Monday, August 13, 2018

The Four Noble Truths and My Stomach

Buddhism dovetails with Sufism

On Monday morning, after several cups of tea, some MCT oil and macadamia nuts, I felt a tightening in my stomach. I drank some water but it didn't make much difference. I tried to ignore it and work. Not possible. I bent over to get the laundry from the washer and got so dizzy I had to grip the wall to keep from falling down. As the pain intensified, a cold sweat drenched my clothes. I collapsed on the floor on my meditation cushion moaning.

30 minutes later - and a lot of stomach massage and elimination - it was gone. I drank a lot of water and then went to swim laps. Probably food poisoning or an allergic reaction. However, quite possibly the worst pain I've experienced since I was in labor 20 years' ago. And I have a high pain tolerance.

For my meditation teacher training at the Interdependence Project, I have to give a talk on the Four Noble Truths. These are the basis for all Buddhist practice as well as the first teachings given by the Buddha about 2600 years' ago. Like the majority of the most powerful learnings in the world, these are deceptively simple. Read the 3 (or four) laws of thermodynamics - energy is neither created nor destroyed. Or Einstein's e=mc squared. Descartes, I think therefore I am (though I might argue with that one).

I am finding, in my studies, that so much of the teachings of Buddhism dovetail neatly into Sufism (and Muslim) thought in that the main message is compassion for oneself and others.

The Dalai Lama practices with the Sufis

Also that the deepest truths are often the most obvious.

Noble Truth #1

Life involves suffering. 

So simple. Some people interpret that as "life is suffering," others say, "there is suffering" or "suffering exists," or "I am suffering." Like all simple phrases, the interpretations are endless. My experience is that life in this human form involves suffering, across the board. The extent and kind of the suffering is different for different people, but our personal suffering is connected with all suffering.

To put it into context, Buddha (the historical person called Siddhartha Gautama) was an Indian prince who had been shielded from all suffering by his family. His mother died from the complications of childbirth, so his father decided to keep him in an opulent palace to protect him. You know those kids, you see them in the Hamptons or Lake Cuomo or Gstaad.

Siddhartha was a bright and curious guy so one day, he snuck out of the palace grounds and took a trip to the South Bronx in the 80s (metaphor is mine). He saw suffering - a dying person, a sick person and a very old person. Siddhartha was shocked to discover that aging, illness and death were  inevitable.

In response, he decided to become a monk and meditate until he found a way out.

Easy-peasy truth. Life is suffering.

But maybe you read or hear that and think, "Sure, but I'm not really suffering. I have a pretty good life and I'm generally a happy person." (Which is what I thought).

I live in a pleasant part of the first world. I have access to clean water, clean air, medical care, organic food, transportation. I have a roof over my head, running drinkable water, heat and air conditioning, electricity, internet. Big windows. My family is safe. My children had access to education. They have friends. They are healthy. My parents and my brother and his wife and their kids have access to the same. We can practice our faith with relative freedom. We have shoes and clothes and books for days. Even years.

So think about it this way - replace "suffering" with "stress."

Who do you know who is NOT stressed these days? Maybe not all the time, but definitely a lot of the time.

I have this imaginary ideal person - a herb farmer living the ideal life in the countryside, growing biodynamic flowers and surfing on the weekends (the life I secretly want to have, maybe in Australia, where I have never been). But even for her, there is probably stress of some kind. Herb-eating bugs, perhaps? Sick sheep or a water leak in her drying room?

Here's how the Dhammakapavattana Sutta (the first teaching, or the "setting in motion of the spiritual wheel") expresses that thought (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:[1] Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

IRL, there's an incredible herbalist I know. She has a beautiful little farm and creates wonderful tinctures and salves. But her mother is ill and faraway and she has to travel long distances to see her. She has to find people to work on her farm while she is traveling. She worries about her mother a lot of the time. She thinks about how she is going to say goodbye.

I am sure she suffers in other ways, too. Tragically, her ideal life is not immune to stress or suffering.

