Over 2500 years ago, The Buddha shared the deep and timeless wisdom which came to him through his enlightenment. His central teachings are known as the Four Noble Truths and are four seemingly simple statements which have a profound depth, and by applying them to our own circumstances, can help us to come out of our deepest suffering. These four truths can be revisited again and again, and are priceless tools to carry with us on our journey towards peace and fulfilment.
1. There is Dukkha (Unsatisfactoriness)
This first noble truth has been translated in many different ways: life is suffering; life is unsatisfactory; life is stressful and full of disappointments. Theravadin monk and scholar Ajahn Sumedho defines dukkha as “incapable of satisfying” or “not able to bear or withstand anything.”1 The word dukkha itself can be likened to a wheel whose hole is placed outside of the centre, which makes for a bumpy, stressful and sometimes irritating ride. Taken at face value, this statement seems pretty pessimistic, but if we dig a little bit deeper, we can see the tremendous value this first noble truth brings to our lives.
Each and every one of us has something that we are currently dealing with; something that stresses us out or that keeps us up at night and ends up zapping away much of our mental strength. The funny thing is, as long as we have been on this earth, we have always had something which has kept us up at night. The circumstances change, but the stress seems to stay the same. It’s like we have an inner party-pooper that always finds what’s wrong with our situation, even when things are objectively pretty ok.
In his book A New Earth, Ekhart Tolle speaks on this inherent cycle of negativity. He says, “Whenever you are in a negative state, there is something in you that wants the negativity, that perceives it as pleasurable, or believes it will get you where you want. Otherwise, who would want to hang on to negativity, make themselves miserable, and create disease in the body? So whenever there is negativity in you, if you can be aware at that moment that there is something in you and takes pleasure in it or believes it has a useful purpose, you are becoming aware of the ego directly”.2
The first noble truth asks us to acknowledge the undeniable fact that quite often, life does not go our way. It allows us to recognise that as much as we might sometimes think that we are the only one who is suffering, in truth, suffering is just part of the deal of being a human! This statement also allows us to acknowledge the part of ourselves that likes to complain; which thrives on negativity and will always search for others with whom it can commiserate. Maybe we have never considered it, but it feels really good to whine! Contemplating this first noble truth can also be a reminder that although sometimes it is helpful to ventilate after an emotional conflict, we have to be mindful that we are not simply drawing more energy unto the issue. It is beneficial to acknowledge our feelings but it’s important not to get too carried away.
The immediate antidote to this inner complaining party-pooper is to practice gratitude. If we can catch ourselves and direct our attention to anything that we are thankful for, we see that this present moment is actually pretty good as it is.
2. The Cause of Dukkha is Craving or Aversion (wanting things to be different than they are)
Before we go any further, take a moment to really explore what it is that is bothering you right now. If you find that there are many things going on, or you can’t quite get a grasp of the issue, it might be easiest to write those things down. Lock yourself in the bathroom if you need to and give yourself the opportunity to really get to the bottom of all the things that are causing you struggle and strife. Knowing that no one else will ever read what you have written down, let your mind unravel and write down everything that comes to mind. Full of curse words and spelling mistakes, let yourself be free to just feel what you have inside.
After giving yourself enough time to be as petty, judgemental or whiny as possible, read through what you have written. Notice: everything on the list is wanting something to be different than the way it is right now. It could be a physical pain, a thought, or an emotion that we desperately want to release; it could be a situation which we feel has no solution; or it could be desiring something like money, love, friendship, or purpose. Try to see the issue as objectively as possible and notice: the pain, stress and discomfort comes from wanting things to be other than the way they are.
