Experiencing Our Own Noble Truths

Overview of this talk.

  • About 2 months ago Ginger gave a talk and mentioned how she and Mark were suffering as they saw their dog in pain from a debilitating illness.
  • I have also been in similar situations and I also have suffered.
  • The four noble truths promises a way to end suffering but sometimes it hasn’t worked for me.

o   Did I suffer because I didn’t understand them or because I am incapable of using and applying the four noble truths?

o   Is it possible that some types of sufferings are just part of life and cannot be avoided?

o   Is there some suffering that the four noble truths can help us with and some things that they cannot?

  • This talk is about two things:

o   First I want to share with you “my” answer, “my” understanding of what suffering is and what the four noble truths is “really” telling us.   I could be wrong about my interpretations. Don’t believe anything because Stan said it but only believe things that make sense to you from your experience.

o   Second, I want to encourage you to bring the four noble truths to life for you, by looking honestly at what is happening in your own mind and use that experience to understand the Four Noble Truths. We have different backgrounds, values, beliefs, personality types and different problems that we face. We need a foundation of truths that work for us in our own worlds.

The original Simplistic but powerful view of the four noble truths.

  • Four Noble Truths – from Wikipedia – (just one translation)

o   The First Noble Truth: Life is full of suffering.

o   The Second Noble Truth: There is a cause for suffering. The cause of suffering is desire and illusions that are based on ignorance.

o   The Third Noble Truth: By stopping the cravings, the suffering is stopped.

o   The Fourth Noble Truth: There is a way to end suffering. To end suffering we must end our cravings. The way to ending cravings is the Eightfold Path

  • They helped me profoundly with the suffering that I had.

o   I wanted to be successful and constantly get promotions.

o   I wanted a world without flat tires, red lights and spilled milk.

o   Unfortunately my career didn’t go as far as I wanted, my life was full of little problems but the teaching has allowed me to “let go” of so many things and to stop myself being dragged down and debilitated by things that I couldn’t change.

o   I was so grateful and impressed with the four noble truths that I thought that I was ready to teach them.

This is when the four Noble Truths failed me

The first time that I taught meditation – A resident from a nursing home came and asked me. “My husband died, I am lonely, I am bound to a wheel chair for the rest of my life, I was forced out of my home that I had lived in for 40 years, how will the four noble truths help me? How can I end this suffering?”

  • When she asked me this question, I wanted to disappear and felt that I should never teach. I didn’t have a good answer to her question.  I was struck speechless.
  • I only knew what I shouldn’t tell her: “The problem is your attachment, clinging and desire to have your loved one back and to lead a pain free life with great physical heath.   Just give up your clinging for happiness and you will be happy.
  • But the question challenged me to look more deeply at suffering, to understand it better and to be better able to articulate how it can help people like her who are really, really suffering.


I decided to analyze my own experience through the four noble truths.

The situation: I was watching my mother die of Alzheimer’s and day in and out of hearing her yell “Help me, Help me! Where am I? What am I supposed to be doing?”   The Noble truths didn’t help me.   I didn’t feel that attachment to wanting my mother not to suffer was a “bad” thing.  The four noble truths didn’t make sense to me.

I decided to observe my own mind carefully and challenge my understanding of what suffering was.

  • I observed this cycle of suffering –

o   Unwanted circumstances occur – (my mother’s disease)

  • A wide variety of other things also triggered this cycle.

o   Fall into Blame / Emotions

  • Angry at the world for having such diseases
  • Frustrated with myself because I couldn’t fix it
  • Shame and guilt because I didn’t feel that I was doing enough

o   Thoughts, stories and dramatizations that kept going in my head.

  • Life isn’t fair, If only…. , Why didn’t,

o   Physiological responses – Heart rate / blood pressure

o   Second arrow

  • Sleepless nights
  • Depression which impacted my relationships with others
  • Immune system negatively impacted
  • Couldn’t think clearly, Short tempered, made poor decisions.

I looked at my own suffering and there were two aspects to that “suffering”

  • Empathetic Suffering – It hurt me to see my mother suffer.
  • Unnecessary Suffering – Mental anguish – The whole agitated mental state that I develop that evolved because I was fighting the reality of the unwanted circumstances

o   This whole cycle, blame, anger, emotions, blood pressure, dramatizations of mental anguish I label as “unnecessary suffering” is caused by “Fighting reality”.

o   The “unnecessary suffering is self-inflicted suffering. It is all going on in my own mind.

o   The cause of this suffering is “Fighting reality”.   If I can stop “Fighting reality” then I can stop that second part of my suffering.

o   It is something that our own mind is doing that hurts us physiologically and psychologically.

o   Quote a great Buddhist scholar – Yoda – of the star wars trilogy – “Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”   This whole speech was done in the context of teaching a warrior that he must rely on the force (inner wisdom) and not to rely on the cognitive self. It is in fact the cognitive self that does drive the unnecessary suffering.

