On The Precipice and The First Noble Truth

It is nearing the last day of my husband’s work before he is permanently laid off, and right now I feel as though we are standing with one foot in the past and the other in the future. I suppose if you look at it that way, a person is always in this position, but today it seems a more significant stance. 

Last night I lay awake for quite awhile with the thought that a person can have everything in one moment, and lose it all in the next. This happens to all of us at one point or another in our lives. Our story is about the loss of a long-standing job, for others it might be the loss of a loved one, or their house burning down to the ground…ultimately it is the loss of our own lives. It would be a pretty depressing thing if you let yourself think about it too often!

I know better than to let myself get on that train of thought, so last night instead of getting too caught up in my own misery, I reminded myself of what the Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths: 

There is suffering.
There is the cause of suffering, which is desire and clinging.
There is an end to suffering.
There is a path to the end of suffering.

Quite often when I find myself about to get caught up in sad or angry thoughts, I remember the Four Noble Truths, and I have to admit I’ve repeated them to myself quite a bit lately!

When you look at them, they seem quite simple. A lot of Buddhists consider them to be “beginner’s Buddhism”, but those who are wise enough know that they are the backbone of the Buddhist philosophy. How to stop suffering was Siddhartha Gautama’s (the Buddha’s) quest and what drove him on a spiritual path. The original word in the Pali language was “dukkha” which was translated as “suffering”, but the actual meaning of dukkha is closer to something like “unsatisfactoriness”.

We experience dukkha in very small ways every day. Standing impatiently in the slowest checkout line in a supermarket is dukkha. Running around the house desperately looking for your lost keys, is dukkha. Suddenly remembering an embarrassing incident from your past and fretting about it all over again, is dukkha.

And realizing with great fear that in two days you no will longer have a job, is dukkha.

Dukkha, or suffering also comes in the aftermath of wonderful experiences, happy times and great accomplishments, not because of those wonderful times themselves, but because we want to hang onto them and feel that way forever, or repeat them over and over again. This is also suffering.

Of course, there is physical suffering and pain, illness and growing old. But the main focus here in this post will be on mental and emotional suffering….because that, as the Buddha taught, is something we can actually change.

Today, you who are reading this post will experience dukkha on some level or another. I guarantee it. It may be very small and almost indistinguishable, but it will be present…on the other hand, if you, like me, are going through a difficult time right now, you’ll have no trouble recognizing it.

The interesting thing about suffering is that it ebbs and flows. If you “stand back” from it for just a moment, you’ll begin to notice that its intensity is not constant. Sometimes you’ll even forget about it for a moment, or actually find yourself feeling good. This is something very important to note! Because most of the time, we actually perpetuate our own suffering…we will actually REMIND ourselves of it again and fall right back into it! Is that stupid, er what?? This is human nature.

So today, I’m going to “watch” my thoughts very carefully, and every time I find myself slipping into that unhappy train of thought, I’m going to say to myself “Ah hah! That is suffering.” If you are interested in joining me, please do.

In the next post, I’ll explore the Second Noble Truth in more detail.


The Gift of Forgiveness

You see it in television interviews, read it in newspapers, hear it on the radio…everytime there is a legal case against a person or organization, or when people are interviewed after someone has gotten away with some kind of crime, you hear the word “closure”; all we want is closure, this will give me some kind of closure.

The Oxford Dictionary defines closure as :

1 an act or process of closing. 2 a device that closes or seals. 3 (in a legislative assembly) a procedure for ending a debate and taking a vote.

Most people are referring to the first definition, “an act or process of closing”. But I think what they are really seeking is an end to their own suffering and a feeling of peace, which I think they expect a legal proceeding or the receipt of something to do. It doesn’t.

Closure is over-used and misinterpreted, a tacky and misunderstood cliche.

It’s not that I don’t have empathy for a family that has lost a loved one to a drunk driver, for instance, standing outside the courthouse at the end of the driver’s trial, relieved that the whole procedure is over. I can’t begin to know how it must feel. But although it may be closure with respect to the end of the trial, it won’t end their suffering or give them peace.

The end to suffering happens gradually over time and is the result of inner work, not a court verdict.

Something else that I’m afraid we human beings mis-identify as “closure”, is revenge. We believe that if someone is punished for what they have done to us, that we will feel better. Perhaps for a short while we do, but as many often discover, revenge doesn’t put things back to where they were before. And it often leaves us feeling worse in the long run.

What truly ends our suffering in all of these cases is forgiveness. But forgiveness is also a word that is misunderstood. Many people believe that forgiveness means they have somehow approved the other person’s heinous act, or given permission for them to continue to behave that way. We often feel that by remaining angry and hateful towards the other person, we are punishing them in some way. More often than not, they don’t even feel it!

What forgiveness does is relieve our own suffering by helping us to let go of our anger and pain. And often when we do this, we are more able to understand the cause of the other person’s behaviour. Forgiveness liberates us from the burden of our own misery, and clears our view just like clouds parting to reveal a crystal blue sky. True, heartfelt forgiveness is something we all need to practise once in awhile…all the time, in fact!

Every time Christmas rolls around I inevitably bump into someone who feels Grinch-like about the whole thing, for various reasons. Most of the time it has to do with old wounds, disappointments and misunderstandings around family or friends. To all of you who are feeling this way even a little bit this season, give yourself the wonderful gift of forgiveness. Let it go, even just for a little while and enjoy the peace that it brings.

I wish a peaceful, happy Christmas to you all :-).