Why We Forget the First Noble Truth

The first noble truth of dukkha, the truth that difficulty arises in life, sometimes continues to surprise me. I orient myself toward this truth, and cognitively understand that dukkha happens. Yet there is a part of me that thinks I should be able to predict or know how difficulty will arise. I think I have some control over this ungovernable process of dukkha.

The truth of dukkha begins with the insight that dukkha exists. That regardless of how we try and control or plan, difficulty will arise. The second insight into the truth of dukkha is a penetration of this truth. I take that to mean that we need to develop a more embodied understanding so that we have a felt sense of the experience of dukkha. The final insight into the first noble truth is knowing that we know the truth of dukkha. We inhabit this truth in such a way that we live it and we don’t forget it.

Like so many of us, I have not yet fully penetrated the truth of dukkha. I will get a headache and be so surprised that illness is arising. Or I will do things to elevate my mood (exercise, eat healthy, etc) and get frustrated when they do not work the way I perceive they should. Or I will be shocked by a loss or an ending. Over and over again I forget that dukkha is a part of life.

Forgetting happens. There are a variety of reasons why and I will highlight two of the reasons that we may specifically forget dukkha. The first is that forgetting is an adaptive function of memory; the human brain only has so much storage space so it is selective about what it retains. Holding onto specific memories about every headache I’ve ever had, or every loss I’ve ever experienced, is not a good use of storage space. I may remember general information about those experiences, or retain some of the themes of the experiences, but keeping all the details is not necessarily useful.

The second reason we may forget dukkha is that when it comes to emotional content, some information is so triggering or difficult that our brain resists holding onto it. The truth of loss can be so devastating. When we are actively grieving other mental processes can feel inaccessible. After my dog died, cooking myself a simple dinner was challenging; my cognitive faculties were so limited. We cannot survive in that state, so the mind limits how much dukkha is retained so that we can access all the functions of our brain.

How can we embody this third insight of remembering dukkha if our brain is wired toward forgetting? I’ve found a couple of tools to help me navigate this paradox. When dukkha arises in any form, it can help to label it as dukkha. Whether it is a headache or a low mood or a loss, by giving it the label of dukkha I normalize it a bit, and see how often dukkha occurs throughout my day. It takes some of the emotional sting or reactivity out of it when it has this general label of dukkha.

I also make sure to notice if I am experiencing resistance to dukkha as it arises. That is a signal that I have forgotten this truth of dukkha and it is a moment to offer myself compassion. By knowing and understanding why the brain has the tendency to forget dukkha, it is easier for me to meet any resistance with compassionate understanding, so that it won’t compound the difficulty. I may use a phrase or a simple touch on my heart to remind myself that I care about dukkha and have the capacity to be with it.

Because I have a human brain that is wired toward forgetting I will still probably forget dukkha. But using the tools of labeling it as it arises, and offering myself compassion, my hope is that I can work toward fully penetrating the first noble truth. And by doing that, can move toward liberation.