You can probably observe from your own life experiences that the times when you were acutely aware of suffering were the moments when you really started to question your life’s direction and purpose. It seems that the truth of suffering is a wake-up call to the spirit: to find out what the true cause of happiness is and discover whether there is a way out of suffering.
Buddhist teachings are very practical, and are intended to be used and verified with our own experiences. Buddha encouraged his students to question what he said, and to apply the teachings in their own lives to confirm whether they were true for themselves. No dogma or belief system was given, he simply gave instructions on how to live a life free of suffering. So when we come to his teachings, we should give them some deep thought and see if they actually work for us, instead of just reading them as philosophical entertainment and then never really practising what we were given.
The Second Noble Truth is the truth that there is a cause of suffering. This is the good news - we are given information on what the actual cause of suffering is so that we have the opportunity to move beyond it. If we don’t know the cause of something, it is very difficult to figure out how to work with it. When we are talking about suffering here, we are not talking about the kind of suffering that occurs when a rock falls on your head or you stub your toe. This teaching is primarily focused on how to work with psychological suffering in relation to real physical or mental pain.
The causes of our suffering are our attachments, due to our tendency to seek ultimate happiness within the transient nature of our realities. This is very easy to understand mentally, but not so easy to apply and integrate into our daily lives. If we look closely, we can see that most of our pain comes from our attachments. One example would be when we desire something in our lives, but get something we don’t want instead. For instance, when we would really like to escape the cold, dark winter and go to some warm island with coconut palms swaying in the gentle warm breeze, but instead must face the fact that our finances have a different idea, and stay stuck at our jobs, dreaming of our next holiday far away from our circumstances. Or when we see ourselves getting older and older in the mirror, and no amount of Ayurvedic face creams, celery juice fasts, or yoga classes can halt the reality that we are getting older. We would like to stay young and beautiful, but life has other ideas. Another common example of suffering due to attachment is when we get into a wonderful and exciting new relationship and everything feels like an eternal springtime - until one day that same wonderful partner annoys the hell out of us, and we end the relationship in bitterness and pain. I think that if you look honestly at your life, you can see these mechanisms of attachment in action in so many different ways.
The truth is that we are always attached to finding true and lasting happiness in the changing circumstances of our lives, continuously trying to avoid painful situations by pushing them away and craving pleasure in whatever we can find to satisfy us. We are caught in an eternal struggle of attachment and aversion because we can’t see the truth of impermanence even though it is right in front of us all the time. It happens to us automatically, until by some grace or miracle we wake up to the situation of suffering we are in and try to find out the real cause. The source of our inner confusion is due to the idea that we are separate individuals, and that happiness comes from satisfying the desires of the false entity that we think we are. You can then see that suffering is based on the illusion of a separate “I”, because if that isn’t real, then, of course, we will never be satisfied.
How can we practically apply this Second Noble Truth? The essential application of this teaching is in the awareness of and reflection on the reality of our attachments. This is like a contemplative meditation on all circumstances in our daily lives. Because we never really look at this issue deeply, we skim the surface of reality and go for the same bait that catches us in the trap of suffering over and over. One way to practice this Noble Truth is to write down all of our attachments - from the 'big life issue' attachments to the 'small chocolate bar' attachments - and ask ourselves if we somehow manage to achieve these desires, would they really make us happy? Even if we get the amazing beach house in Bali and a billion dollars in our pocket, we would still be stuck with the same old miserable attached mind that we have now.
In conclusion, these teachings are designed to direct our minds towards the truth and away from the false. What the Buddha essentially taught was that our minds need to be trained to see reality as it is, and from that awareness, our suffering can come to an end. And only those who have the courage to face reality and open their minds to the truth can overcome the suffering that is self-inflicted by our misunderstanding of the causes and conditions of real happiness.
May we all overcome illusion and free our minds.