The practice of the dharma consists of four tasks:
to embrace suffering,
to let go of reactivity,
to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and
to cultivate an integrated way of life.
after buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age
The Fourfold Task
If you think of dukkha (suffering) not as an element within a proposition, “Life is suffering,” but as a task to be performed and the task in this case, as the Buddha says quite clearly… dukkha is to be fully understood, dukkha is to be embraced, dukkha is to be accepted in a deep, calm, insightful way.
Craving is not something that has to be proven to be the origin of dukkha, which again is theologically, a very difficult one to understand what that means. But rather, craving is to be let go of. It becomes a task: when craving arises, grasping, fear, attachment, when these things arise, the task is somehow to let that go. When you experience moments in which that movement of attachment and grasping and so forth has come to a stop—and again, this is not some remote experience that we’ll only achieve after years or lifetimes of meditation.
When you experience the stopping of grasping within your own heart and mind, that is to be experienced fully. And when the path, when a way of life, begins to open up that’s not premised on craving or attachment or fear or wanting, then that path is to be cultivated. That’s the task that is suggested by the Buddha.
So you have, in other words, Four Tasks, and we don’t have time this evening, but each of these tasks, I feel, leads to the next one. They’re all interlinked. And, although this is slightly tongue-in-cheek, I think they can be reduced to the acronym ELSA, E.-L.-S.-A., ELSA: Embrace dukkha, Let Go of grasping, Stop grasping, and Act. Do something, in other words: think, speak, physically act; get on with your work. If we think of the Four [Noble Truths, in brackets] in this way, we have a framework for living in this world, here and now.
ELSA can operate in any moment of our life. Every situation gives us the opportunity to embrace it with clarity, with understanding, to let go of our habitual reactivity, our dogmatic beliefs, our desires, our fears, to open up to a still, quiet, transparent space in which we somehow come to rest, even for a moment, and from that space, which is not conditioned by grasping, we can respond. We can say something, do something that comes from the depths of ourselves rather than from our habitual beliefs and opinions and our ego, basically. And that, I feel, captures the essential movement of the Dhamma.
We see here the contrast between a truth and believing in it as something essentially static, as opposed to a task, which is a constant embrace and response—an embrace of and a response to the condition of life as it presents itself to us right now. Whether that’s going on within us, whether it’s in a social environment, whether it’s in a political environment, this offers us a framework or a template for living.