“Do not worry about life or about your body.
Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?”
Luke 12: 22-26
“Life is marked by suffering.”
The First Noble Truth of the Buddha
Mass anxiety seems to be the hallmark of modern society. We are worried and anxious about so many things, and if we are not anxious for a moment, we are soon told about something we should be anxious about. Soon we are suffering from cycles of fear and anxiety, which lead to stress, anger, resentments, and even depression. How can we break ourselves free from these recurrent and seemingly endless cycles?
The First Noble Truth of the Buddha says the “Life is dukkha,” which is often translated as suffering. In my weekly prayer group, we have often talked about the concept of suffering. Usually there will be several people who say that they look back on their lives and do not feel they have ever really suffered. Maybe you feel that way too. I think this is because when we hear the word suffer, we tend to define it as extreme pain, or hardship, or abuse. We think of the suffering of Jesus on the cross, or of people who are dying of a terribly painful disease, like cancer, or who have had to live with a chronic illness most of their lives. And yes, all of these instances constitute great suffering, but the Buddha was talking about the suffering that every single human being experiences every day of their lives. I think that is what Jesus was talking about too.
Dukha also means ‘unable to satisfy,’ or ‘dissatisfaction,’ or ‘stressful.’ It means a ‘wheel that is not round but gives a bumpy ride.’¹ And isn’t life like that? It is never smooth for long. There are many bumps in the road of our journey. Just when we think things are looking up a bit, a bump comes along to throw us off kilter. “Yes, we have happiness and joy, but we never escape the suffering of not getting what we want, the suffering of losing it when we do get it, and the underlying anxiety of not having a solid sense of self.” ²
The Second Noble Truth of the Buddha says that dukkha has a cause, and that the immediate cause is craving. “Craving comes from not understanding reality and not knowing ourselves. We experience life in a narrow, self-centered way, going through life craving and grasping at things we think will make us happy. But we find satisfaction in these things only briefly, and then the anxiety and craving start again.” ¹
We have all been there over and over and over during the course of our lives. “When I graduate from high school or college, when I get that perfect job, when I get married, have children, have my own home, a great car, a boat, etc., then I will be happy. If I were thinner, better looking, more in shape, taller, shorter, had more hair, more athletic, more talented, etc., then I would be happy.”
We are constantly looking to things outside of ourselves to be the source of our happiness and well-being, but these things never do, and never will, satisfy us for long. This is dukkha. This is suffering, because the not having causes us anxiety, and the satisfaction of having is very short-lived, and we are back to craving again.
So what can we do? We can begin to be “liberated from the hamster wheel of stress and craving”² by practicing noticing when we are craving or grasping at outside things or experiences, hoping they will make us happy. We can pause when we notice this and ask ourselves, “Do I really need this thing/experience to be happy this moment? Where do I feel happiness and satisfaction right now, this very moment?” “Liberation from suffering depends upon one’s own insight into the source of dukkha. Craving will not cease until we realize for ourselves what’s causing it.” ²
Of course we all need food, shelter, clothes for our bodies, safety, companionship and love. Jesus was not saying we should be totally unconcerned about these things. What he was saying, though, is that excessive concern about every miniscule facet of our lives, and the lives of others, causes unnecessary anxiety and worry, which causes us unnecessary suffering. He says, “Don’t go there! Trust that the generous love of God for you and for all people will always be with you, no matter what!” It’s all about trust. Don’t worry; be happy!
¹ Beginner’s Mind, Lion’s Roar, pg. 30; July 2018
² Who was Buddha, Barbara O’Brien, May 29, 2018