When we think of the Buddha’s first truth, the truth of dukkha, it’s easy to understand physical pain as an example. But day to day, by a wide margin, the largest proportion of dukkha is produced by our thinking.
Consider the innocence of a young child at an adult party, who asks the group of adults what they would do in this situation: “Imagine you are surrounded by hungry tigers with a cliff behind you. What would you do?” Each adult comes up with a different creative solution, but the boy just shakes his head. So they turn to him and ask, “What would you do?” The boy smiles and says, “I’d simply stop imagining.” (from Chapter 6 of Shift into Freedom by Loch Kelly)
This story points to the primary way in which we cause difficulty for ourselves and others. Consider these possible imaginings:
- We think we can be the perfect friend/hostess/relative and hold ourselves to an impossible ideal, guaranteeing failure.
- We think we cannot stand to be in the same room with a particular person – maybe not even in the same universe.
- We imagine that others are judging our every action and thought.
- We imagine that a particular action or inaction will result in apocalyptic disaster (any exaggerated consequence can fit here).
- We think that if we don’t get on to Dean’s list or the [whatever] team or any other “in crowd”, we will simply die.
- We think that if we disappoint someone, it will mark us forever as bad.
- We decide to take responsibility for outcomes that are beyond our control. The scope of what is “our fault” widens.
- We think that others are wise and accomplished and that we are faking it and will soon be exposed as a fraud.
Each of us can conjure up imaginings that we live with and suffer from.
While sometimes these thought habits are difficult to perceive, they all have one thing in common: we cling to them. We have an idea and (sometimes unconsciously) make it an organising principle for our plans and actions, which then leads to frustration. If we can, for a moment, drop everything else and remind ourselves to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, our attention can turn inward in a different way. Rather than measuring ourselves, we can widen the scope of awareness and ask “what do I know to be true?” and “what don’t I know?” What is the source of our dissatisfaction? It is always some form of clinging, usually to an idea or thought of how things (our how we ourselves) should be. When we see this process clearly in our direct experience, we have the power to release our clinging and entirely eliminate this particular form of suffering. Poof!