Dave Smith, a meditation teacher rooted in the Insight Meditation tradition but whose approach is secular in orientation and focused on the practical psychology of Buddhism, offered an online program 6 April for the New York Insight Meditation Center on ‘Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths’.
Following Stephen Batchelor, Dave emphasized that the Four Noble Truths are more aptly understood as four tasks. Rather than being a set of statements about the world which we believe, the Buddha’s insights on human suffering provide us with a task-based ethics. Buddhism is not about knowing something that one hasn’t known about before but gaining the skills and virtues to know how to live a flourishing and ethical life.
Dave discussed how the four tasks are integrally connected with mindfulness practice. While mindfulness has become part of our mainstream culture and was popularized through John Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, mindfulness practice is rooted in one of the most important discourses or suttas in the ancient Pali canon, the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, commonly called the four foundations of mindfulness. Our ability to be mindful of the body, feeling tones (pleasant, not pleasant, neutral), the quality of our heart-mind, and the key elements of Buddhist teaching (including the Four Noble Truths) allows us to engage in the four tasks in a fruitful way.
According to Dave, the shift from truths to tasks is not merely a change in terminology but represents a different way of understanding the causes of human suffering and a path to reduce suffering.
In the first task we embrace all aspects of life through an existential mindfulness, including those dimensions of life which lead to dukkha - various forms of distress and suffering. Dukkha in this sense is ‘ground zero’ in human experience.
But because dukkha is inescapable, we invariably become reactive, which is the human tendency to cling and crave to our experiences based on whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. That tendency to attach to our experiences is underpinned by an unskillful, egoic sense of the self. By embracing life in all its dimensions, we are in a better position to engage in the second task, which is to use therapeutic mindfulness to reduce our reactivity, to become less attached and confused.
Having reduced our reactivity, the third task, based on a contemplative mindfulness, is to experience those ‘nirvanic moments’ when we are less attached and confused. Rather than being an ultimate goal, Dave asserted that nirvana is in fact the ‘trailhead’ or starting point for the four task – actualizing the path.
From a nirvanic place of reduced reactivity, we can then take on the fourth task of creating a life-long, integrated path oriented toward an ethical and flourishing life. Here an ethical form of mindfulness comes to the fore as we need to decide how to interact with others, what activities to engage in, etc.
The overall objective of the four tasks is not the complete end of suffering but liberation in this life. It is the ability to live with equanimity amidst the confusion and uncertainty of human existence, as well as the ‘ups and downs’ of life that we inevitably experience.
For more information on Dave Smith’s programs and courses, go to: https://www.davesmithdharma.com/online-courses/