That brings me back to my stomach ache. Here I am, saying I am suffering-free, but I still collapse on the floor in pain. Plus I definitely deal with my own pain and disappointments and stress (construction, contractors, landlords, friends, clients, not to mention my parents and kids).

Even if I managed to stave off aging and illness or even my own death, others I love are likely to die. I gave birth a few times and it did involve suffering.

But even if I skip those big sufferings. There are tiny points of pain all the time.

Amy Miller, a Buddhist nun of Philadelphia provence, explained it this way, "There are so many kinds of suffering - loneliness, rising high and then falling low, meeting something or someone you don't want to, parting from someone you don't want to leave. There is suffering when you face uncertainty, the suffering you feel in the face of impermanence or change." (This was at the Shantideva Center in Prospect Park).

Let's expand our perspective to include people all around us - obviously, in other parts of the city or other parts of the world, there are people who have fewer resources, who face harder living conditions or those amongst us who have terrible illness and obstacles whether physical, mental or emotional.

Yes. There is suffering - from the top of society to the bottom.

Noble Truth #2

There is a cause to the suffering.

Yep. No sh__, Sherlock. LOTS OF CAUSES!

It's my job, it's my husband (or wife), my kids, my boss or my bad-vibe colleagues. It's because my parents messed me up. It's the economy. It's the traffic, the terrible president, it's the fact that I am addicted to donuts/coffee/heroin. It's the expired MCT oil that gave me a stomach ache!

But of course, there are other translations of that truth. In the translation of the Dhammakapavattana Sutta, that truth is called the "Origin of Stress."  It's also called "The Root of Suffering."

According Gil Fronsdal, who does a good job putting the four noble truths into context, it's called "The Arising of Suffering."

In the frame of Buddhist thought - as Gil Fronsdal explains - all suffering comes from (gasp) OURSELVES. All those supposed "causes," for instance, why we eat the donuts every day, are actually "conditions" of our suffering.

He says it like this: If you are trying to lose weight or eat less sugar and every day you can not find a way to resist the donuts in the coffee shop, the DONUTS are not really the cause of your weight gain or addiction.

You can change the conditions by going to a different coffee shop that does not sell donuts. You can bring coffee from home. You can skip drinking coffee all together. You can buy something else from the coffee shop or only bring enough money with you for coffee. Or you can not open your mouth and put the donuts in.

The actions that lead you to the donuts are the conditions. But the reality is that the obsession with donuts is your own craving.

According to Amy Miller, there are two causes of suffering - one is your own mind and the other is negative action in your past life.

You've probably heard this in a lot of New Age teachings (or my other blog posts) but one of the things that you might notice is that your suffering or discomfort is relative.

For instance, if you have just won the lottery or just fallen in love and your parking lot attendant stops you on the street to tell you that he's very sorry but he crashed your car into a post - you might be ok with it.

On the other hand, if you've just been laid off from your job or your dog died and the same thing happens, you'd be irate. Or feel like the whole world hates you.

The level of your suffering will be different.

In some circles, they might interpret this as - YOU are responsible for your own suffering so you just need to buck up and get over it. Don't worry. Be happy.

And if it's from a past life, well, that's just it. Too late now.

IMHO, that's not exactly what Buddha was saying here.

For instance, did my stomach ache come from my mind? Could I have just been a little more cheerful and not have a stomach ache? Was I cruel to an insect or small animal in my past life and now my abdomen was making amends?

Another interpretation is that suffering comes from cravings and desires. For instance, the desire for physical pleasure, the desire for delicious food, the desire to feel superior to others (like when you are seated in first class and watching all the other passengers file back into economy), the desire to have more.

Still a third way to look at suffering is dissatisfaction. Alan Watts describes it that way. The traffic light is red and you want it to be green. You're late and you keep hitting all the red lights on the way. Or all the DON'T WALK signs when the subway was delayed.

Dissatisfaction is a reaction to what is. Your metabolism. Your height. Your partner. Your bad knees. The weather. The way you were brought up. Maybe someone you love died and you didn't want him to. That's understandable, but it can be qualified as dissatisfaction or discontent.

If you've taken the Landmark Forum courses, you know that dissatisfaction with "what is" is considered the main cause of suffering.

