Last night, I had a deep realization of the First Noble Truth. Now, to anyone who’s not immediately put off by the negativity of the statement that “life is dukkha (loosely translated as ‘suckiness’),” the fact probably seems self-evident. There’s death, sickness, poverty, hatred, fear, all the stuff. You know it, I know it. Big deal. What came to me last night, (and it came to me like a sledge hammer on my head—it was a shock, I’m telling you, it was not pleasant!) was that life is anxiety. Or that anxiety is the canvas our lives are painted on.
It’s one thing to accept the suckiness of life intellectually, or even to see its effects in the world in general, but what happened last night was I saw it in everything. Most people have very few moments in waking life that don’t have a tinge of anxiety, although it might be so subtle it’s like the hum of a refrigerator in the kitchen, when you’re upstairs listening to the stereo. But it’s still there! We’ve really trained ourselves not to see it. (Even though it seems a third of their articles are about it, you could read Tricycle for years and not get it!)
Our anxiety comes from many sources—psychologists concentrate on our parents and authority figures, and yes, there’s anxiety there. All of our lives we’ve been given rules and consequences for not following them. And so, we become conditioned. Am I doing what’s right? Did I do something wrong? But this root anxiety is a lot more basic than that. Will I get what I want? Will I get what I don’t want?
On an even more primal, unconscious level—Will I get something to eat? Will something eat me? How do I stay alive?
And even more fundamental, and more subconscious—Do I really exist? Who/what am I?
So we cover up our anxiety with everything—possessions, positions, activities, interests, thoughts, beliefs, etc. ad nauseum. None of which are wrong in themselves,but the anxiety that makes us cling to them is usually unaddressed. “Now that I have x, feel x, think x, know x, do x . . . I’m OK, right?” It doesn’t matter what color the paint we throw on the canvas, the canvas is still there. Even the belligerent thug who slugs whoever disses him is just throwing another layer on the underlying dukkha, the canvas of anxiety.
Just being—I mean simply be-ing, as opposed to doing, and having—is something that causes tremendous anxiety to most people. Try to even talk to some people about sitting meditation, and even the thought—not the action, mind you, but the mere thought—of sitting and doing nothing horrifies them. Now I can see that’s at least part of what makes it the laboratory, where all the paint is stripped off the canvas of insecurity.
What happens when we go farther and strip off the canvas? What’s left? That must be what awakening is.