Foremost among those truths is the Second Noble Truth. When the Buddha set rolling the wheel of the dharma he said that the cause of our suffering is our craving, or what I refer to as our unskillful desires. A craving is an obsession regarding anything; it can be for security, love, success, or whatever.
The Four Noble Truths state a very simple proposition: the cause of our suffering … which includes frustration, fear, and anxiety … lies in our craving, and the end of our suffering lies in our letting go of those cravings, and thus all the emotions, judgments, and attachments that result from those cravings.
Our suffering is not caused by what happens or happened to us, what we experience. We suffer because of the way that we react to these events as driven by our cravings and the emotions, judgments, and attachments that flow from our cravings. Our cravings make peace impossible.
Yet if there is one universal truth about most of us who are trying to walk the Buddhist path ... indeed of all people ... it is that we do not want to give up our cravings, we do not want to accept that our emotions and perspectives are bad for us, are the cause of our suffering. Our cravings give us hope that we can escape or change what we don’t like in ourselves or our lives.
If we accepted ourselves and our lives as they are, we fear that we would be terribly unhappy and depressed when just the opposite is true. There are too many things about ourselves and our lives that we don’t like, that we don’t feel good about. Yes, we perhaps acknowledge that our cravings cause us huge frustration and at times challenge our sanity with overwhelming fear and anxiety, but without those cravings we feel our lives would be terribly empty; that it would remove all hope of our being able to control our future.
Yet paradoxically when we are in the grip of our cravings we not only have no control over the future, but we have no control over ourselves. It is only when we free ourselves from our cravings that we have the ability to take control of our lives; no one can ever control or predict the future, but we can control our lives in so far as it concerns us and how we relate to the world around us.
We also say to ourselves that what we crave is what everyone craves. It’s totally normal; it’s natural. It’s not something unhealthy or socially unacceptable like alcoholism or sex addiction; it doesn’t destroy people and families they way those addictions do. That may be true, but our "normal" cravings and the resulting emotions and actions do destroy individuals and families in more subtle ways; that is the source of the dysfunction we see in families and in society.
We are totally enmeshed in our ego-mind habit-energies, in our learned experience, holding perceptions and feelings that are at odds with the Buddha dharma. And so we don’t go deeply into the Buddha dharma, and unfortunately often the teaching we receive doesn’t challenge us to do so. We simply feel good about the greater calmness that meditation brings to our lives. We feel that is already a marked improvement in our lives, and indeed that is true.
But that is not what Buddhism is about, and that is not what brought us to Buddhism. No, the only way to end our suffering, to walk the path, is to free ourselves from the known, from our ego-mind habit-energies.
And the first step on that journey is to affirm that what is most important to us, what we value most, is peace and happiness. More than any craving we have, regardless how important or noble it seems, our peace and happiness is more important.
This can't be lip service. It must come from your heart, your gut. If those words don't come naturally, ask yourself what you do value most, and then ask "why?" Continue asking "why?" regarding each answer you receive. Even if you initially answer something like "money" or "security," eventually you will arrive at the core, which is the yearning for peace and happiness. Until you can affirm this, you will not go far on the path because your cravings and emotions will continue to dominate you.
Next, we accept that our cravings, our unskillful desires are the cause of our suffering, that they harm us, they make peace and happiness impossible, and that we are powerless over them to such an extent that they control our lives. In short, we are addicted to our cravings.
How did this come to be? How did man manage to take perfectly harmless and indeed natural activities, even acts totally consistent with the Five Precepts, and turn them into the cravings that rule and distort our lives and cause us such suffering.? The answer, simply put, is that we were taught ... taught by our families, our peers, and by the society we live in. All of our cravings are learned experience; that’s why they seem so normal, so natural.
The problem is not so much that we were taught to want something ... friends, good grades, a good job, a new car, whatever ... the problem is that we learned that if we didn’t have certain attributes (often ones we didn’t have) or if we didn’t achieve certain things or have certain things (again, often things we didn’t have), we were not valued by our family, our peers, or our culture. We learned that if we were lacking we would be viewed as failures and we learned to fear failure. At the core our learned experience made us feel insecure and our ego-mind developed cravings to obtain the things that would make us feel secure.
We were not taught that peace and happiness is most important. We were not taught that we were perfect as we were, that we have everything we need inside ourselves to be at peace and happy. That if we desired something more, to say, “If it happens, great. But if it doesn’t happen, that’s ok too. All will be well.” We were not taught equanimity.
Most cravings are unskillful desires not because of the nature of the desires themselves but because of their origination in our lack of equanimity. We are dissatisfied with ourselves and our lives and are unable to love ourselves unconditionally and have compassion for ourselves. Why? Because we felt as we grew up and matured that we were not loved or respected unconditionally. For most of us, that is our learned experience.
Even for those who received positive feedback because they were talented, smart, or attractive, for example, they were aware that their status in their group’s pecking order depended on those attributes and should they lose them or slip, their status would be lost as well. And so we find that those at the top, who have what appear to be the biggest egos, are in fact the most insecure because they know how much they have to lose if they should slip. That is why successful managers, titans, divas, and stars are so often imperious towards others; it is a mask that hides their insecurity by putting others down.
But the work we have before us is not to remake our families, our culture, or the world. It is the way it is. We cannot control it. All we can do is change the way we relate to ourselves and to others ... the thoughts we think, the words we speak, the actions we take.
Our sole task is to free our lives from suffering; to find peace, contentment, and joy. And the first step in that process is to both affirm the primary importance to us of peace and contentment and acknowledge the suffering caused by our cravings and our powerlessness over our them.
Ah, you may say, “I get it. But I don’t believe that we are powerless over our cravings.” And so we try to bargain with ourselves, with our ego-mind habit-energy, regarding our cravings. We tell ourselves that we accept our lives, but that is self-deception; we don’t really accept our lives.
And so time and again, our cravings continue to cause terrible frustration and pain when they are not satisfied. And when they are we find ourselves, after a short period, wanting more and we face a new cycle of frustration. Finally, whether after months or years, we come to a point where our suffering is so intense that we are ready to accept our powerlessness and begin the process of freeing ourselves from our suffering,
When we have reached that point, we ask ourselves what we value most, what is most important to us. The answer that comes forth spontaneously and unambiguously is, "peace and happiness." Now we are ready to work the steps. This become our touchstone against which we view all our actions and thoughts. We are not playing games with ourselves any more; this is for real.
Mind you, though, even at this point, even as you recite the first step with conviction, your ego is hardly down for the count. Progress on the path is never smooth. There will be times when your ego-mind habit-energies rise up despite all your work. But the second step will provide you with the grounding that allows you to withstand these tests and continue to progress on the path.