The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want
Byron Katie 3
This second noble truth paints the picture very clearly: we suffer because things are not going our way. We either cling to the things we like and want more of them, or we reject the things we don’t like and want to push them as far away as possible. We might be completely justified in our feelings, we might be completely righteous in our desires, but these Noble Truths have nothing to do with being right or wrong. These truths are about being free from suffering. Byron Katie, creator of the healing process known as The Work explains further, “This doesn’t mean that you condone it or approve of [the issue]. It just means that you can see things without resistance and without the confusion of the inner struggle.”(1)
3. The Solution to Dukkha is to Release our Cravings and Aversions
The solution seems so simple, but in reality it is the most difficult thing to practice. Once someone has reached a certain level of spiritual awareness, this third truth stands out clearly and one often laughs at themselves for the amount of time and energy wasted on clinging to things which were never even there! But for the rest of us mere mortals, as much as we desire to let go of our cravings and aversions, we need a little bit of help. Thankfully since the Buddha first gave his teachings, there have been thousands of years of development and millions of minds who have been able to add to this simple and profound truth.
The bottom line is: the attachments we have towards certain people, possessions or outcomes is what makes us suffer. We waste an unbelievable amount of our precious life force energy ruminating over all the things we want to be different, or the things that are out of our control. And the funny thing is, if we think back to the things we were worried about a year ago, or even 5 years ago, did they really merit taking up as much energy as they did?
One very helpful way to work through our problems is to travel through time. We can either visit our past selves, or imagine our future selves in order to examine the present issue which clenches our hearts so tightly.
Let us first travel to the past. Imagine yourself 5 years ago. Where were you? What was going on in your life? If you can remember, what was the issue which was burning so deeply at that moment? What was it that kept you up at night? Did this issue eventually become solved? Or did it change in any way? If you had the possibility to give your past self advice, what would you say?
Now, before we travel to the future, let’s take a brief stop in the present. Let yourself become clear about what it is in your life right now that is not going right. What is that element which you find unsatisfactory, stressful or painful? Allow yourself to really see what it does to you, and how this particular issue affects the way you feel about yourself, the way you eat, the way you sleep and the quality of your relationships. Keep in mind, we are not trying to find a solution to the issue, we are simply investigating the effects of this particular situation.
After you have become clear with this issue, let us travel six months into the future. Using your imagination to the best of your ability, what would future you say? Now what about in five years? If you could travel back and give yourself some words of wisdom, how would you console yourself in this situation?
Sometimes working through the issue is helpful. We can vent to a friend, write out our issues in a notebook, practice techniques of psychoanalysis, or see a therapist to help us hash through our stuff. But often times this only makes the particular issue bigger. The more attention we draw onto it, the more of a monster it becomes. And then we come back to the ancient wisdom of the Buddha, which has been echoed by so many through the ages: to focus the mind’s energy on the inhale and the exhale. It seems too simple to actually work, but in this case, the simplicity is the antidote to the complexity of suffering. Renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass expresses this sentiment perfectly. He says, “The breath has no content to it at all. It’s just the breath. Better [to] strengthen the centering, the quieting, and the presence rather than keep strengthening the problem which keeps being reinforced when you work on it”. 4
Have you ever noticed when you are playing with a dog, the more you pull on the ball, rope or stick, the harder the dog will pull back? But then what happens as soon as you stop playing the game, as soon as you stop pulling? Not only do you become free from the tug of war (and not to mention the slobber) but usually the dog will also give up and drop that same ball or stick at your feet, waiting for you to engage again. Our mind and our problems are very much like this dog. The more we fight it; the more we try to solve the problem, or find a solution to it, the more entrenched we become with that very same issue.
Vipassana teacher Anthony Markwell advises his students to “note it; know it; and let it go.” Whenever we come across something that overtakes our thinking, such as a painful memory, a stressful situation or self-deprecating thoughts, if we can achieve a moment of sobriety, long enough to realise that the pain we are experiencing is because of the thoughts we have about the particular experience, we can have a little more strength in letting it release its clench on us.
