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Grief and the Four Noble Truths

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“Life is suffering.” 

That is what I heard without giving it much thought. OK, without giving it any thought. I quickly rejected the notion that was suffering. I had a happy life. I didn’t have a depressed or unhappy bone in my body. A talk about suffering must be for someone else. All I needed was to get back to meditating.

Later, a different teacher said that dukkha, which can be translated as suffering, might also be translated as dissatisfaction or dis-ease. We strive for better jobs or fancier cars or larger homes. We cling to what we have. We try to avoid what we view as unpleasant. We do not want to be sick or experience any difficulties. This is attachment, and it creates dukkha. Ah, now that made sense. Like most people, I spent time and energy in my life wanting to move to “the next level” and avoid discomfort. It made sense. My time could be spent in more positive ways.

Yet another teacher offered a helpful story. His mother had a set of costly china. It was beautiful. She kept the dishes in a unique cabinet. She would warn anyone who came within three feet of the china cabinet to watch out. She did not want anyone to bump into the cabinet lest the china fall and break. She used the china once a year for Thanksgiving. She was a nervous wreck the entire time. She told everyone to be careful. Nobody was allowed to hand out the plates or to wash the dishes. Only she could put the dishes back in the china cabinet. The entire time the china was out of the cabinet, she was in pure misery. The teacher hated that china and how it made his mother a prisoner and made their Thanksgiving so stressful. As he grew older, he began to suggest that they use something else. His mother would have none of that. She insisted that this was the Thanksgiving china. And so it went until one day, his brother’s fiancé accidentally knocked her plate off the table.

The entire family watched in horror as the plate fell to the floor, where it broke into several pieces. All at once, everyone turned and looked at his mother and waited. Amazingly, she laughed. And when she finished laughing, she said, “For all of these years I have lived in fear of the china breaking. Now it finally has and I am finally free!”

Impermanence set her free. She had spent years taking care of that china and worrying that it would break, yet knowing that eventually it would. That beautiful expensive china brought her no joy. We don’t have to spend years clinging to what we deem desirable and pushing away what is undesirable. There is no reason to worry. We need to understand that no matter what we do, one day the china will break.

One day we will break. Our loved ones will die.

You cannot fully embrace impermanence without embracing death. Everything that arises ceases. The way to embrace death is not to ignore it or to deny it; it is to make it a part of your life. 

Most of us will encounter a loved one’s death before we can fully gain acceptance of death. Quite possibly, it is the death of a loved one that will help you lose your fear of death.

When you find yourself experiencing grief, go back to the basics. Revisit the Four Noble Truths. Now, you can use these truths to contemplate your suffering:

1. There is stress and suffering or dukkha. Another way to think of this is that in life, we have much dissatisfaction.

In grief: I am experiencing sadness and suffering. This is dissatisfaction. I don’t want to feel this way, but here I am. This is what I feel.

2. We experience this dissatisfaction because we become attached to either wanting good things to stay the same or for difficult things to stop being difficult.

In grief: I feel sad. I miss my partner. I did not want him to suffer, but I also did not want him to die. And now, I am alone. I don’t want to do this. He would be the one to help me feel better. But he is gone. I wish that were not true. I wish that our lives together could have continued.

3. There is a way out of this dissatisfaction.

In grief: This is hard, but it will not always be this way. It is not going to change overnight, but it will change. And I have the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. I have what I need to walk through this suffering.

4. The way out of this dissatisfaction is to live your life per the Noble Eightfold Path.

In grief: Right view is my first step on the path. It is right view that allows me to see my suffering for what it is. It helps me to understand that I had an attachment to my loved one. Right view also reminds me that to be sad or to miss my loved one does not make me a bad Buddhist. Now, I can begin to use right intention to help me treat myself with loving-kindness and compassion.

And when I meditate, right mindfulness and right concentration will help me gain even more insight into suffering and attachment and grief. When you are dealing with grief, the Four Noble Truths can become your go-to guide. 

You can use contemplations like these or, better yet, develop your own. Find what really speaks to what you are feeling. Developing an understanding of suffering and impermanence will give you strength on your grief journey. Perhaps these fundamental truths are not so basic after all?

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