The First Noble Truth of Buddhism (dukkha) is that we can’t avoid suffering. But suffering is a chance for connection.
Here is the first noble truth: It is hard to be a human. The more that you love, the more you will inevitably lose, and this is the trade-off to living a full life.
Injustice abounds. It will be difficult to rest in your own skin at times. And everything will change. Even your skin itself will change, from taut and dewy to wrinkled and worn. This is if you are lucky enough to make it that far. There is no guarantee that you will. No one and nothing can save you from the difficulty of being human. We all experience it. This is not good news or bad news. This is just the news—basic and primary to our existence.
I don’t know why, exactly, we begin with suffering on the Buddhist path, though I find it refreshing. Perhaps we start here because dissatisfaction gives us easy entrée into the human experience. There are a thousand different preferred compositions of pleasure, but pain is distinctly universal.
It may also be because heartbreak has the unique potential to open us up; sadness makes people tender and malleable before it hardens into resentment or anger. The experience of our own vulnerability offers us unique accessibility to our heart. Perhaps we find ourselves beginning here because it’s natural to enter a state of seeking when we’ve experienced loss. We often feel an urge to heal the gap left by our losses, which leads us to the meditation cushion, the yoga mat, the chapel, or our knees. We get close to the earth in times of trouble. In any case, we don’t begin with joy. We start by directly experiencing our dissatisfaction.
Your Suffering Is the Least Interesting Thing About You
Let’s just all admit that sometimes we have a hard time. If you’re finding that the whole suffering bit rings true for you, then let me be (perhaps) the first to tell you that, yes, your experience is valid; you are inherently whole and capable, and there is nothing wrong with you. If you are having a hard time, that’s okay. Maybe it feels like you “should” have gotten your life together by now, or you’re down on yourself because you haven’t been thinking positively enough. (This is a strange catch-22, but I know from experience that it happens.) You’re just having the experience of being human.
Let It Break Your Heart
The reality of our lives is that they are fragile. Everything changes and everything goes, and if we have experienced love in any of its forms, this reality is bound to break our hearts.
The First Noble Truth reminds us that connection, in all its joy and beauty, is also a path to suffering. When we love anyone or anything within the backdrop of impermanence, we are bound to have our hearts broken. This is unavoidable. This also doesn’t have to be a problem. As much as connection inevitably leads to suffering, suffering can also lead us to connection. At some point we realize that we are not alone in this. That realization can be a catalyzing force, leading us to extend a helping hand to our neighbors. In heartbreak there is a tremendous opportunity to be broken open into a more expansive sense of empathy, appreciation, and love.
This beautiful line of poetry, from Naomi Shihab Nye, reminds us that when we demonize our suffering, it never has the chance to show us its profound wisdom, which is tenderness, empathy, and kindness: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
This opportunity of empathy and connection that exists in the universality of heartbreak is grounds for developing the heart of a Buddha, or Bodhicitta, which translates as “awakened heart-mind.” Our hearts awaken to one another when we feel the shared challenge of being a human on this planet. An awakened heart-mind is where our deep and abiding courage springs from—the courage to face our own demons directly, as well as to be helpful when we witness the suffering of others.
Rather than resisting or unleashing our demons, we can feel them storming the gates in the moments when dukkha makes itself apparent. Hello, shame, resentment, indignation, fear. Thank you for the information. When we recognize that the value of our painful moments is that they serve as a gateway to our own tender hearts, we can begin widening that field of tenderness to include even our most difficult emotions. Kindness and compassion neutralize our demon material. The world is going to break your heart. First Noble Truth. We get to decide if it breaks us open into empathy or into sharp little pieces.
Excerpted from Tea and Cake with Demons: A Buddhist Guide to Feeling Worthy by Adreanna Limbach. © 2019 Adreanna Limbach. To be published by Sounds True in July 2019.