4. To Release the Clinging, We Can Find Solace in Striving to Live in Accordance With the Eight-Fold Path
The eightfold path is like a prescription to treat our suffering. The first three noble truths allow us to see why we suffer, and the nature of all stress and discomfort. The fourth noble truth, the eight-fold path, is a set of practical instructions on how to live in a way that reduces the amount of stress/discomfort/unsatisfactoriness that we experience.
It is important to remember that each of the steps on the eight-fold path are not rules or religious doctrines that one must blindly adhere to. They are simply suggestions or guidelines that we can choose to take or leave. However, the longer that we practice meditation and self-reflection and take the time to acknowledge our deepest thoughts and feelings, the more we can see the value of these codes of conduct.
Each of step on the eightfold path are meant to be introduced slowly and systematically, meaning we don’t have to perfect them all at once. It’s also tremendously important to remember that these are practices, and ones that will require continuous work, but which will transform us for the rest of our days on this earth.
Samma-Ditthi: Right World View; Appropriate Understanding
The first rung of this eight-fold path reminds us that they way we experience reality is subjective. It asks us to take time to assess what is around us to try to see things as they really are. When contemplating this first rung, we can find a very helpful point of reference in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is instructed that all of the thoughts which come across the screen of our mind can be characterised into five distinct categories, or as I like to think of it, lenses through which we experience the world. Those five lenses are:
- Pramana- real or valid cognition, right knowledge, seeing clearly
- Viparyaya– unreal cognition, wrong knowledge, misconception, incorrect knowing, not seeing clearly
- Vikalpa- imagination, verbal misconception or delusion, fantasy, hallucination
- Nidra- deep sleep
- Smritayah- memory or remembering 5
Taking this information into consideration, it becomes clear that the thoughts we think are not always truth. We can often be clouded by our emotions or memories, or have wrong information, or even sometimes we experience things which are not even there! In order to overcome the confusion of these states, Patanjali instructs the reader to make the mind single-pointed, or concentrated on one place, so that one can experience the true wisdom for themselves.
For those of us who might have a hard time finding answers in silence, another very helpful tool to help us to see things from a different perspective is The Work of Byron Katie, also known as “Inquiry”. Through this technique, we inquire into the thoughts that we are thinking by asking four powerful questions:
- Is it true?
- Can I really be absolutely sure that it’s true?
- What happens to me when I think this thought?
- How would I feel if I didn’t have this thought?/Is there a stress-free reason to hold onto this thought? 6
You can find more information about the practices of Inquiry at www.thework.com
The simple action of taking a step back and really observing whether or not what we are seeing is true or not is enough to let us gain perspective. Educating ourselves and not jumping to emotional or irrational conclusions about anything or anyone in our lives can save us from a lot of further drama.
Samma-Sankappa: Right Intention; Right Attitude;
Appropriate Thinking and Intention
The second rung of the path is that of cultivating a “good attitude” towards everything in our lives. If we strip away all of our specific desires and aspirations, we can ask ourselves, “What kind of person do I want to be?” Do I want to make myself a victim of my circumstances, or do I want to feel empowered and free? When it comes down to it, I am the only one who chooses whether I live my life feeling wronged, or to walk the path of gratitude and grace.
This second step of the path asks us to cultivate an attitude of kindness, understanding and compassion, and allow these qualities to govern all of the actions we undertake. And it is not for the sake of others, but simply for our own sense of inner satisfaction. As we already explored, there is a quality of our minds that just loves to complain. It is somehow much easier to count our losses than it is to count our blessings; it is easier to criticise ourselves than recognise our accomplishments. But taking on this practice with all of our heart brings benefits in every single area of our lives.
A consistent practice of meditation allows us to be much more in control of our minds and our thinking. Whenever we feel those old familiar “poor me” feelings rising to the surface, we can choose to change our attention and cultivate and attitude of gratitude rather than throw ourselves a pity-party (because I’m telling you… nobody likes a pity-party!)
