Sometimes life circumstances and events are so challenging, so not what you want that the desire to just sail away to another place, another world, another version of your life is overwhelming. The literal reality is that this is probably not possible. Your commitments, loves and responsibilities may mean that running away to sea (or the equivalent) is just not possible. Then you face your greatest challenge. Staying with the pain, the resistance, the sheer bloody anger and frustration that cries out deep in your soul, “Why me?”
In the midst of all of the messiness, all of the roiling, raging emotion is it helpful to reflect upon the Buddha’s understanding that all of life is suffering? I don’t think so. All you can feel is that gnawing question, “Why?” Why does it have to be this way? Why does this happen to happen now? Why does this have to happen? Why bloody me?
And yet that 2500 year old wisdom contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is as relevant today and to your present suffering as it was 2500 years ago. For we are human beings and we all live through exactly the same struggles and challenges. Sure they manifest in ways relevant to the era, but the human emotional experience and the way through it remains the same.
I am not a Buddhist, but I do believe that the Four Noble Truths describe how life is and the Eightfold Path offers a way to live that allows you to lean into and accept the suffering, leading to it dissolving. I know it is true because I live it. I live through suffering, just like you and I find the wisdom supportive and a practical framework for life.
What follows is a personal and current interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, you can find many more detailed and wiser explanations online, but as the Buddha may have said (there is some dispute) ‘Do not believe what I say, live the experience and learn for yourself’ (I am paraphrasing).
My Four (not so) noble Truths
1) My life is decorated with difficulty
I do not want to live with a chronic health condition. I have spent many years either ignoring it or trying to fix myself. I know that it may get worse as I age. I know that there are limited medical interventions that help. I now know (through bitter experience) that there are ways I can choose to live that support a stable health condition.
However I do not like it. I have to make choices that I do not like. I have to let opportunities go. I have to turn events down. I have to change my day to day activities. I have to make these choices or there are consequences and the consequences are even more suffering. It’s like choosing which type of pain to suffer with.
2) My suffering is caused by me not wanting life to be how it is
Accepting it is not easy. Accepting anything that I do not like sets me up against myself. My ego believes I am immortal, younger than I am, not ageing. My ego tells me I can play football, go out for a drink, spend time doing busy activities. I believe that I am the same man I always was. I am deluded.
I know that the choices I make that are not helpful now come from old patterns. Old ways of living and old patterns of thinking. My common ways of thinking, my habits, are well travelled motorways in my mind. These roads are wide, fast and easy to use. Habitual thinking is reactionary, almost thoughtless and yet I describe myself as a certain type of person, as though those thoughts and ways of being are all that I am. I imagine that I am a thinking rational person and my reaction, my resistance is normal. And so I suffer.
3) I see a way that I can help myself
I know that I can free myself from my suffering by liberating myself from my attachment to how life was or even how it is right now. I know this rationally. I know this is true. I also know that freeing myself from my attachment to how life was/is is the work of a lifetime. How do I know this? Because it is bloody difficult. Because I regularly fall over. I get caught up in my old ways of being, my old choices and then have an acute health situation.
Knowing something and living something are not the same. However, I now know that there is a path that I can follow that supports the possibility of freedom from my suffering. I am on the path, this blog is part of it, but compared to the motorway I have been travelling on it often feels like an unsurfaced track through undulating terrain. Sometimes it is more challenging and feels like an unforgiving jungle with no path and I have just a machete in my hand.
4) My path through the jungle
My path involves a great deal of paying attention. I know that this is deeply ironic, for it was not paying attention that lead me to the place I find myself. The paying attention includes tuning into to how I am each day. Making wise choices as to how to spend that day. Considering the things I have to do, those I can change or move and those that are optional.
I believe that my path involves following work that echoes my life choices. I have for some time felt that my employed work did not do this. Taking the chance to work freelance may seem a big risk, after all being self employed is more stressful than full time employment, is it not? I am not sure. I am acting on a deeper wisdom. A calling to give this way of working and living a try. A belief that it will sustain me emotionally and financially. A belief that I must engage in work that I live as well. Mindful Photography is part of my path, part of my life practice.
I make choices to engage in activities and with people that support me along the path. Maybe I also help them. After all we are all dealing with the same causes of suffering. I have a daily meditation practice and I use a variety of techniques and practices to come back in to the present most days. Oh yes, it is a practice and I do get lost in the jungle sometimes. I do lose my way and fall back on to the motorway. But I notice and make the decision to move back to the path less travelled.
So if you are suffering, if life is particularly challenging for you right now, know that there is possibility in a 2500 year old wisdom. You do not have to become a Buddhist, but maybe read a western interpretation of the Buddha’s experiences and thoughts and then try something out yourself. But do not expect to get it right. For it is in the getting it wrong and then trying again that the path through the jungle lies.
Be compassionate for your journey. You are a beautiful person.