Need Something to Believe In When Life Seems Cruel? Try the 4 Noble Truths

The random cruelty of an event like this pandemic can shake our faith in life. In times like these, philosophers, theologians, and pundits “ponder questions of meaning amid the welter of death and suffering worldwide,” wrote New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in an op-ed this past weekend. Although the purpose of suffering may be mysterious, he wrote, “the search for meaning is obligatory.”

I’ve found that this search need extend no further than the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Sylvia Boorstein, author of “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist,” wrote of a friend who said, “The first time I heard the Four Noble Truths, I cried.” Based on Boorstein’s book, and my own experience, here’s how I’ve come to know those truths and attempted to live by them:

  1. Suffering, sadness, and loss are inescapable facts of life. Whether you’re a good person or bad, you won’t get through life without pain, whether it’s losing your job, getting in a car accident, catching a disease or losing a loved one. You can accept it. You can learn from it. But you can’t avoid it.
  2. You can’t change the nature of life, but you can alleviate its inevitable pain by the way you think and respond to it. This is another way of expressing American theologian and ethicist Paul Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  3. Peace of mind and a contented heart are not dependent upon external circumstances. For me, this may be the toughest one: to cultivate a strong and enduring sense of contentment within and not need something good to happen to feel content and fulfilled.
  4. Peace is attainable by diligent, daily practice in disciplining your thoughts. This is about reprogramming the way your mind works through simple, breathing-based meditation. Part of it’s about grounding yourself by focusing on your breaths, inhaling from the diaphragm and exhaling. But another part of it is learning to detach from the myriad thoughts and sensations that naturally emerge by not judging them as good or bad and just letting them go.

If you can achieve that in daily life, focusing on whatever the task at hand is and not letting random thoughts or moods affect your anchored mind, you’re on your way to the mental equanimity that the Four Noble Truths bring.


Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.

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  1. I knew these 4 truths because there was a period in which I became interested in other faiths, religions, ways of conceiving life.
    In fact, I discovered then to share some points of view of Buddhism, without thereby diminishing my Christian faith.
    Above all, I found confirmation that a person’s moral strength is born and nourished internally, in the ability to welcome experience, positive and negative, being present and awake at the present moment, without trying to change, without interfering with the thoughts and emotions with experience.

    • That’s the beauty of it, Aldo. The 4 Noble Truths can be understood and incorporated into one’s life no matter what their religion is.

    • Thanks, Darlene. You’re right. I hardly read any self-help/personal development stuff anymore that is new or surprising. It’s just a matter of implementing what you already know.