The Buddha is often quoted as saying he taught one thing: “I teach suffering and the end of suffering.” Sounds kind of limiting and simplistic, no? Where’s the joy and liberation in that?
Since the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering, and since this insight is so often misunderstood by non-Buddhists, and even many Buddhists, I thought I would share some insights on this “first truth” from some spiritual thinkers I admire.
To kick off this three-part series, here’s an excerpt from Ken Wilber‘s book No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth. As one would expect from Wilber, he gives a broad and comprehensive overview of how dissatisfaction with life—what the Buddha called dukkha—can open the door to spiritual discovery and freedom.
(I’ve added some sub-heads to help with readability—except for “The Start of Discovery” these are my additions.)
The Start of Discovery
“The movement of descent and discovery begins at the moment you consciously become dissatisfied with life. Contrary to most professional opinion, this gnawing dissatisfaction with life is not a sign of “mental illness,” nor an indication of poor social adjustment, nor a character disorder. For concealed within this basic unhappiness with life and existence is the embryo of a growing intelligence, a special intelligence usually buried under the immense weight of social shams.
A person who is beginning to sense the suffering of life is, at the same time, beginning to awaken to deeper realities, truer realities. For suffering smashes to pieces the complacency of our normal fictions about reality, and forces us to become alive in a special sense–to see carefully, to feel deeply, to touch ourselves and our worlds in ways we have heretofore avoided. It has been said, and truly I think, that suffering is the first grace. In a special sense, suffering is almost a time of rejoicing, for it marks the birth of creative insight.
But only in a special sense. Some people cling to their suffering as a mother to its child, carrying it as a burden they dare not set down. They do not face suffering with awareness, but rather clutch at their suffering, secretly transfixed with the spasms of martyrdom. Suffering should neither be denied awareness, avoided, despised, not glorified, clung to, dramatized. The emergence of suffering is not so much good as it is a good sign, an indication that one is starting to realize that life lived outside unity consciousness is ultimately painful, distressing, and sorrowful.
Suffering Originates in False Boundaries
The life of boundaries is a life of battles–of fear, anxiety, pain and finally death. It is only through all manner of numbing compensations, distractions, and enchantments that we agree not to question our illusory boundaries, the root cause of the endless wheel of agony. But sooner or later, if we are not rendered totally insensitive, our defensive compensations begin to fail their soothing and concealing purpose. As a consequence, we begin to suffer in one way or another, because our awareness is finally directed toward the conflict-ridden nature of our false boundaries and the fragmented life supported by them.
Suffering, then, is the initial movement of the recognition of false boundaries. Correctly understood, it is therefore liberating, for it points beyond boundaries altogether. We suffer, then, not because we are sick, but because intelligent insight is emerging. The correct understanding of suffering, however, is necessary in order that the birth of insight is not aborted. We must correctly interpret suffering in order to enter into it, live it, and finally live beyond it. If we do not correctly understand suffering, we simply get stuck in the middle of it–we wallow in it, not knowing what else to do.
The “doctors of the soul”
Throughout humankind’s history, various shamans, priests, sages, mystics, saints, psychologists, and psychiatrists have tried to point out the best ways to live suffering correctly so as to live beyond it. They have confronted men and women with insights into their suffering so that, correctly understanding their suffering, they might go beyond it in freedom. But the insights offered by the various doctors of the soul have not always been of the same nature. In fact, these insights often drastically contradict each other. The more ancient soul doctors advised us to contact God. The modern soul doctors advise us to contact our unconscious. The avant-garde soul doctors advice us to touch our bodies. The clairvoyant soul doctors advise us to transcend our bodies.
Today, more than ever before, our doctors of the soul are in strident disagreement, and as a general result we are paralyzed in the middle of our own suffering, confused as to what it means, confused even about whom to ask what it means. Frozen in our suffering, our deeper insights into reality do not and cannot emerge. We cannot enter our suffering with awareness so as to liberate the insights hidden in it.
We cannot endure our suffering with fruitful results unless we know what it means, why it is occurring. And we don’t know what it means because we have no doctor of the soul whom we can truly and completely trust. There was a time when we looked with innocent faith to a priest or sage or shaman as a soul doctor, and he or she aimed our awareness toward God. In the last century, however, the priest was largely displaced by the psychiatrist as the authority to trust if one were really troubled, and this new priest aimed your awareness instead toward aspects of your own psyche. Yet today trust in the psychiatrist is effective, and liberating therapies are emerging.
Our new doctors of the soul spring out of Esalen and Oasis and similar growth centers across the country, and they are revolutionizing the meaning of “therapy” by directing our awareness to the entire organism and not just the disembodied psyche. We even see developing now the transpersonal soul doctor, who aims our awareness directly at supra-individual consciousness. But, alas, since none of these doctors really agree with one another, whom does one believe?
So, Who is right? Which doctor of the soul do we believe?
One of the greatest problems with this general “who’s right?” controversy is that laypeople and professionals alike persistently tend to assume that these various soul doctors are approaching the human being from different angles. But they are not. Rather they are approaching different levels of human awareness from different angles. Today we have no doctors of the soul whom we can wholeheartedly trust because we imagine they are all speaking about the same level of our consciousness. They therefore seem to definitely contradict each other, at least in essentials, and we are caught in the contradiction.
Yet once we recognize the multi-leveled nature of human consciousness, once we understand that our being has many layers, then we can start to see that the various types of therapies are indeed different precisely because they are addressing these different layers of the soul. Thus if we comprehend that the various soul doctors are validly addressing different levels of consciousness, we may be able to listen more openly to what any particular one has to say about his or her own special level. And if we are suffering on that level, we can listen attentively to what they might tell us. They will then likely help us see the meaning of our particular type of suffering, help us endure it with awareness and understanding and insight, and thus help us live beyond it…” Ken Wilber
The next posts in this three-part series are:
Dealing with Suffering *is* Spiritual Practice
with Daniel Ingram
The End of Suffering—The Bright Light at the End of the Tunnel
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu