Siddhartha Gautama, the soon to be Buddha, observed this to be so in his native land of northern south Asia over 2500 years ago. It wasn’t that life was just difficult – riddled with disease, aging, and death – it was something more pernicious, infecting every moment of existence, even those moments that were pleasurable. He set out to find a way to overcome anguish and he found it, substantially though mindfulness.
When he gave his first teachings he started with the image of ox-cart with a bad wheel as a metaphor for the human condition. If you are on the ox-cart, and we all are, the ride is going to be affected by that bad wheel. The cart will wobble, lurch, and drag along the road. It permeates every moment of experience and there is not escape from it unless you change your attitude in a fundamental way. You’ve got to wake up out of the sleepwalking state of existence that you are currently in. You, me, and everyone else has to wake up out this trance to see reality more clearly – to see how things change and how the grasping of self – the constant pushing and pulling of resistance gives rise to anguish.
Something is off. We can’t quite put our finger on it, especially those of here in the privileged West. Our bellies are full (perhaps too full), we have great material wealth, and sense pleasures, yet happiness remains elusive. It’s not our circumstances. The culprit is what goes on inside our minds – the constant conversations, chatter, and complaints that comprise our inner mental space.
Life can be difficult, of course. Sickness, old age, and death are as salient now as they were in ancient India. How we relate to the disappointments, losses, and setbacks of our life determine whether we feel anguish. We have a choice to relate through story or through perception. No story, no anguish. Pain may be present but not the anguished suffering that comes from how we relate to the events in our lives in an overly personal manner. “Why is this happening to me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “Poor me.” Such self-talk complicates the situations of our lives. Instead of them being just what they are – a layer of anguish is added. Situations become problems. Problems become problems.
So instead of story we can approach through perception. What is happening? Can I pay keen attention to the sights, sounds, and feelings of this situation? Can I be interested in what is happening instead of preoccupied with making it into a problem? Can I be curious about what is happening? Can I be fascinated? And what happens when I approach the situation with such interest? Anguish yields to equanimity.