The Suffering of the Egocentric Lifestyle

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In the third theme we go on to think about our state and the Buddha’s great diagnosis to us of the first noble truth. — that the unenlightened life is inevitably suffering. In this lesson we focus on one aspect of suffering — the suffering that results from the delusion of our sense of our self as a separate being from the universe, as intrinsically substantially and solidly here as something apart from everything else is itself.

Note: In a future Ashoka course you will be able to study the Four Noble Truths and examine the pervasiveness of suffering in your life and the path to a mind of freedom.

When people first hear the Buddha’s theme of suffering, they often think it's the morbid. But it's not gloomy; it's merely realistic, a method of evaluating "what is our actual experience?"

Remember that one of the goals of the four thoughts that turn the mind is to see clearly and openly the truth of your - and our - existence.


If we look about we see that all around us is suffering.

Think of suffering you see in the news. People in war zones, people in car accidents, people with serious illness, people aging, people dying. Think of people you know personally who have or are suffering with pain, mental suffering, disaster…

When you reflect on these can you imagine that you too could be in these situations? Or do you live in denial of the fact that the person suffering from the pain of the automobile accident was as removed from the possibility that they could suffer in such a way as you are now?

Reflect on some of the ways you are suffering or dissatisfied. You can focus on physical suffering — sickness or pain — or mental suffering like anxiety, anger, and fear, or suffering of loss, or suffering of fear of loss.

Notice how difficult it is to just steady the mind to make such an inquiry. Does your internal monologue constantly demand, "How can I feel better?" Do you constantly think: "When I get there, then I'll feel good." "When I wake up tomorrow I'll feel good." "When I have this food, that thing, that relationship—then everything will be all right."

We're always seeking happiness, but we very rarely experience it.

We're constantly in a state of vain hope, hoping to get someplace where we'll finally be happy. We're always seeking happiness, but we very rarely experience it. We usually have a little pain over here, a little strain over there, we're miserable when the temperature is a little off. Some internal or external thing is constantly agitating us. Sometimes we have the experience that we remember some past time as having been good, but then if we really look back carefully we realize that we were still trying, anxiously, even then, to get to some other place. So our actual daily existence is unsatisfactory.

We've all had many experiences of hoping to reach some goal, and yet nothing ever seems to work out if you really think about it. We are dependent for our well-being on all kinds of factors beyond our control, and life is always frustrating. Our own reactions are not under our control either. We can't accept hardship with equanimity. We can't stay cheerful when we're ill. On top of being in pain, we get mad that we have the illness. This is a small corner of the endless round of suffering called samsara.

Gradually, it becomes clear that internally we're victims of emotions and desires that constantly nag us, and externally we're the victims of environment and circumstance. No wonder we want to attain nirvana! Or at least just get away from it all.

But why is life so unsatisfactory?

A few pages back we were so grateful for this precious human embodiment. What happened?

It's this: We think the world is not treating us right. Our own body treats us abominably! Time is terrible; gravity is worse; our emotions are toxic. Still, we feel we have a right to be happy. We feel we have a right to be calm and cool and to feel bliss, even ecstasy. But the world is not bustling to provide our ecstasy. So there's a struggle between our expectation and what is.

As an experiment, give up the pretension that you constantly maintain to the world and even to yourself, that just over the next hill all will be well. Stop saying: "If I can just get to the next level, I'll be happy. If I can just get back home. Or if I can just get away from home, move to another state, it'll be OK." Realize that's a delusion; that every time you get one of these goodies, it proves unsatisfactory. You immediately want the next thing, and then another, better one. Right?

Begin to feel sympathy for yourself in this very difficult predicament. This is what the noble truth of suffering means: We're habitually out of balance, and all of our experience will inevitably be frustrating and unsatisfactory. We have to acknowledge this and accept the fact that we're off balance. We're simply not going to find happiness, the way we're facing our situation, feeling ourselves alone and struggling in an alien world, trying to get the better of it. Once we're set apart in this way, in the battle of self versus the world, the self has got to lose. The world is bigger and stronger; it's inexhaustible, while we get tired so easily?

But the Buddha’s teachings on the four noble truths also teach us that a person who has found a different way of relating to the world, one who is no longer habitually self-centered and no longer is pitted against the world comes to see the process of self-preoccupation itself as suffering, so our whole lives look like suffering to them. Even what we think of as temporary relief, a noble person sees as suffering: Our temporary states of happiness seem pretty good to us in relation to the immediately preceding irritation, but they soon turn into new irritation, and therefore are called the suffering of change. The conditions we normally perceive as suffering are called the suffering of suffering. And our overall cosmic situation is called the suffering of creation.

Do you have grand ambitions – to become a billionaire, a president, a king, a movie star, a famous writer? A yogi? Do you fantasize that if only you had the life someone else has you’d be happy? Can you go beyond your fantasies and look at people who have the things you think you want. Look at the president of the United States. You begin to realize the guy has got a permanent headache. Look at a movie star, you see many of them in complete misery. Look at famous writers, many are alcoholics.

When you reflect on this carefully and thoughtfully, you begin to feel genuine sympathy for yourself, you begin to excuse yourself from chasing your illusions. You begin to turn that hope-for-happiness in a more practical direction by shifting the situation from you-versus-the-world.

Now meditate on the dark areas of life. Think over the many varieties of suffering.

Don't avoid these. Facing suffering realistically has to do with developing a healthy prudence and a concern to avoid future misery.