I encourage you to try to understand dukkha: to really look at, stand under and accept your suffering. Try to understand it when you are feeling physical pain or despair and anguish or hatred and aversion – whatever form it takes, whatever quality it has, whether it is extreme or slight. This teaching does not mean that to get enlightened you have to be utterly and totally miserable. You do not have to have everything taken away from you or be tortured on the rack; it means being able to look at suffering, even if it is just a mild feeling of discontent, and understand it.
It is easy to find a scapegoat for our problems. ‘If my mother had really loved me or if everyone around me had been truly wise, and fully dedicated towards providing a perfect environment for me, then I would not have the emotional problems I have now.’ This is really silly! Yet that is how some people actually look at the world, thinking that they are confused and miserable because they did not get a fair deal. But with this formula of the First Noble Truth, even if we have had a pretty miserable life, what we are looking at is not that suffering which comes from out there, but what we create in our own minds around it. This is an awakening in a person – an awakening to the Truth of suffering. And it is a Noble Truth because it is no longer blaming the suffering that we are experiencing on others. Thus, the Buddhist approach is quite unique with respect to other religions because the emphasis is on the way out of suffering through wisdom, freedom from all delusion, rather than the attainment of some blissful state or union with the Ultimate.
Now I am not saying that others are never the source of our frustration and irritation, but what we are pointing at with this teaching is our own reaction to life. If somebody is being nasty to you or deliberately and malevolently trying to cause you to suffer, and you think it is that person who is making you suffer, you still have not understood this First Noble Truth. Even if he is pulling out your fingernails or doing other terrible things to you – as long as you think that you are suffering because of that person, you have not understood this First Noble Truth. To understand suffering is to see clearly that it is our reaction to the person pulling out our fingernails, ‘I hate you,’ that is suffering. The actual pulling out of one’s fingernails is painful, but the suffering involves ‘I hate you,’ and ‘How can you do this to me,’ and ‘I’ll never forgive you.’
However, don’t wait for somebody to pull out your fingernails in order to practise with the First Noble Truth. Try it with little things, like somebody being insensitive or rude or ignoring you. If you are suffering because that person has slighted you or offended you in some way, you can work with that. There are many times in daily life when we can be offended or upset. We can feel annoyed or irritated just by the way somebody walks or looks, at least I can. Sometimes you can notice yourself feeling aversion just because of the way somebody walks or because they don’t do something that they should – one can get very upset and angry about things like that. The person has not really harmed you or done anything to you, like pulling out your fingernails, but you still suffer. If you cannot look at suffering in these simple cases, you will never be able to be so heroic as to do it if ever somebody does actually pull out your fingernails!
We work with the little dissatisfactions in the ordinariness of life. We look at the way we can be hurt and offended or annoyed and irritated by the neighbours, by the people we live with, by Mrs Thatcher, by the way things are or by ourselves. We know that this suffering should be understood. We practise by really looking at suffering as an object and understanding: ‘This is suffering’. So we have the insightful understanding of suffering.