The First Noble Truth: Selfishness Triggers Anxiety

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Buddha’s first noble truth? How are anxiety and selfishness related? How can you learn to accept yourself?

Buddha’s first noble truth is that suffering is universal. Feelings of “selfness” can make you feel trapped, anxious, and always wanting more. But if you let go of the “I”, your personal suffering becomes universal and you can understand that there is nothing wrong with you.

Continue on to learn about the first noble truth and letting go of selfishness.

Anxiety Stems From Selfishness

Legend has it that the Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree. While he would go on to teach many lessons about spirituality and religion, his teachings all begin with what is called the first noble truth: Suffering is universal, and understanding it is the first step toward enlightenment. 

During his meditation, the Buddha examined his own suffering and discovered that it came from the false belief that he was a distinct person, separate and apart from the universe. This sense of “selfness” had him trapped in endless cycles of desire and aversion. He—like all people—was fruitlessly chasing what he thought he wanted, and running from what he perceived as painful or unwelcome. 

Dualism and the Self

This sense of individuality goes back to the very earliest forms of life: single-celled organisms whose membranes created barriers between them and the rest of the world. This was the beginning of dualism, the belief that your own self is separate from the world around you. Desires and aversions are also part of evolution, millions of years’ worth of history guiding us toward what will help us and away from what will hurt us. 

However, when those wants and fears become the core of how we see ourselves, we lose our larger identities. When we perceive our experiences through a lens of “I” and “mine,” the universal suffering becomes personal; the sense that “something is wrong” becomes “something is wrong with me.”

It may help to understand what the self truly is: It’s nothing but a collection of our most habitual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Consciousness is the mind telling itself a story about what it’s experiencing. Isolating yourself, believing that you are somehow different and distinct from what’s around you, separates you from the world and leaves you insecure, needy, and afraid. It disconnects you from the love that unites all living things, your deepest, truest self—what the Dalai Lama calls your “Buddha nature.”

The Buddha taught a lesson that’s in sharp contrast with Western ideas of sin: Being born human is a precious gift. It’s a chance to recognize the love and awareness that is the true nature of every creature. Or, as the Dalai Lama once said, “We all have Buddha nature.” In other words, people are inherently good, not bad. We don’t need to constantly strive to prove and improve ourselves. 

We are good enough.

Let Go of Perfection

The Zen master Seng-tsan said that to be free is to live without worrying about imperfection. Imperfections—in yourself or in the world—don’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. They’re a natural and inescapable part of existence. Therefore, it’s much better to accept yourself, others, and life as they are, rather than chasing some impossible dream of how they should be. 

By becoming so focused on ourselves, and chasing what we think we want, we cut ourselves off from the things that fulfill our greatest needs: Those things that keep us connected and reaffirm our natural goodness, our Buddha nature. Our greatest needs are met when we relate to each other, when we are fully present in every moment instead of worrying about the past or future, and when we accept and revel in the beauty—and the pain—that’s always around us.

Decenter yourself. Remember that it’s not all about you; it just is. This is the key to Radical Acceptance.

The First Noble Truth: Selfishness Triggers Anxiety

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  • How to live your life fully experiencing everything
  • Why you need to let go of judging yourself or your experiences
  • How you can acknowledge and welcome any experience

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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