Living our lives with an intention, a goal, wish or vision also brings an inherent sense of meaning and purpose. When we have an idea of where we want to be going or what we would like to be doing, we can meet each day with enthusiasm. In Sanskrit, this is known as a Sankalpa which is a statement that one will use like a mantra; a sort of positive affirmation which reflects the direction that one wants to move in life. It is always important to release the outcome of this sankalpa; whether it comes to fruition or not is not the most important thing. What matter is having something to look forward to which brings us the spark of happiness to our lives. This has the power to liberate our emotional intelligence and oftentimes as a consequence, we find it easier to act with love and compassion.
Samma-Vaca: Right Speech; Skilful Speech
The third step of the path is perfected or whole speech, which can be described as clear, truthful, uplifting and non-harmful communication. To hold ourselves to the highest standard of impeccability when choosing the words we speak or write, no matter who is listening.
Be Impeccable With Your Word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
Don Miguel Ruiz
The globally celebrated book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz states that the first and most important agreement is to be impeccable with your word.7 The words we speak, both to ourselves and others carry immense weight and can leave strong imprints in their wake. Have you ever noticed how you can receive ten thousand compliments and just one insult, and how you’ll never remember the compliments but that one negative opinion will stick to you like glue and play itself back, over and over? Or perhaps you can think back to your childhood, do you remember the kind and loving words of your teachers, parents and peers? Or are the painful insults or criticisms those which first rise to the surface? As children on the playground we might have learn to sing “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!” Unfortunately, although we might have wanted to believe this, even desperately so, the truth is that words will always hurt more than broken bones. Because broken bones heal on their own, while those words fester and become our internal dialogue.
Therefore, choosing the words we use can either heal these deep wounds, or make a bigger scar, for both ourselves and others. When we catch ourselves in a cycle of negative-self talk, instead of berating ourselves further, we can simply acknowledge what is happening inside. We can greet that inner critic, and understand where these voices came from. And once again, when we hear those criticisms rise to the surface we can inquire: Is it really true?
Choosing not to talk about others behind their backs is also an important part of right speech. If we often find ourselves saying, “don’t tell anyone but…” or “keep this to yourself” perhaps we need to ask ourselves if what we are about to say is really worth saying at all.
Right speech also holds us accountable to speaking our truth in relationships. Sometimes in life we need to have difficult conversations, and finding the right words to use and the most compassionate way to say them is an enormous virtue. While the easiest thing is to try to sweep the problem under the rug instead of confronting someone with an issue, this can be detrimental, either to our own mental well-being or to the relationship. Right speech asks us to find a way to be honest and be able to say what is in our hearts in a way that does not harm, embarrass or belittle the person with whom we’re sharing. When we are in the middle of these kinds of difficult situations, it is really helpful to spend quality time with ourselves to think about what it is we really want to say, and how to choose the right words to get through to the person we want to have this discussion with.
Being impeccable with our word means to act first and foremost with a spirit of kindness and compassion, towards others and to ourselves. It occurs third on the list of steps because when we are constantly reframing our world-view with joy and peace as our highest goal, and striving to act with a good or pure intention, kind words are the next natural and logical step.
General Tips to follow
- Do not tell lies (because that just makes life so much more complicated!)
- Do not speak ill of others (because what if they find out what we said?)
- Think before we speak (especially when we are in the grip of a strong emotion)
- Use our voice to say interesting things instead of just talking to hear our own voice
- Learn how to listen to others
- Use positive affirmations to re-train the internal dialogue and soften the inner critic
Samma-Kammanta: Right Action;
The fourth step on the path is about cultivating a deliberate attitude of kindness, compassion and goodwill, and hold ourselves accountable in every thing we do- whether big or seemingly small. It is striving to develop an ethical foundation for life based on non-exploitation of one’s self or others.