Which also brings up two Buddhist ideas - emptiness or interconnectedness. Weird that those two things would go together. Amy Miller described emptiness as the understanding that nothing has an inherent nature. Nothing is good or bad in itself. A donut alone in a forest does no harm.

Or as Gil Fronsdal would say, every desire has a root.

So Gil described his desire for a beautiful sportscar. Exploring that, he realized that he wanted the car because it would make him look more successful, feed his ego. The car was neither good or bad, right or wrong.

The root might be (as both Amy and Gil say), getting attached to our "story," the meaning that we attach to it. It doesn't mean there is nothing there - it means that what's there is there and nothing more. Seeing the causes of your suffering as something other than your own self is your story.

"I can't make plans because my husband and kids are always doing last-minute things so I just give up." Or "I can't get a job because everyone thinks I'm too fat and I can't lose weight because there are always cookies and junk food around my house."

When we do that we make the "conditions" of our suffering the reasons or the root.

The other idea is Impermanence.

The first, as anyone who has lived in NYC can attest, is the nature of life. Seems like every time you turn the corner, your favorite restaurant is gone and there's a totally new condo building in the place of your parking lot. Your best neighbors move to New Jersey. Despite your best efforts, your kids grow up. Your parents get older. It's sad.

The material world is all about change.

Noble Truth #3

There is a way to end suffering.

The truth is, you can't change the universe, but you can change yourself.

And if you can change yourself, maybe you can change your suffering. Thinking back to my stomach ache, this is an appealing idea. I was in such intense pain that I couldn't imagine anything else.

The translation from Thanissaro Bhikku is as follows:

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

This probably the simplest of the Four Truths, but also the most pleasant one. You are in pain and the doctor says, "I can tell you exactly what to do."

All these stupid things that make us suffer have a "cure."

This is what one is taught in the Landmark Forum. One can't avoid "what is," but one might be able to avoid some of the suffering that it causes.

A little aside. Pain - the discharging of nerve endings - cannot be avoided. However, how you feel and react to that pain (suffering or not), is mutable.

Noble Truth #4

The Path to Ending Suffering

The Eightfold Path fits well with a Sufi perspective, too

The way one frees oneself from suffering and reaches "liberation" or nirvana is called the Eight-Fold Path. Basically, the Buddha taught there were 8 steps to avoiding suffering. They all involve the word "right" which means "accurate" rather than the opposite of wrong. It is also translated as "wholesome" in Thich Nhat Hanh's explanation. "Right" also means in accordance with the Buddhist ideas of impermanence, emptiness and interdependence (creating positive impact on yourself and the world with as little harm as possible to other beings).

The list, briefly:

1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness/Recollection
8. Right Concentration/Meditation

The things you do to avoid suffering are really about not causing suffering to others and coming to terms with your own suffering in every single aspect of your life.

How you understand, how you think, what you say, what you do, your job, what you try to accomplish, what you hold on to and how you meditate - all of those will affect your ability to manage stress, pain, sadness and discomfort.

Many people think, "Why would the essential teaching of a faith or a school of thought focus on the bleakest parts of life?"

The goal of the first Buddhist teaching is to give you tools to manage those bleak parts so that you can fully enjoy or be present to the good parts.

Acknowledge your own suffering. Explore it. Feel it. Give yourself love and compassion for it.

Forget measuring it against anyone else's suffering or situation. Just be with what arises for yourself.

Because you can only release your own pain when you have admitted that it's there.

Don't even try and change anything until you've done that. When you have taken the time to embrace your suffering like a baby, as Thich Nhat Hanh, describes it, you can let it go. When you take the time to see what is making your baby cry, you can address it. While your baby is crying, it's hard to see anyone else clearly.

Once your suffering is realized, take a minute to realize that if you are suffering, so is everyone else.

And you are connected to everyone else. Your next job is to alleviate or at least not inflame the suffering of those around you.

Gradually, my stomach ache subsided. I threw the whole bottle of MCT oil in the garbage and got back to work.

Useful for Meditation Teacher Training Class!