If we’re experiencing suffering we might find ourselves thinking that we have to do something, that we have to get away from it. But the Buddha said, ‘No, suffering is to be understood.’ We can’t possibly understand the suffering in our lives if we’re constantly trying to run away from it or distracting ourselves from it. So my encouragement…is to really take an interest, to be curious about your lives and experience – even apparently trivial, insignificant stresses and strains and struggles, or the subtlest kinds of aversion or negativity. Take an interest in even the smallest kind of anxiety or fear, like a scientist carefully examining something under a microscope.
The word ‘insight’ can be used to refer to any kind of realisation – one of those ‘ahhhh’ moments when you suddenly see things differently, you have a different understanding. An insight can be about quite ordinary things.
Something I’ve noticed about insight is that it often arises quite unexpectedly. We can sit or do walking meditation for hours, and nothing really seems to happen. But then, when we’re doing something very ordinary like cleaning our teeth, getting dressed or going for a walk –suddenly, there is understanding. We see what was meant by a particular teaching; it becomes real for us.
Ajahn Chah told a story about an insight that he had once. He wanted to make a robe for himself. Now, our robes have a special pattern, they’re sewn in a particular way which is quite complicated. So he spent the whole day thinking about it and, eventually, worked out in his mind how to make the robe. Through this experience he realised that if you’re really interested in something, you naturally apply the mind to it, and in due course you naturally have the arising of insight. This is why I always emphasise and encourage an attitude of curiosity - to be curious about our experience. If we really take an interest and apply ourselves to investigating things, this is how we begin to understand.
Now, we can have insight into many things, some of which are useful from the point of view of liberation, while others are not at all useful. I think all of us here are interested in the kind of insights that will bring freedom to the heart, liberate the heart. We want to understand why we suffer. Why is there suffering? We want to understand how to free the heart from suffering. Well, we’ve come to the right place, because the Buddha said: ‘I teach suffering, and the ending of suffering.’
For each of the truths the Buddha pointed out three aspects. The first aspect of the First Noble Truth is that there is suffering. The second aspect is that suffering needs to be understood. Then comes the liberating insight that suffering has been understood. If we want to understand something, we need to be willing to examine it; however, this is not the normal response to suffering. Usually when there’s suffering, we want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. We are not inclined to examine it. But when we follow the Buddha’s way of practice, it becomes clear to us that if we want to liberate the heart from suffering, we need to examine it, we need to understand it. We can spend our whole lives trying to distract ourselves from suffering, but that doesn’t get us any closer to liberating the heart.
The liberating insights relating to the Four Noble Truths are insights into the three characteristics of all conditions: that all things are impermanent (anicca), that they’re all inherently unsatisfactory (dukkha), and that there’s no permanent selfhood in anything (anatta). There’s a phrase that I love in the morning chanting: ‘For the complete understanding of this, the Blessed One in his lifetime frequently instructed his disciples in just this way.’ We chant this almost every day in the monastery. I find this daily chanting helpful because it can take awhile for this teaching to really sink in.
This reflection from Ajahn Candasiri is from the book Simple Kindness.