins, facing suffering in ourselves and others.
But it’s not where practice ends. The Buddha himself was described as “the happy one.” As I teach in my work and my book Neurodharma, wholesome enjoyable experiences such as kindness are skillful means for both ordinary functioning and full awakening. When suffering falls away, what is revealed is not a big blank but a natural sense of gratitude, good wishes for others, freedom, and ease.