Acting with a spirit of kindness and compassion is not about faking being nice, and if our kindness is just for show, it’s not actually helping anyone. Right action asks us to be genuine in all of our undertakings, regardless if anyone is watching or not. If I am acting compassionate when really I feel a lot of anger or resentment, the false compassion or gentleness will only create more resentment inside of me. We don’t have to pretend to be everyone’s best friend, but we also don’t have to be rude. Regardless of how we feel within, right action asks us to treat every being with respect.
When we strive to always act from a place of kindness and compassion, not only do we create a more enjoyable and harmonious situations with others, but we more importantly create a harmonious environment within ourselves. When we sit down to meditate, oftentimes we are bombarded by the things we regret. As we try to live in accordance with a right sense of action, there will be less twirling around our minds since we know we were always acting from a spirit of good will.
In further discourses, the Buddha taught what are known as the Five Noble precepts as moral codes of behaviour that we can use to check in with ourselves in regards to the way we relate to others.
FIVE NOBLE PRECEPTS
- avoid taking the life of beings
- avoid taking things not given
- avoid sexual misconduct
- refrain from false speech
- abstain from substances that cause intoxication and heedlessness (that cause you to break the other precepts)
Samma-Ajiva: Right Livelihood; Proper livelihood; Appropriate Employment
The fifth step on the path is earning a living based on the previous rungs of skilful action and ethical principles of non-exploitation. There are a few individuals who take the spiritual life to the extreme and leave their roles in society to pursue enlightenment. But for those of us who choose to stay in the world and practice as “householders” we still have to participate in life and we must earn a living. As we go further down the path of yoga and self-reflection there will come a point where we question the work we do to earn our money and inquire into whether it is in alignment with our highest truth.
This is not to say that you should quit your job and try to make it as a full time healer, or spiritual teacher (because truth be told, if you have a family to feed, or bills to pay, these spiritual jobs are usually not adequate to pay all those bills!) Still, if we can find a way to earn an honest living in which we can help the evolution of the consciousness on planet earth, or in caring for our fellow beings, we can feel a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. It should be noted, however, sometimes the magic occurs between the lines. Maybe you work as a sales representative and sometimes feel as though the job in itself is not in alignment with your highest purpose. But if we let go of the titles and drop down into the smaller actions, we can see that almost any job can be one that fulfils our spiritual purpose. For example, when we are negotiating with a client or coworker, do you take the time to get to know them? To ask how they’re doing or learn details about their personal lives? Or perhaps the way that you interact with the other people in the company, to add more humour and cheer to their lives. We never truly know how far our influence reaches, and sometimes, just taking the time to ask someone how they are makes an enormous difference.
It is also important to strive to aim to help, rather than simply being motivated by money and to avoid taking jobs that require us to deceive others, or jobs that support negative habits and addictions.
Samma-Vayama: Right Effort; Skilful Effort
The next step on the path is to consciously consider the way we spend our energy. You might have noticed for yourself, the more trips we take around the sun, the less energy and vitality we have to spend. This rung on the eight-fold path advises us to consciously use our energy intelligently, and to give more attention to the transformative path of creative healing and the evolution of our spirit. Right effort asks us to know and understand how to find our unique balance of work and rest; when to push and put in more effort, and when to let go and allow things to take care of themselves.
Again, due to the unrealistic expectations of our society, most of us have learned to silence our inner voice and, as a consequence, have become disconnected from our needs. This can sometimes skew reality and we become confused about how much energy is appropriate to give to any particular situation. When we hold ourselves to a daily meditation appointment, we are also allowing ourselves to check in with how we have exerted our energy or effort throughout the day. If you find that you are always falling asleep in meditation, there is no more poignant sign than this that you have spent too much energy somewhere.
