The first teaching the Buddha gave was The Four Noble Truths: we all suffer in countless ways; the cause of our suffering is our craving; the cessation of suffering comes with letting go that craving; the path enabling one to let go that craving is the Noble Eightfold Path.
So right from the start, the Buddha made clear that we do not suffer because of the facts of life, because of the way we are treated, because the way the world operates. No, he said that we suffer because of our cravings, which is how our ego-mind responds to those life experiences. Thus we crave security, love, success, recognition, respect.
“That sounds totally natural,” you may say. Yes and no. The Buddha made a clear distinction between having those feelings and craving those things … what he termed “clinging” to them. The feelings themselves are not harmful; they are indeed a normal reaction to life. It is our clinging to them, our obsessing about them that cause suffering. And so it is the craving, the clinging that we must let go in order to end our suffering, not the underlying feelings themselves.
Likewise, when these needs are not fulfilled, when we do not duly receive what we crave, we respond not with hurt or pain but with anger, hatred, a desire for revenge, or fear. Again, the problem is not with feeling hurt or pain when we are not treated properly. That is natural. It is the enflamed emotions that come from clinging to those wounds that cause us suffering.
If one looks at the classic seven deadly sins … lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride … all but one are examples of clinging, obsessing about otherwise natural and not harmful feelings: sexual desires/lust, desiring food/gluttony, desiring material things/greed, desiring rest/sloth. experiencing hurt/wrath, feeling good about oneself/pride. Only envy does not have a non-harmful basis, for one should never compare yourself to others or want what they have.
So long as we feel that we suffer because of what has been done to us, we cannot experience peace and happiness, at least not on a consistent basis. Because we feel dependent on external forces over which we know we have no control, hard as we may try, we suffer.
It is only when we accept and acknowledge that we suffer solely because of our attachment to our feelings and perceptions, the way our ego-mind has reacted to our life experiences, that we can effectively begin the process of finding peace and happiness. That truth is the prerequisite. Because we do have control over how we respond to life. We do have a choice.
Further, it is when we realize that our suffering is not caused by external events that we can stop denying the things that have happened to us or aspects of ourselves. The reason why we are so often in denial is that the truth is too painful; external events have that power only because they cause us suffering. This applies equally to labels we apply to ourselves, which are external in that they don’t come from our heart, they come from our society, peers, or family. And with denial our pain festers. But if we feel these facts/events don’t make us suffer, don’t bring up guilt or shame, there is no reason to deny them and they lose their power over us.
And so each of us must sit with this truth … that our life experiences do not cause us suffering, it is how we respond to those experiences that cause us suffering. Sit with the things that push your buttons and discern the difference between the natural hurt or pain caused by the experience and the turmoil/suffering caused by your anger, hatred, or fear, for example, which was your emotional response to the experience.
This truth will open the door to experiencing peace and happiness, to be who you are. Because the truth will give you the strength to reject the guidance of your ego-mind, embrace all aspects of your being and experience, know that things are the way they are because it’s just the way it is. Nothing then offends, nothing blocks your connection with your true Buddha self, your heart. And so all internal and external struggle ceases. You will know you have everything you need inside yourself to be at peace and happy.