Friday, August 5, 2011

Life is Suffering? A Quick Glimpse at Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths

I’ve been quiet here on the yoga blog these past few months, because my life has been in turmoil. My husband and I are divorcing. We have a five-year-old son, so you can imagine what a complicated process this is – for all of us.

I live my life – or aspects of it, anyway – in the public sphere. Between my blogs, my newspaper columns, Facebook, and the things I say during class to my yoga students, I am very much in the spotlight – by choice, of course. These past few months have provided an opportunity to edit and revise my public self. Just how much do I want to share?

Often, the challenge for me is to determine whether or not telling my story – whether it’s a humorous anecdote about an excursion with my son, or a hard look at my own shortcomings -- will help people. Sure I can keep all of this to myself, but if by telling my story, I help someone else feel empowered, or less alone, then my words have a purpose.

Sartre said that hell is other people, and that when it comes down it, we are all essentially alone. No one else, but ourselves, can live our lives, or fight our battles, or make our decisions, or find our enlightenments. To depend on others to do this for us is beyond foolish.

The Buddhists, on the other hand, posit that hell is not so much other people but the way we react to them. And while I agree with Sartre that it all comes down to what we do for ourselves, I also know that there is a great gift in community. The flip side of the suffering that other people – our reactions to other people – elicit in our lives is that we can find some comfort in their very presence.

I have been so fortunate for my chosen community these past few months. My parents are endlessly generous, graciously welcoming me and Abel (who is with us half the week) into their home. My closest friends have proven to be reliable listeners and advisers. I take great solace in knowing that this support is there for me. But I still have to do all the work by myself. Yes, I have a excellent therapist, who does a great job generating questions for me to ponder. But the fact is, I alone have to come up with the answers.

Buddhism is based on Four Noble Truths.
1. Life is suffering.
2. There is a cause for this suffering.
3. It’s possible to end this suffering
4. There is an established path out of this suffering.

Or to put it in more modern terms,
1. Life sucks.
2. It’s our own fault that it sucks.
3. It’s possible for it not to suck.
4. Help is on the way!

Hard times are inevitable, but they tend to take us by surprise. We have been sold a fantasy of an ideal life – perhaps the one we see in TV commercials, or in movies with happy endings. It’s hard not to buy into the fairy tale. So when something happens – something tragic, or impossibly difficult – that doesn’t fit into our worldview, we freak out. We may get angry/resentful, we may get depressed, we may try avoidance techniques like shopping or drinking in an attempt to escape the pain.

But there’s no escape. As the old adage goes, the only way out is through. The first step is acknowledging the pain itself, as well as the source of the pain. “I am suffering, and it’s my own damn fault.” Before you argue that plenty of random incidents are NOT the victim’s fault (I agree, I agree) let me restate that it’s how we REACT to what life throws at us that causes the suffering, not the incident itself.

So what do we do? We embrace the suffering, let ourselves fully experience the (for lack of a better word) suckitude. Acknowledge that there is a cause – that this didn’t happen randomly, but because of an intricate series of events and words and feelings – and that our own choices (or inability to make choices) is at least part of the problem. “Okay, divorce is hard. There is no getting around that. My life is going to be a firestorm of emotions for a while, and I’m just going to have to ride it out, do the best I can, and see where I come out in the end.”

Isn’t a relief to know that pretty much always, we “come out in the end?” This is the Third Noble Truth, in a nutshell. There is an end to the suffering.

And the Buddhists assure us that there is a path out of suffering. So where’s that path?

You find it by being present. The Buddhists will tell you that meditation is the answer. And it can be – oh yes it can. But the essence of this notion is that the end of suffering grows out of being present: acknowledging how you feel in a given moment, and letting that feeling be. Not trying to escape it, run away, change it . . . but fully feeling it, and all the turmoil that feeling it creates.

I felt like a failure when I realized that my marriage was over. I never, ever saw myself as “someone who would divorce.” It wasn’t even a consideration. I know that marriage requires hard work and I was determined to do that work, especially for the sake of my son. But nothing in life is simply black & white like that. You just never know . . .

So after a five-year lull, I’ve revived my daily meditation practice. Every morning I wake and spend ten minutes sitting in silence, trying to be present. (Full disclosure: I check my email first.) Sometimes I focus on my breath; sometimes I just tune in to whatever emotion is the strongest for me in that moment. The sitting is calming and grounding, and it helps me to feel more balanced as I start my day.

And it’s working. Slowly, very slowly, it’s leading me out of the suffering.


debinpeace said...

This is brilliant, Kezia, and so wise. A beautiful and skillfull synthesis. And although you alone can feel the depth of your suffering and the intensity of your emtions, you are not alone in your life's journey. This is such a poignant and honest telling of what is, and what is possible when one has the courage that you do. Time for your own Rite of Passage? Much compassion to you.

Cfitz said...

Kezia- I had a feeling there was something .... for as public as you are you are also quiet and private. I believe you are on your path and you are not alone, but there are things only you can do. You are very thoughtful and reflective and have guided many of us to find peace even if it is only 60 minutes a week.... I pray you find your peace .CFitz

Page Railsback said...

Thanks Kezia for being open and walking through the alone, sometimes painful process of living. For sure, meditation helps. It is weird to be surrounded by so many and yet be alone with the final decisions.

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