The first noble task completed by the Buddha was fully realising the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned phenomena, i.e. of ‘life'… seeing its actuality and capacity to shatter our naïve hopes, without any embellishment.
As discussed in the Wings to Awakening (Part III: The Basic Factors) by Thanissaro Bhikkhu,
one of the most important insights leading up to the Buddha's Awakening was his realization that the act of comprehending pain lay at the essence of the spiritual quest. In trying to comprehend pain — instead of simply trying to get rid of it in line with one's habitual tendencies — one learns many valuable lessons. To begin with, one can end any sense of bewilderment in the face of pain. In seeing pain for what it truly is, one can treat it more effectively and skillfully, thus weakening the process by which pain and ignorance feed on each other. At the same time, as one learns to resist one's habitual reactions to pain, one begins to delve into the non-verbal, subconscious levels of the mind, bringing to light many ill-formed and hidden processes of which one was previously unaware. (…) a meditator who wants to understand the mind can simply keep watch right at pain in order to see what subconscious reactions will appear. Thus the act of trying to comprehend pain leads not only to an improved understanding of pain itself, but also to an increased awareness of the most basic processes at work in the mind. As one sees how any lack of skill in these processes, and in particular in one's reactions to pain, leads only to more pain, one's mind opens to the possibility that more skillful reactions will not only alleviate specific pains but also lead away from pain altogether.
Although pain is the best vantage point for observing the processes of the mind, it is also the most difficult, simply because it is so unpleasant and hard to bear. This is why discernment needs the faculties of conviction, persistence, mindfulness, and concentration to give it the detached assurance and steady focus needed to stick with pain in and of itself, in the phenomenological mode, and not veer off into the usual narratives, abstract theories, and other unskillful defenses the mind devises against the pain.
Tibetan traditions might call this the “heart of sadness.” As one would find in e.g. Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse,
Kongtrul Rinpoche suggested we pray to the guru, buddhas, and bodhisattvas and ask them to grant their blessings, “so I may give birth to the heart of sadness.” But what is a “heart of sadness”? Imagine one night you have a dream. Although it is a good dream, deep down you know that eventually you will have to wake up and it will be over. In life, too, sooner or later, whatever the state of our relationships, or our health, our jobs and every aspect of our lives, everything, absolutely everything, will change. And the little bell ringing in the back of your head to remind you of this inevitability is what is called the “heart of sadness.”
The Nibbedhika sutta (AN 6.63) calls us to fully understand dukkha, which ultimately requires not to run away from it, not to perpetuate aversion from it, which ultimately requires us to embrace it (as it arises, no need to seek it!) and study it rather than letting despair seize us:
Stress should be known. The cause by which stress comes into play should be known. The diversity in stress should be known. The result of stress should be known. (…)
Birth is stress, ageing is stress, death is stress; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stress; association with the unbeloved is stress; separation from the loved is stress; not getting what is wanted is stress. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stress.
And what is the cause by which stress comes into play? Craving is the cause by which stress comes into play.
And what is the diversity in stress? There is major stress & minor, slowly fading & quickly fading. This is called the diversity in stress.
And what is the result of stress? There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast, & becomes bewildered. Or one overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, comes to search outside, “Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?” I tell you, monks, that stress results either in bewilderment or in search.
An anecdote worth remembering is a difficulty the Buddha met at the beginning of his teachings. Most spiritual beginners seek reassurance vis-à-vis an eternal life. Not only do they want to exist, but they also want the eternal existence to be without suffering… So when one realises (down to the marrow of their bones) that life is unsatisfactory, one might be tempted to end one's life! And indeed, on one occasion, the Buddha returned from a walk to find many monastics dead, as they tried to cease existing based on ‘form’, on embodiment. A mishandling of the disenchantment with bodily existence had led them astray —“lust for immaterial existence” (arūparāgo) is explicitly one of the “ten fetters”, and nihilism is explicitly a misunderstanding of “selflessness.” Disenchantment is not aversion: neither lust nor aversion is a ‘neutral’ posture, an equanimous perspective.
As illustrated above, letting the heart of sadness arise may constitute a dangerous step on the Path; if the phenomenon is miscomprehended, it may lead to inappropriate thoughts, inappropriate decisions, and finally to inappropriate actions. To prevent any stupid reaction, this connection to a bottomless sorrow, this relinquishment of hope that there somehow exists a satisfactory grail that we just need to reach to be forever happy, should only be attempted within the ethical framework of a practice centred on equanimity, on non-reactivity, on creating spaciousness and stepping back from one’s thoughts.
Guidance of a teacher, or of a well-versed Dharma friend, might be very valuable to realise the first noble truth… even if nothing fundamentally prevents you to master equanimity on your own.
Quiet, © Wang Ling
The very resolve to stick to the guidance (when the sorrow is fully
experienced and really challenging, and the temptation to turn back or to
abandon is at its greatest) might prove key to crossing to the other shore:
as the simile of the raft goes, jumping off the raft in the midst of a storm
might get you drowned.
Sticking to equanimity ‘on your own’ would work just as well, the sole question is: based on prior evidence, do you trust yourself enough to indeed keep an equanimous mind when Māra turns up on your doorstep with his armies and his daughters Taṇhā (Craving), Arati (Boredom) and Raga (Passion)? Arrogance and conceit when answering this question are weaknesses Māra often uses to his advantage.
The sorrow experienced might trigger the “falling into the pit of the
void” or, as Christians calls it, the “dark night of the soul.”
This might be experienced as a ‘depression’: to continue equanimously engaging (i.e. with patience and perseverance) and to use any phenomenon (e.g. guidance) which supports you to regularly re-center on equanimity are important factors to go through and cross to the other shore. It is not random that the “seven factors of enlightenment“ include not only enquiry (dhamma vicaya) and mindfulness (sati) —supporting you to ‘comprehend’ dukkha— but also perseverance (viriya), calm (passaddhi), concentration (samādhi) and equanimity (upekkha) —supporting you not to react until you see a way to do so constructively, wholesomely!
Bliss is not realised by some masochistic take on reality; such a
perspective would not be “seeing reality as it is”, so don't comprehend
“embracing” dukkha as “clinging” to it, but only as “staying with it enough
to study it, without biases and preferences getting in the way of
understanding”. Seeing the causes of unsatisfactoriness and how phenomena
unfold while conditioning one another, one gets to see the heart of the human
condition, the heart of the matter at hand, the “heart of sadness”.
This is not the end though: after realising that no ‘solution’ comes with warranties and that no ‘progress’ can be permanently attained, i.e. after realising that resting on our laurels isn’t a promising strategy, some progress remains possible… Progress might even be plausible and probable, if we develop wisdom! In fact, progress is more likely once we face reality (instead of day-dreaming an alternative ‘perfect’ world)!
The appropriate step after understanding dukkha is to constructively engage in accordance with the “right view” comprehended.