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To Live Is To Cause Suffering

May 7, 2010

I googled “Four Noble Truths” just now, to find the exact wording of these Buddhist precepts, and came across the following definitions from this website. This isn’t how I learned it originally, but it’s the perfect translation for what I want to write here, particularly for the first truth:

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable
  4. [The eightfold path is] the path to the cessation of suffering.

I learned, and always thought about the First Noble Truth as “To live is to suffer.”  There’s an innate passivity to this particular translation, though.  In my head, those words preach the inevitability of “suffering will befall you,” and leave out “you, too, cause suffering.”

But the sentence, “Life means suffering,” is a two-way street.  Life means suffering – in all its form, received and given.  From as small as the bacteria I destroy by bathing, to the greatest harm I can cause a loved one, I will cause suffering, no matter what.

I’ve spent the majority of my life seeing myself as an effect, instead of a cause.  When I was a kid it was an extreme: I used to believe no one – shy of my parents & grandparents – could possibly think of me if I weren’t in their direct presence.  If someone called me I was floored, if someone new it was my birthday, well forget it. I was awestruck.

This continued to make its residual appearance when I was in college.  When someone I had been friends with for 3 months already, used my last name calling to me from the back of a crowd, my jaw hit the floor that he had learned it. Three months. I know the full names of some people I’ve met once, just a week ago.

In my head, I didn’t really exist.

This belief is a symptom of a major world-view problem: seeing myself as an effect, instead of a cause.  It’s a power-sucking position to take, and one devoid of self-worth. If you believe you are only done-unto, then you can not do, and your actions have no merit. Or, more dangerously, your actions have no consequences.

Three years ago, this worldview allowed me to cause a number of people who are very close to me, a great deal of pain.  But if you don’t believe your actions matter, you don’t have to believe you could possibly cause suffering. You can do for yourself, and for your own advancement, and believe that either things will work out, or suffering will befall you, and that’s all there is to it.

Over recent years I’ve chipped away at this belief, but it’s only in recent weeks that I’ve begun to grab the steering wheel and finally throw the car into drive. My therapist is fond of saying, “The universe has a tendency to treat you how you treat yourself.”  Having started to take some power back, to view myself as someone who forges change, who is not just a climate-taking thermometer, but a climate-changing thermostat, it’s not surprising, then, that I would be confronted last night by one of the people I hurt the most.

With great reclaimed power comes great responsibility to one’s actions.

As my friend addressed me, calm, calculated, obviously hurt, I saw my old internal patterns rear their ugly heads: an out-of-body feeling, a distance from the experience, the thought that she was talking about someone else, because clearly I don’t cause these feelings in other beings… I had to keep acknowledging those patterns and coming back, over and over and over again, just as I tell my students to come back to their breath, until finally I was able to lock into it: “I  have caused deep suffering.”

Regret is a useless state of being, but remorse is a powerful tool for change.  I lay down an apology, and I’m well aware I have a lot of work ahead of me to regain the previous strength of our relationship.  Though I do feel incredibly sad, pained, remorseful for having hurt her, I’m so incredibly grateful for her strength to confront me as she did, showing me from the other side of the coin what it means to be a cause.

Critics of Buddhism often site the first noble truth as nihilistic, but I feel that knowing all life is suffering, that I’m not alone in my suffering and that every moment of  mindfulness erases a moment of conditioning, is hugely liberating.

I have a lot of continued work to do. And I’ll hurt people in my wake. But I’ll probably help a few, too. Maybe the same people.  But at least I’m starting to garner an understanding of my Cause, beyond just my Effect.

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One comment

  1. You’ve helped me!



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