Life is suffering. This statement is widely recognised as the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism. The only thing is, it's wrong. The Buddha never said it. The word he used to describe life was the Pali word “dukkha”. This word often is mistranslated as suffering, but a more accurate translation would be dissatisfaction. It is not that everything is bad per se, it is just that it is not enough. No matter how much we seem to accomplish, we are always left longing for more. That appears to be human nature; our wants are unlimited.
It is not that there is something wrong with the world which leads to our lives being unsatisfying, but rather it is a problem with our minds. We are all playing a game as we live our lives, and the structure of that game seems to be something like this:
- We believe that when we achieve or attain x, we will be happy
- We achieve or attain x and feel fleeting satisfaction
- Now we believe if we achieve or attain y, we will be happy
We spend our entire lives living as if happiness were just around the corner. As if we could just be happy now if only we had the thing we want. We are continually looking to the future, hoping to be happy then. In the process, we overlook the one place we could find happiness – the present.
Fortunately, another noble truth states that there is a way to break out of this cycle and bring an end to the dissatisfaction that seems to be inherent in our lives. The cure prescribed to dukkha is known as "sati". This phrase often is translated in the West as “mindfulness”.
I believe mindfulness is the most important skill we can learn. It is the ability to put aside your fears, hopes, desires and problems – if only for a moment – and live in the present. It is a means of breaking away from our delusions, which are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, and returning to the actual state of affairs.
At some level we imagine our suffering and dissatisfaction into existence, all our problems are merely thoughts. Those thoughts dwell on things in the past we regret and possible events in the future we fear happening, neither of which are real. The past has completely vanished, there is nothing about it that should in principle dictate how you are feeling now. The future is merely imagined. Even if you knew for certain that something bad was going to happen, what good would it do creating anxiety about it now? If the future is bleak, does that mean you have to ruin the present as well?
We need to learn to separate reality from the imagination. Past, future and the stories we frame our existence around are all in the imagination. This is where all suffering and dissatisfaction lie. Reality is our direct experience of the present. It is the colours in your vision, the sounds in your hearing and the sensations in your body. Mindfulness is all about escaping the imagination and its delusions and becoming more in touch with the reality of the moment-to-moment experience of life.
The riddle of happiness
When is it that we feel happy? When are we truly alive? It is those moments when the incessant chatter in our minds has silenced for a little while, and we are attentive to the present. Happiness is a function of attention. Whether we are watching a movie, reading a book or playing a sport, we are concentrated on what is right in front of us in the here and now.
When we arrive at happiness via the conventional means, we tend to take a stimulus and bring it to our attention. This includes when we listen to music, have an interesting conversation or indulge in foods we enjoy. We use various activities and objects to bring our attention to the present.
What it means to practice mindfulness is to do this in reverse. Rather than bringing an object to our attention, we train our attention to rest on an object. This training is called meditation and by practising it we can radically enhance the quality of our moment-to-moment experience. We no longer have to depend on reiterating our pleasures and only experiencing a fleeting feeling of happiness. By looking into our minds we can discover a more stable form of well-being. Mindfulness is all about being content with the here and now. But how do we become mindful? How do we meditate?
How to meditate
- Rest your attention on the feeling of breathing at the tip of your nose
- If you notice you are lost in thoughts or otherwise distracted, gently bring your attention back to your breathing
In this practice, your breath is your anchor to the present moment. The attention you have placed on the breath is attention not lost in thoughts that cause suffering and dissatisfaction. As you engage in this practice, you will slowly notice a shift in your attention from the stories you tell yourself to your direct experience, and you will find fulfilment there. Meditation is a skill that takes practice to reach fruition, but I believe it is the most important skill you could have if you want to be happy in this life.
Most of us don’t even realise it, but we are going about our lives in a trance of discursive thought. We spend our days lost in the narratives we tell ourselves. Our minds are perpetually wandering so that we fail to connect with the present moment and miss our lives.
Integrating meditation practice with our daily lives.
A student once asked his master this important question.
“Master, how do you integrate meditation practice into your day-to-day life?”
“That’s simple, I eat and I sleep.”
“But master, everyone eats and sleeps.”
“But not everyone eats when they eat, and sleeps when they sleep.”
The present moment is all we have. It is always now. Why would you want anything else? A more concise meditation instruction could be to simply be right here, right now. When you walk, feel your legs connecting with the ground. When you eat, experience the flavours and sensations that the food creates in your mouth. When you are outside, feel the air against your skin. When you are performing any activity, be with that activity. This is your life, and with every moment it gets shorter. Please don’t let it slip away. With every moment we are given the opportunity to take it all in and be at peace in the present or to overlook it and fail to find satisfaction.
Every instant of this life is like a precious gift, will you use it?
There isn't just one type of meditation, there are a plethora of different techniques we refer to as meditation stemming from different traditions. What these techniques have in common is that they are skilful means of training the mind. The technique described here is known as "anapana" which means "mindfulness of breathing" in Pali. ↩︎
If you are interested in meditation and do not mind paying for subscription to an app I highly recommend the Waking Up app. It teaches you not simply how to destress but how to understand your mind and radically improve your well-being. ↩︎