The First of the Noble Truths is the simple truth of suffering, which means that if you have a mind and a body, human or non-human, there is suffering. In Pali, the direct translation is dukkha. This is an imperfect translation because dukkha has such a wide range of meanings, from deep pain and grief to the sort of frustration and unsatisfactoriness of momentary experience. But to keep it simple, let’s define the First Noble Truth as the truth of suffering.
From everyday challenges, frustrations and irritations to discomfort in the mind and body, to deep pain, loss, despair, and grief, these are all types of suffering. There’s the suffering of injustice and racism, of poverty, of all of the biases, conscious or unconscious that have us relate in a distorted way, or make someone into “the other.” Suffering shows up out of ignorance, out of delusion and all the myriad of ways we separate. We have all been touched by suffering, our own suffering and the suffering of those we love and care about, and for many, this is the reason we come to practice. Whether it’s a deep and profound loss, basic unsatisfactoriness or we feel we’ve done everything we think we should do and we’re still not happy in the way society, culture has told us we should be, suffering is very real and present for many of us.
Why is it a “Noble Truth” of suffering? I like this definition: “It’s noble when it turns us towards the path.” When it actually leads us to the path that leads to the end of suffering. The Buddha never talked about suffering without talking about the end of suffering. In this regard, suffering can be seen as a teacher, as the cause of the path or the reason we come to practice. Suffering is very real and present. But there’s also the possibility of coming to the end of suffering. When we’re willing to turn towards the suffering to understand it, we can learn from it.
We often talk about this path of practice as developing and strengthening the wings of wisdom and compassion. These are very important aspects to our practice and we begin to see compassion as the natural response of the wise heart. It also deeply allows us to connect to and understand suffering, bringing more wisdom with it. So they support each other. They’re not separate or isolated.
Compassion becomes the natural response to an open heart that is touched by suffering. If we truly open to our suffering, perhaps even surrender to it, it tenderizes our heart and the heart becomes responsive. Compassion is said to be the quivering of the heart, or the tender heart’s response to suffering. It leads to this beautiful sublime state—the brahmavihāra of compassion, or karunā.
The Dalai Lama says, “I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It is the ultimate source of success in life.”
An entryway that is often used in our practice is of the brahmavihāra of mettā, or lovingkindness. It’s considered the foundational brahmavihāra because it steadies and opens the heart in this beautiful way of kindness and friendliness with a warmth and acceptance.
One specific type of mettā practice is opening to the suffering of someone we care about. To start, begin by holding this person in your heart, and connect with their suffering.
Next ask, “Can I stay connected to the suffering in this person’s life?” Recognizing that that’s not all of who they are. That they also have joy, well-being, and love or whatever else might be there. But there is this aspect of suffering.
The next part of the training is, “Can I stay steady with this?” It’s not an easy practice.
Lastly, repeating these phrases of mettā over and over again, the traditional one being simply, “May you be free from suffering,” and then adding all the various flavors of that, “May your sorrow be eased. I care about your suffering. May you hold this difficulty with kindness and compassion.” Or simply, “I’m here for you. I’m here for you.”
We begin to see the mind and heart lose self-involvement and the attention turns directly towards the other and how they’re feeling. This natural expression is caring. Even as we’re opening to suffering, there is a caring and a connection that eases the sense of isolation, that helps us to be more connected.
The wisdom that sees clearly the nature of things, flows into the compassion that’s the natural expression of that wisdom. This is a beautiful aspect that results from lessening our sense of self-concern or our self-involvement. We’re all here because the Buddha, out of compassion, decided to teach.
A common challenge to opening to suffering is that we fear we’ll be overwhelmed. Whether you’ve been overwhelmed by your own suffering or a friend or loved one’s suffering, or perhaps the suffering of the world, it can be so easy to turn off or turn away. You may have thought, “I can’t bear it, it’s too much. I don’t know what to do.”
What we find through this practice in turning again and again to suffering is that we can bear it, more than we think we can. Of course, we’ll find our edge and this is not about pushing through or repressing what we’re actually feeling, but really learning to navigate that terrain and starting to trust the capacity of our ability to be with something that’s really difficult. It develops resilience and confidence that one can be with this. Whether it’s a pain in the knee, an ache in the back or a pain in the heart, we start to see we can bear it. We have more capacity than we think we do. This builds an enormous opening of empathy, of actually being able to feel with—when we move out of compassion. The literal meaning of compassion is “to feel with.”
And so we develop the capacity of self-compassion and resilience and from that foundation, just as we do with the other brahmavihāras, we can then more easily open to the suffering of others. And as we’re able to do that, we can start to recognize that the best gift we can give someone else is just our warm, loving presence. It doesn’t have to be more than that. It doesn’t have to be the right magical words that will fix or ease them, but just be there with them. Show up. Hold their hand. Say, “I’ll listen to you.”
The most important question as healers is not what to say or do, but how to develop enough inner space where the story can be received—how to listen with real attention. This is such a different view of compassion in action.
Creating and offering a friendly, empty space where the person can reflect on their pain and suffering without fear and find confidence and new ways right in the center of their confusion. Our compassion gives them strength or the capacity to find their healing in their experience, not taking away their experience so they can get better.
Compassion can be wise. It can be gentle. It can be empty and spacious. It can also be fierce.
It also doesn’t need to be perfect and we don’t need to be perfect. We have to be willing to make mistakes, to not know what’s the right thing to say. Maya Angelou, the great poet, says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The willingness to show up and just be real is the most potent thing.
So much appreciation for Bhikkhu as he points out, “We don’t have to become enlightened to begin to help.” We don’t have to be perfect; we can start right where we are with what we have, with what’s right in front of us. The more we open to the selfless nature of who we really are, in other words, when we lose our self-centredness, the more we can engage in skillful, compassionate work.
All of the brahmavihāras can become what we call “transcendent.” When we use this term, it means we lose the sense of self and other, of me sending mettā or me being compassionate. We just become mettā. Or even more directly, compassionate activity manifests. Mettā manifests. No sending, no doing, just compassion.
As we quiet down through our mindfulness practice, we start to notice the quality of mind itself. Not just the passing moods and emotions that visit, but the very nature of this knowing mind itself. It has a flavor; it can be subtle. It can be quite strong—of kindness. Certainly, acceptance. Mindfulness meets a nonjudgmental accepting response or receptivity.
Start to tune into that mindfulness itself. And this receptivity, this tenderness, when it meets suffering, it naturally responds with kindness and concern. We don’t have to think, “Oh, now I should practice compassion.” The heart just naturally responds. When there’s not a strong sense of self, there’s room, a natural space that unfolds for other.
When we feel solid, contracted, or self-identified, we feel like the opposite is true, that there is no room or space. When we’re judging or evaluating ourselves or the other—asking “What should I say? What should I do? What will they say?”—there’s no room or space to simply be. A response could simply be, trust presence. Start to see that compassion is the quality of the mind when we’re not so self-involved. When we start to quiet down, we see this is the true nature of the mind and heart.
We don’t have to be perfect or enlightened. Suffering is all around us. Love is all around us. Compassion is all around us. And there are so many examples of each. It’s what we practice for: to bring this depth of openness, caring, and concern towards ourselves and towards all beings.