by Mary Leigh Burke
When people asked the Buddha about metaphysical issues (is there a God? Is the soul reborn?) he replied with some variation of: “I don’t speculate on these things. I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.”
So some people think Buddhism is atheistic; however, it would be more accurate to say it is agnostic. You can follow any faith (or no faith) and do Buddhist practice. Everybody suffers, and everybody wants to end suffering.
What do Buddhists mean by “suffering”? We can start by asking ourselves: what do I mean? Where in my life am I dissatisfied? What keeps not working for me? What do I keep trying to get hold of that keeps slipping through my fingers? What am I afraid of losing? The teaching says that suffering comes from two sources in the mind: either grasping: trying to hang onto or get hold of something we want; or aversion: trying to get rid of something we don’t want.
Suffering arises when you unconsciously create an illusory mental world (a story in your head). For example, maybe I’m out for a walk in my neighborhood, enjoying the fresh air just after a rain, when I come across the neighbor’s yard filled with amazing plants and beautiful landscaping. Before I know it, the envy-and-inferiority story : “Why can’t my yard look like this? What do they know that I don’t? I should be home mulching instead of wasting time on this walk. Maybe I should pay somebody; but I can’t afford that …. ” and off we go. An entire scenario has taken form that is a complete fabrication, based on grasping for a perceived need and aversion to a perceived reality. What is actually here now? an early autumn walk, a beautiful green yard, the scent of the air fresh from the rain.
Meditation practice teaches you that it is possible to step back from your stories about your life and – like falling backwards into the softest of pillows – fall back into life as it really is.
Most Buddhist meditation begins with simply sitting quietly and noticing your breathing; how exactly you notice it and what you do then varies quite a bit, but the basic idea is to come fully and completely into the present moment and then disover what the mind does with that – in other words, to watch the story-making in action without buying into the story. At first, you’ll lost in those thought worlds and repeatedly coming back to the anchor of the breath. Over time, you will begin to see that:
- The stories are impermanent: the thoughts arise and then pass away
- Who you think you are is being generated as part of these stories
- There is an awareness that is independent of thoughts and stories, desires and aversions, and even a permanent sense of “me”.
What happens next is freedom, which includes really living your life.
Does all suffering, all dissatisfaction, disappear forever? Are you now living in uninterrupted bliss, happiness, and unity for the rest of your life? Do all your problems go away?
The Buddha might say that’s an irrelevant question: there is no “rest of your life”; there is only this moment. We practice moment by moment, seeing (and being) life as it is, instead of the stories and interpretations our minds want to project onto life. In any given moment, engaging wholeheartedly in this practice of coming into the present, liberation – really living your life as it is – is possible for everybody.