The Secret Behind Our Unhappiness

In my first post, Practical Zen in a Nutshell we saw that Zen consists of a fourfold practice comprised of 1) Meditation; 2) Mindfulness; 3) Letting go of attachments; and 4) Being in touch with our true nature. Having covered Meditation and Mindfulness in a series of previous posts, we now turn our attention to letting go of attachments.

But what exactly does letting go of attachments mean?

Letting go of attachments means letting go of attachments to desires, and comes out of an understanding of what are known as the Four Noble Truths. In practical terms these truths essentially hold that:

  1. Life is full of suffering;
  2. Suffering comes from attachment to desires;
  3. Suffering is alleviated by detachment from desires; and
  4. Detachment from desires comes from living life from a certain point of view

The Four Noble Truths are not only fundamental to an understanding of Buddhism, but to an understanding of human behavior itself as it explains why we suffer. So let’s flesh out these four principles in turn.

The First Noble Truth

The First Noble Truth holds that life is full of suffering.

Suffering, you say? What exactly do you mean by “suffering”?

In the Four Noble Truths, what is meant by “suffering” is dissatisfaction, discontent, disquiet, or restlessness – in practical terms, – mental anguish and unhappiness. So the First Noble Truth teaches that life is full of this kind of suffering or dissatisfaction and discontent.

The Second Noble Truth

The Second Noble Truth identifies the cause of that suffering which is attachment to desires.

Note that attachment to desires includes both what we want  and what we don’t want. When we are attached to what we want we are caught up in what is known in Buddhist circles as grasping, and when we are attached to what we don’t want we are caught up in an aversion, (i.e., I don’t want to go to work)

In the case of aversions we are essentially resisting things as they are (i.e., having to go to work). So when we don’t want something (having to go to work), by definition we want something else (wanting to stay home, or go to the beach, or just about anything else!).

But either way, whether we are attached to wanting something (grasping), or we are attached to not wanting something (aversion – wanting something else), we are attached to a desire.

So how do we know when we’ve actually crossed the line to attachment?

Simply put, if anything is taking you away from peace in the present moment, you can bet your bottom dollar that it can be traced back to a desire that you’re emotionally attached to. That will be the case virtually every time.

The thing to keep in mind (and people often misunderstand this) is that it’s not the desire that’s the problem, it’s the attachment to the desire that causes suffering.

Certain desires of course have their place. We can still have goals and we can still plan for the future, but if at any point you find that you can’t be at peace in the present moment because of a desire, then you know you’re attached, i.e., “I’ll be happy when I get my degree,” or I’ll be happy when I get the right job,” or “I’ll be happy when I find the right person”.

Similarly, if you can’t be at peace in the present moment because of an aversion then you know you’re attached, i.e., “I’d be happy if I didn’t have to go to work.”

The truth that attachment to desires causes suffering/unhappiness applies to all of us at one time or another, and for many of us, it’s too often how we go through our lives, unable to be at peace in the present moment.

So what’s the solution?

The Third Noble Truth

The solution to the problem of attachment is found in the Third Noble Truth which states that suffering is alleviated by detachment from desires.

That’s all well and good, but how exactly do we detach from desires? On to the last Noble Truth.

The Fourth Noble Truth

The Fourth Noble Truth states that detachment from desires is accomplished by living life from a certain point of view, and that point of view is known as the Noble Eightfold Path. These are eight practices whose aim is the alleviation of suffering. We’ve already addressed the seventh and eighth practices of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration in the post Mindfulness – Exactly What the Heck Is It? and now we’ll briefly look at the first two parts of the Eightfold Path.

The first practice is Right View or Right Understanding. This entails an understanding of the root cause of suffering which is attachment as set forth in the Four Noble Truths. If we don’t understand that suffering comes from attachment to desires, we’ve missed the fundamental teaching that led us to the Eightfold Path to begin with. So Right Understanding means understanding the Four Noble Truths.

The second practice is Right Intention or Right Thought. It is here that we find detachment from desires as an essential part of the path whose purpose is the alleviation of suffering. This is also known as the practice of renunciation of attachments.

The first two practices of the Noble Eightfold Path are thought of as the wisdom section.

But how do we detach from desires on a practical level? This is such a crucial aspect of practical Zen that I’ll be delving into it in detail in another post, but let’s take a brief look now.

How we detach from desires depends on whether we are enmeshed in grasping or aversion, though both fall under the umbrella of letting go of attachments.


With respect to grasping, that is, attachment to a desire, the solution (depending on the desire) is to either let go of the attachment to the desire, or to let go of the desire all together. Let’s explore that a little further.

If the desire is, by itself, a positive one, but we find we aren’t at peace in the present moment i.e., “I can’t be happy until I lose weight,” then the solution is to accept things as they are in the present moment and work towards your goal. Accept that your weight is where it is, let go of the resistance to that reality, and move forward towards your goal doing the best you reasonably can in peace.

If, on the other hand, your desire is something that you know will cause you or someone else physical or emotional harm, i.e., getting vindictive revenge for a wrong, or indulging in an addiction, then the wisest course of action is to let go of the desire all together (often easier said than done, more about that next post).


With respect to aversion, which is resisting things as they are, letting go is once again accomplished by accepting things as they are in the present moment. What you’re doing by accepting things as they are is letting go of the suffering caused by resistance to the reality of the present moment – how things are right here and right now.

It’s important to understand that acceptance of the way things are doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead. It simply means accepting reality as it is in this moment, and if wisdom dictates taking action, then by all means doing so, but allowing yourself to be at peace as you do.

So letting go of grasping (by letting go of just the attachment in the case of a positive desire, or letting go of the desire all together in the case of a harmful desire), and letting go of aversion (by accepting things as they are in the present moment then taking action if it’s wise to do so), are the practical components of detaching from the suffering we create for ourselves when we attach to desires.


The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are the bedrock of all Buddhist teachings, Zen included, and are said to come from Siddhartha Gautama (a.k.a. the Buddha) himself some 2,500 years ago. These were his paramount principles.

The Four Noble Truths essentially teach that the root cause of our unhappiness is attachment to desires – a teaching so fundamental to an understanding of human nature, that I personally believe it should be taught in every Western psychology department in every university worldwide.

The Four Noble Truths along with the Eightfold Path, if practiced diligently, would substantially reduce the unnecessary suffering that we so often create for ourselves because we are unaware of these teachings and go through our lives attached to one desire after the next.

We’ll look further into the concepts of grasping and aversion in the next post, and flesh out the practical aspects of letting go of attachments.

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.


3 thoughts on “The Secret Behind Our Unhappiness

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read a clearer explanation of Buddhism and suffering. I think I ll be printing this. Thank you for breaking this down into more manageable pieces. This is exactly what I need right now!

    Liked by 1 person

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