Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Fifth Noble Truth

Moon, by Joe Brainard
Now, I prefer to think of the Buddha's founding insights as The Four Realities, but most places they are known as The Four Noble Truths, and you can look them up.  Over the years I have revisited them often, testing whether they make sense.  Now I have come to believe that something important is left out.  The Fourth Noble Truth lays out what is called The Eightfold Path.  It is a formidable prescription for effort in every area of your life, involving wisdom, ethics, meditation and mindfulness.  What is missing is how you begin.

I have seen hundreds of people begin meditation because they wanted stress relief, people who did not want to take it any further, to look at how they lived and what concepts they carried around in their minds.  Some of them last, in a way, going to a meditation group once a week or filling seven bowls with fresh (city) water every morning, but most don't.

You will not stick with it, you will not really do it - not even with that one little part, daily meditation - unless you begin with a fervent  vow to get yourself out of your misery.   That's going to emanate from really seeing and feeling your misery. 

I remember - feeling my way out of the dark room of cancer, a room cluttered with black boxes in which there was a door with just a crack of light around it to indicate it was there.  I'd known a few happy people.  I thought maybe happiness was possible.  That door out of my misery - it was clear to me that I had to get to it myself.  Medical science was adding to my misery, I won't go into that here.  My family had, as usual, failed me utterly, abandoning me after all showing up pro forma in my hospital room.  In my journal I noted it had been 17 days since my surgery, and my mother had not called me.  Ditto what I thought of as friendships - they didn't go to this level. They turned out to be social distractions.

The church brought me dinner every night for a week, but each of those women refused to come in and visit when I asked them to, and each time my heart dropped, I was so terribly lonely.  The therapist I had been trying to work with before the diagnosis was one more nice girl who wanted to explain me to understand my poor mother couldn't face my cancer.  Jesus, it was my cancer.  My minister wanted to show me how wise he was, told me she didn't choose to become an addict.  Everywhere I turned, no one heard me.  On top of this, what I had been trying to work with before the diagnosis was the appearance of memories of sexual abuse after my father's death. Well, I'm feeling bad just touching down on all this. That's about all the memoir I can stand.

I could sit on the bottom of that for only so long before I decided somewhere in my gut, Dammit, I've got to do something.  Some of us are like this.  We will goddamnit do something!  This sort of will - even courage - is a gift, a lucky accident of dna and karma, and a certain persistence was something I had cultivated in my life.  Lucky there.  And all I could think of to do was a healing visualization I'd heard three different unrelated times in my life.  More luck.

I knew enough about forming new habits to decide I would have to work at this, do it every single day.  I further decided I couldn't stand to spend ten minutes at it, but five was not enough, so I made it seven minutes (with the kitchen timer).  I tied it to a reward.  If I did it, I let myself watch the 11 a.m. rerun of Law and Order, which distracted me from my nightmare.  I did it sitting in my recliner.  Things unfolded from there.

I believe that realization of our suffering, and that vow, are essential.  You will not make that vow until  you understand that no one else can help you.  Happiness will not fall from the sky.  It will not "happen."  It's not in that "relationship" you hope will "come your way."  You have to get to work.  Only then will you begin to practice as though your hair is on fire.  That's the Fifth Noble Truth, or maybe it's the preliminary practice.


  1. Thank you thank you thank you for this!!! I absolutely 100% agree!

  2. Interesting.I wonder what happens when you make all of those realisations, truly and deeply, and you recognise beauty, suffering, joy and pain in vibrant colours all around, and you breathe and you smile and you expand, and yet you want your journey to end right there. That's the one I can't figure. I wonder if I will.

  3. I'm almost there.

    What a lonely time for you, in the hospital. It makes me sad to imagine it--and just think how you felt!

  4. a deeply touching post, filled with truth, a realization of the first noble truth, the willingness to acknowledge it in our own lives, I agree this is important to stepping on to the path. Yet I have at least 2 Buddhist friends, good practitioners, who took a long time after beginning practice to see the suffering in their own lives. Both would say, "I don't have any suffering." I would always chuckle. I think I have been aware of suffering since I was a small child and was ecstatic to find that Buddhist practice offers a way out.