Suffering: It’s personal

“Life is suffering” is the usual translation for Buddhism’s First Noble Truth. It’s a statement that definitely gets your attention. Is it true? Does it basically mean “Everything sucks?” I’ve struggled with this teaching because my own experience of life has included a great deal I can’t honestly put into the category of suffering. Falling in love. Children. Grandchildren. Bach. Breathing. Yosemite. And so on. Life is definitely tough, but it also includes beauty and delight. Clearly, not everything sucks. Maybe i was just taking the statement too literally. Anyway, I usually translate the First Noble Truth for myself more along the lines of “Life includes suffering,” or “Suffering: coming up sometime soon.”
More recently, I’ve developed a different feel for the First Noble Truth as I’ve come to understand what I think of as my personal suffering. The First Noble Truth arose from Buddha’s exposure to sickness, old age, and death as universal, unavoidable human experiences. So the story goes. I think every person can understand these forms of suffering abstractly and will eventually get to know them, but there’s another experience of suffering that’s more idiosyncratic. It’s the particular suffering that grows out of each person’s individual, unconscious delusions.
This is suffering that’s so tightly woven into the way each of us experiences life day by day and moment by moment that we don’t even realize it’s there. It finds its expression in a baseline level of life stress that we take for granted, in expectations, and in habitual reactions and patterns of behavior that are so familiar that if they’re brought to our attention, we tend to think, “It’s just me; it’s just how I am.”
Every one of us labors under the weight of our unconscious delusions. They’re among our most deeply held views, and they are delusions because they don’t match reality. Most often, we have been carrying them since early in our lives. They’re hard to spot and untangle because they’re “bred in the bone.” In fact, if and when we actually catch on to one of our unconscious delusions, it can seem impossibly crazy. Is is possible that this insane conceit has actually been driving me around? We’re embarrassed, even ashamed…one reason these delusions remain hidden and one good indicator that we’re honing in on a deeply imbedded source of personal suffering. Fortunately, other people in our life can often spot them – Dharma companions, teachers, life partners. Which is why we need to be especially careful about reacting defensively when someone close points to a persistent pattern we’re following that seems blind, or goofy, or destructive.
Because our unconscious delusions don’t match reality, whenever they propel our behavior and feelings we collide with reality. The collisions are painful. They’re painful to us and they’re painful to others. So making unconscious delusions conscious is an essential part of our practice. When we’re able to bring an unconscious delusion into the light of awareness, things can change. We open a door to deeper appreciation for universal suffering and to the possibility of liberation and relief from the very personal suffering that permeates our lives.