When Gautama left home and became a sramana, he had dedicated himself to the notion of finding the answer to dukkha: what could be done? Living at home had taught him that no matter how pleasant things might have been, the painful sense of “unsatisfactoriness” remained. Becoming a sramana and an ascetic had taught him that living without those things was still unsatisfactory, and smelly. So he gave that up as well, renounced being a renunciate, stopped striving to escape the demands of the physical world.
Plenty of hippies did the same thing in our times: I used to know Jerry Rubin when he was a stockbroker in Denver. Gautama ate, washed, cut his hair, made himself comfortable.
The traditions say that it was then his former companion sramanas became angry at him for giving up on his attempt at liberation; he answered them by saying “if a bowstring is to be useful, is can’t be too loose or too tight. If it’s too loose, it has no power; if it’s too tight it will break.”
His companions were wrong in any case: Gautama was nothing if not determined. Gautama was still determined to answer the question that caused him to leave home in the first place. There was nothing else, no more important aspect of life, so when he had recovered his strength, he went out into the forest near the city of Gaya, settled down under a ficus tree, made himself comfortable, and determined to enter meditation, find the answer he was looking for, or die in the attempt.
It’s hard to describe what Buddhist meditation is like at the best of times, and who can know what Gautama’s experience was? He wasn’t turning the question over and over in his mind; he was simply letting it rest, letting it occupy all the space between his ears, conscious of nothing in particular, conscious of everything. After some length of time — some traditions say three days, some traditions say forty — in the clear twilight before dawn in the forest outside Gaya, he saw the Morning Star, and in that instant…
Well, Something happened. It clicked. He saw through the puzzle of dukkha, saw that clinging to things that change was the source of dukkha, and realized that there was an answer to his puzzle.
If you stop clinging to things that change, there will be no dukkha.