The First Reality
The Buddha said:
Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering
Have you ever heard the phrase: “Life is suffering”?
It’s a phrase notoriously attributed to the Buddha. Self-help teachers and spiritual gurus love this phrase”life is suffering”, because it can quickly form the basis of their teachings. Now, from this foundation, they can teach you how to grow past it. A student of this teaching could spend their whole life learning to get past it, fighting against it, feeling best when they experience short-lived moments of pleasure.
The Buddha never said life is suffering. This is an interpretation of the First Noble Truth that isn’t just flawed, it’s completely false. It’s easy to understand, however, why it has such a stronghold in spiritual teachings.
Suffering is something you empathize with. At one time or another, you have undoubtedly experienced suffering. Can you recall a time that you were so filled with suffering that you were certain that nothing else could exist? Acknowledging life as being filled with grief and sadness with only intervals of happiness is an almost comforting thought. It’s a relief to feel that you’re not alone in your suffering, that it’s only normal. This is why the image of Jesus on a cross invokes such fervor around the world. As humans we are very adept at empathizing with suffering.
Feeling relief in the acceptance that life is all suffering is not the way to happiness that the Buddha taught. This was not the Buddha’s view of life. He was a great proponent of even the most minute aspects of life. He saw it as a source of immense joy and happiness. All he wanted you to do with his First Noble Truth is to understand suffering.
The proper way to interpret the First Reality is this: “There is suffering in life.” The Buddha listed many things that bring about suffering: birth, aging, sickness, sorrow, pain, grief, but he never included life itself as one of them.
What do you imagine when you hear the word suffering? Do you feel physical pain or is it mental? Is it the feeling of losing a loved one, losing money, or being discontented with your life? Is it an illness, an injury, or depression? The word means different things to different people. To some, it might simply mean discomfort, frustration, or discouragement. To understand suffering, we must understand what the Buddha meant.
The Buddha uses the word Dukkha, for suffering. It’s in his original tongue and has no direct translation to English. The closest translation I have heard for Dukkha is “the stressful, unsatisfactory nature of reality”. To say it even more simply, the unhappiness we feel in everyday life.
What binds us all? What is the one thing that you’re sure to have in common with your favorite celebrity, the Queen of England and even Jesus Christ himself?
It’s the bond we all share. Everyone everywhere experiences unhappiness. It seems more often than not. We’ve lived unhappily in ancient times and we will continue on this grand tradition in our future. We all live with, have been through, or are going through, the stressful, unsatisfactory nature of reality.
The Buddha wants you to understand this, because from this understanding will be the foundation for his teachings.
Unconscious Unhappiness, the Modern Truth
Why does the Buddha say this? There is suffering in life. Because this suffering must be recognized. It must be faced eye to eye.
However, there is a reality today that did not exist much in the time of the Buddha. This reality is what I call unconscious unhappiness. This reality couldn’t exist 2,500 years ago because it’s a new problem in our society. This reality is something that keeps us far removed from unhappiness, unconscious of it. It is the drug called instant gratification.
The Buddha tells everyone they must understand suffering, but many people aren’t even conscious of their suffering. Many people are completely asleep, even when you are awake you are asleep. You live in the eternal cycle of dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t distress you in a way that you feel it in your day-to-day life. It’s kept at bay. Life passes by in a foggy, drowsy state. Although you feel there is something wrong, you endure it, because gratification in modern times is always at arm’s length.
Only the person who has become so aware of suffering will have the strength to move towards the truth of their being. Only the person who has experienced misery and sees the misery in their ways and in their desires will be willing to shed their ways and their desires. Otherwise there a person will see no purpose.
What’s the purpose of making the journey to finding happiness when you can just watch the next episode of your favorite television series? When you can indulge in your favorite meals? When you can scroll through your phone, receive validation through social media, and imbibe until intoxication on your time off? There’s enough going on to starve it off forever.
The world is intoxicating. There is blindness towards the present and an extreme focus on the future. The suffering lies submerged in your mind. In the modern-day, suffering might not be so apparent. It is there however, eating away at you, affecting your mental health and your physical health.
If a prisoner doesn’t feel the chains on his wrists or sees the walls of his jail, how can he yearn for freedom? He will go on living in prison his whole life, his heart will always nag him and tell him somethings wrong. But he will go on living without an inkling of the true happiness and freedom that is out of reach.
Become acquainted with this suffering, become aware of the suffering in life that you experience. Become less distracted by your television and your phone and your friendships and your ambition, and become more aware that bliss has not touched your life. Become aware that if left unnoticed suffering will engulf your life until the last day of your life.
The Buddha said:
“‘Suffering should be known. The cause by which suffering comes into play should be known.”
The Buddha presents a task for you. The tasks he asks of you is to accept suffering and to accept unhappiness. To come face to face with suffering. You may find it harder to be impartial to your own suffering If you find this to be true, then first observe others around you.
Observe the complacent attitudes of those around you, the attitudes they have taken to deal with their suffering. The suffering they experience in their work life, in their home life. The suffering that they often mute with complaints, and commiserating with peers. The suffering they distract from with foods, alcohol, and material things. You are probably already aware of the suffering of others around you on some level.
Then look into your own life, your own mind, and your emotional state. Begin understanding suffering and unhappiness as it’s personal to you. In what form does it present itself to you? Is it a clear voice of consistent nagging that you feel every day, or is it more subtle? Is it a small voice, suppressed somewhere in the background of your mind? You’ll find how quickly you become familiar with this voice, emotion, or state, however it presents itself.
You’ll start becoming aware of the patterns that make up unhappiness in your mind and in the minds of others. Once suffering has become clear , you will be able to continue on the path the Buddha has laid out for you.
Had they ever crossed paths, the Buddha would have agreed with Socrates on one thing at the very least: an unexamined life is not worth living.