It is important to reflect upon the phrasing of the First Noble Truth. It is phrased in a very clear way: “There is suffering”, rather than “I suffer”. Psychologically, that reflection is a much more skilful way to put it. We tend to interpret our suffering as “I’m really suffering. I suffer a lot – and I don’t want to suffer.” This is the way our thinking mind is conditioned.
“I am suffering” always conveys the sense of “I am somebody who is suffering a lot. This suffering is mine; I’ve had a lot of suffering in my life.” Then the whole process, the association with one’s self and one’s memory, takes off. You remember what happened when you were a baby…and so on.
But note, we are not saying there is someone who has suffering. It is not personal suffering anymore when we see it as “There is suffering”. It is not: “Oh poor me, why do I have to suffer so much? What did I do to deserve this? Why do I have to get old? Why do I have to have sorrow, pain, grief and despair? It is not fair! I do not want it. I only want happiness and security.” This kind of thinking comes from ignorance which complicates everything and results in personality problems.
To let go of suffering, we have to admit it into consciousness. But the admission in Buddhist meditation is not from a position of: “I am suffering” but rather, “There is the presence of suffering” because we are not trying to identify with the problem but simply acknowledge that there is one. It is unskilful to think in terms of: “I am an angry person; I get angry so easily; how do I get rid of it?” – that triggers off all the underlying assumptions of a self and it is very hard to get any perspective on that. It becomes very confused because the sense of my problems or my thoughts takes us very easily to suppression or to making judgements about it and criticising ourselves. We tend to grasp and identify rather than to observe, witness and understand things as they are. When you are just admitting that there is this feeling of confusion, that there is this greed or anger, then there is an honest reflection on the way it is and you have taken out all the underlying assumptions – or at least undermined them.
So do not grasp these things as personal faults but keep contemplating these conditions as impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self. Keep reflecting, seeing them as they are. The tendency is to view life from the sense that these are my problems, and that one is being very honest and forthright in admitting this. Then our life tends to reaffirm that because we keep operating from that wrong assumption. But that very viewpoint is impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.
“There is suffering” is a very clear, precise acknowledgement that at this time, there is some feeling of unhappiness. It can range from anguish and despair to mild irritation; dukkha does not necessarily mean severe suffering. You do not have to be brutalised by life; you do not have to come from Auschwitz or Belsen to say that there is suffering. Even Queen Elizabeth would say, “There is suffering.” I’m sure she has moments of great anguish and despair or, at least, moments of irritation.
The sensory world is a sensitive experience. It means you are always being exposed to pleasure and pain and the dualism of samsara. It is like being in something that is very vulnerable and picking up everything that happens to come in contact with these bodies and their senses. That is the way it is. That is the result of birth.