Look at what the Buddha has to say about the tasks with regard to each of the noble truths. The task with regard to stress and suffering is to comprehend it. The task with regard to the path is to develop it, which means you want to develop that sense of ease, the sense of rapture that comes as the mind begins to settle down in concentration. What you’re doing is taking one of the aggregates — the aggregate of feeling — and instead of latching onto it or pushing it away, you learn how to use it as a tool.
When pain and stress and suffering come, you want to comprehend them. Comprehending pain and stress teaches you a lot about the mind. The Buddha never said that life is suffering. He just said there’s suffering in life, which is a very different teaching. As long as there’s going to be pain, as long as there’s going to be suffering, get the most use out of them. You find as you focus on pain — as you get to know it, get to comprehend it — that you learn all kinds of things about how the mind is working. In particular, you learn to see what it’s doing to take a physical pain and turn it into mental pain — or, if you’re starting with mental pain, to make it worse.
What we’re doing is taking one of the aggregates that we usually cling to… Clinging here doesn’t mean just holding on. It also means trying to push away, and pushing away is like pushing away a glob of tar. The more you push it away, the more you get stuck. So instead of clinging or pushing away, we try to learn how to use these aggregates as tools, in the same way you’d use tar to make asphalt for paving a road.
This is a common theme running throughout the Buddha’s teachings: Before you can let go of anything, you have to learn how to master it. Otherwise, you’re just holding on, pushing away, holding on, pushing away. And nothing comes from that except more stress, more suffering, more pain. This harms not only you but also the people around you. If you’re constantly feeling worn down by the pains and the inconveniences of life, you’ll find it hard to be kind to other people. In fact, most of the evil things people do in their lives come from their sense of being totally overwhelmed, feeling weak and trapped and then lashing out.
But if you give the mind the sense of strength and security that comes with knowing it has a center it can return to and gain nourishment from, it’s a gift not only to yourself but also to the people around you. It’s not a selfish practice.
Learn how not to hold onto feelings, grabbing hold of the pleasant ones, pushing the painful ones away. Instead, learn how to use them as tools. When they’re used as tools, they open things up in the mind. You understand where the mind is unskillful in how it manages its thinking, and you realize that you don’t have to be unskillful. There are better ways to think, better ways to manage the thought processes in the mind.
And a funny thing happens. As you master these processes, they bring you to a point where everything reaches equilibrium. That’s where you can really let go. You can even let go of your tools at that point because they’ve taken you where you want to go. From that point on, everything opens up to the Deathless.
But you can’t get there by pushing and pulling your way around. If the Deathless were something you could force your way into, everybody would have gone to nibbana a long time ago. It requires a lot of finesse, a lot of skill in how you deal with the mind, learning to recognize the time for analyzing issues of stress and suffering, and the time for letting the mind rest so it that it can gain strength and then go back to work.