Some of us tend to be over-doers and push our bodies to the point of sickness or injury, while others tend to be under-doers and often find ourselves in a state of lethargy. If you are constantly on the go and the only time you rest is in sleep, you might notice you get irritated very quickly. This is a sign to slow down and take it easy. Or, if you sleep a lot and find it hard to exert energy, you might notice you often feel sad or depressed. This is a sign that burning a fire inside of yourself and getting motivated is necessary. It is difficult for both extremes to find balance, since we are usually attracted to the things which we already do in excess. You might need to enlist the help of a friend to help you switch gears, either chilling out, or getting yourself going. Ultimately, finding the perfect balance for ourselves is a very important tool that will help us to feel more peaceful inside.
Right effort is also applicable to how much energy we put into relationships. If we are the kind of people who are givers by nature, we will notice that there will be many people who take from us without returning the gesture. There will come a point where we will find this incredibly frustrating, so right effort asks us to know our boundaries and to not give away too much of our precious energy. It asks us to speak up for ourselves, to set boundaries and to learn how to say no.
Samma-Sati: Right Mindfulness; Skilful Attention
The seventh step is to strive to cultivate a complete or thorough awareness of all things: one’s self, feelings, thoughts, people and reality. This requires us to be present and aware in every situation.
Mindfulness allows everything to shine with the luminosity that the word ‘spiritual’ is meant to connote.
Over the last two decades, practice of mindfulness as a way of life has gained a lot of attention. But what exactly is mindfulness and how does one practice in daily life? In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality.”8
Developing mindfulness in all areas of our lives has very practical benefits. For example, we avoid accidents, making mistakes or hurting others by our unconscious actions. We take more pleasure in the little joys that life offers us, like a beautiful sunset, a delicious meal, or a hug from one of our dearest friends. Furthermore, when we take our time to drop down and be in the present moment, time slows down; our problems lose their strength and we see that we can appreciate life in a much different way.
Living with a spirit of mindfulness is how we take our practice into real-life. When we pay attention to the so-called mundane aspects of our lives, like washing the dishes, or moving the lawn, we develop a greater sense of internal awareness.
Not only do we start to experience more fulfilment in the menial aspects of our lives, we also develop the capacity to catch ourselves in the middle of a strong emotional experience and lessen the intensity of our wrath.
Samma-Samadhi: Right Concentration; Skilful Concentration
The final step in the eight-fold path is right concentration, or choosing to put our concentration on that which develops the self. It is the unending and sometimes seemingly thankless task of choosing to direct our monkey minds into a single pointed focus, to develop a spirit of peace, kindness, compassion and goodwill.
We might think that taking this time to shut out the world and bring our attention is as a selfish endeavour, or that all of the other tasks on our to-do list are much more important than this. But what we might not realize is that when we learn to control and manage our internal environments, the benefits are far reaching. The more time and energy we spend concentrating our energies to uplift ourselves, we will inevitably uplift everyone who comes near us. When we give ourselves this precious time to pause our life and concentrate on the breath, we have much more power, energy and resistance to handle everything that life throws our way.
- O’Brien, Barbara. “What Are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism?” Learn Religions. April 23, 2019. https://www.learnreligions.com/the-four-noble-truths-450095
- Tolle, Ekhart. “A New Earth.” Penguin Books, New York. 2005 (111)
- Katie, Byron. “Loving What Is” Harmony books. New York. 2002. (1)
- Dass, Ram. “Episode 189- Cyberspace and Consciousness” Ram Dass Here and Now Podcast. November 26, 2021.
- Yoga Stura Bharati, Swami Jnaneshvara. “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati.” Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Interpretive Translation”. SwamiJ.com. https://swamij.com/pdf/yogasutrasinterpretive.pdf
- Katie, Byron. “Loving What Is” Harmony books. New York. 2002.
- Ruiz, Don Miguel with Janet Mills. “The first and most important agreement”. The Four Agreements for A Better Life. 2010 https://www.thefouragreements.com/the-first-agreement-be-impeccable-with-your-word/
- Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever you go there you are. Mindfulness meditation in every day life. Hachette Books: New York. 1994;2005 (14)