  • For me the “suffering” in the four noble truths is this unnecessary suffering which is self-generated and debilitating.
  • For me the empathetic suffering is part of life and is needed to recuperate from loss. We all need to grieve and mourn, that is human.

o   It is possible that some people feel to be a good “Buddhist” they shouldn’t cry. I question this. Mourning and grieving are healing and human.  We each need to decide what the truth is for ourselves.

  • While empathetic suffering is part of life at some point we can start wallowing in our sorrow and go into “unnecessary suffering”.   Each person needs to distinguish between these two states of mind.
  • When Ginger talked about her ailing dog there were two sets of messages, explicit and implicit.

o   Explicitly, she said that it was helpful to view the suffering as part of life. It is unwanted but is the inevitable flow of life.

o   Between the lines of her talk were several powerful messages about the suffering.

o   First, Ginger was honest about her feelings despite the fact that one might think that a good Buddhist doesn’t suffer. We all need to be really honest about what is going on in our own minds.

o   Two, Ginger was not wallowing, complaining nor angry just empathetic. Ginger clearly was NOT drawn into the unnecessary suffering.

o   Ginger used the suffering as a chance to grow and learn what the four noble truths are about. Life can be a teacher and she drew on her experiences and the experiences of the Buddha to understand her suffering and cope with it.   Buddha said: “Be lamp unto yourself”

  • “The desire for a life free of suffering –“fighting reality” this is the “clinging” that I see generates tremendous unnecessary suffering.

Then this new understanding failed me

  • Once I felt that I understood the real meaning of suffering I found it really helpful.
  • The good news about this stage – Just recognizing that I was in the grips of unnecessary suffering is very powerful. It didn’t stop the debilitating thought patterns but it was a tremendous help in stopping me from ACTING upon the anger. I couldn’t stop the anger but I was able behave in such a way that I rarely did further damage and could minimize the second arrow.  Just recognizing the anger was very powerful in deflating much of its energy.
  • Unfortunately intellectually understanding “unnecessary suffering” doesn’t stop this from happening.
  • My mind had a mind of its own that wouldn’t listen to my great logic.
  • For me the “big things” that were my blind spots were:

o   Shame and guilt whenever I made a mistake or felt that failed.

o   Righteous indignation – The others are causing great damage and I am better than they and I couldn’t help but to be angry at them and their Righteous indignation at me.

Mantras –another Story – another Experience

  • I studied in the Tibetan tradition and committed to my Lama that I would do 100,000 repetitions of a 100 syllable mantra. It was a commitment of over 500 hours of meditation practice.
  • When my lama was coming to the US and I wanted to complete the commitment I started doing 2 hours of mantras a day.
  • For no logical reasoning the unnecessary suffering that I was going through seemed to just go away.
  • The crazy thought stream stopped, not because I solved a problem but I think that the mantra practice altered my body chemistry. I was relaxed.  I was at the core really open and accepting.
  • The old neural network of unnecessary suffering was replaced by a new neural network of mantras repeating themselves.
  • Letting go, accepting can become an experiential event rather than a logical understanding.
  • I had at one point taken Xanax and the impact of the mantra had all of the positive impacts of the medication with none of the side effects.
  • For me Mantras are the only thing that help me when I am severely agitated. Each person needs to find the technique that serves them best.

In Summary

  • For me the four noble truths is not dogmatic answers it is a lifelong challenge for self-examination with the never ending question of how am I suffering and what is causing me to suffer and how can I stop. Throughout life we will have to deal with different and greater challenges.   We need to be our own teachers through self-examination.
  • The journey of the four noble truths opened me to different levels of understanding.

o   Desire and clinging to a reality that doesn’t exist can be debilitating. Just understanding this fact and seeing it take place in our own mind is extremely powerful.

o   We are all human and empathetic suffering is normal and we need to accept our own humanity.

o   Our mind can be self-destructive through “unnecessary suffering”. Just developing the consciousness about the process is a powerful ally even if you cannot stop the thought patterns.

o   Meditation techniques can help in several ways:

  • Cultivate the mental discipline of awareness so that we can see when we are going through “unnecessary suffering”
  • Create new neural networks and change our body’s physiology that helps us cope with unwanted circumstance and build resilience.

o   The bed rock teaching of the four noble truths is a never ending accepting of the unacceptable.

  • Accepting the unacceptable suffering of others.
  • Accepting the unacceptable limitations of our understanding, our mindfulness, our skills and capabilities.

Epilogue – Woman in the Wheel Chair

  • Several weeks after her initial question she came to class and said that the class had helped her. Several nights earlier a male attendant came in to undress her and put her to bed. She didn’t want a male to do that and the attendant just left her in the wheel chair. She had to wait a long time until someone could come to help her. Instead of going through the “unwanted suffering” she took out her rosary and spend the whole time doing “Hail Mary…”   She kept her mental stability in spite of the negative circumstances.
  • I do not know if the “unnecessary suffering” for her ever slowed down or stopped, but just the fact that she could deal with new situations from a different perspective could help stop life from going into a constantly debilitating spiral. The four noble truths won’t bring Nirvana for everyone but it can help us cope and become resilient.