Living the teachings - the four noble truths
Understanding yoga's everyday spiritual meanings. This month: the four noble truths. By Sue Pugh
Although yoga is not a religion in itself, it is connected to religion, and stems historically from Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
Buddhism and yoga are sister traditions that evolved in the same spiritual culture of ancient India; while there are a number of distinct differences, they use many of the same terms and follow many of the same principles and practices. Both Buddhists and Hindus chant the sacred mantra 'Om' during their meditation.
Today, yoga retains its roots in contemplation and reflection, enabling us to learn more about ourselves and to grow spiritually, linked to whatever or whoever we consider our god to be.
The four noble truths – one of the core teachings of Buddhism – are said to have been set forth by the Buddha, the founder of the religion, in his first sermon, which he gave after his enlightenment. These four noble truths can be applied to multiple aspects of our lives from our relationships, employment and also to our yoga practice.
The first truth is: You don't always get what you desire; suffering is part of life. Life does not always go to plan. In your yoga class, you may be too cold or unable to do some of the poses. In our relationships, we may endure psychological suffering such as loneliness and frustration; or, in our work, experience fear, embarrassment, disappointment and anger. This first truth reminds us that life always involves suffering. It is realistic rather than pessimistic because pessimism is expecting things to be bad. Instead, Buddhism explains how suffering can be avoided and how we can be truly happy.
The second noble truth focuses on the causes of human suffering. The natural human tendency is to blame our difficulties on things outside ourselves. But the Buddha says that their actual root is to be found in the mind itself. In particular, our tendency to grasp at things (or alternatively to push them away) which puts us at odds with the way life really is. Karl Jung's famous quote suggests that, "The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering" because, as stated above, life always involves suffering. The message her is that if we cling on to idealised versions of how our lives should or shouldn't be, we are likely to make ourselves unhappy in the process. Another famous quote (Ekhart Tolle in The Power of Now) reminds us that: "Belief in a future heaven creates a future hell."
The third noble truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness can be achieved; that true happiness and contentment are possible, especially if we give up useless cravings and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) or trying to control the thoughts and actions of others.
The fourth noble truth charts the method for achieving the end of personal suffering via the eight-fold path. In summary, the noble eight-fold path is being moral (through what we say, do and in our lives), to practice letting go, and to speak kindly to ourselves and others.
There is clearly some overlap here between the eight limbs of yoga and the Buddhist four noble truths. Both can help us to find a little more nirvana, peace and acceptance in our lives.