Working to better understand Dukkha

Typically, I take the Noble Truth of Dukkha or “There is Suffering” to be a statement of the Problem (with a capital P) and it’s importance in the Buddha’s teaching is simple: this statement of the problem allows the Buddha to then state a cause for the problem, a solution to the problem and a  path to the solution. This problem, cause, cure and prescription is a classic understanding of the Four Noble Truths. This problem, cause, cure and prescription way of seeing the Four Noble Truths is why the Buddha is sometimes called “the great physician”.

Doesn’t this understanding of Dukkha, however, still see Dukkha itself as a problem to be avoided? Isn’t it avoiding pain and seeking pleasure that causes Dukkha in the first place? There is a paradox built in here that needs a little unwrapping. In order to avoid suffering, we have to stop avoiding suffering. That sounds problematic. What’s going on?

A basic insight into Dukkha can help free us from this cycle. A deep insight into Dukkha might just free us from Samsara all together.

Often we experience dukkha and not only recoil from it (in the form of aversion) but unconsciously go seeking an alternate experience. We use our minds to avoid the experience at hand by creating a fantasy version of reality – we wish things were different; we escape into our thoughts. We feel the pain of the present moment and immediately begin blaming something, wishing for the cessation of the pain, fantasizing about something pleasant, distracting ourselves with something totally irrelevant, creating an alternate reality all together — in short, we’ve jumped on the train of thought.. no longer present, no longer being with what is, no longer being with the truth of reality. This pushing and pulling in order to avoid the Dukkha that already is, itself, the cause and condition for the arising of Dukkha in the future.

Aligning ourselves with the truth of Dukkha

Anushka Fernandopulle, at the Spirit Rock retreat this January (Waking Up in Every World) likened the truth of Dukkha to the law of gravity. Gravity is. We discover this as babies. We don’t need to know the scientific ‘why and how’ to know that if I drop something, it will fall. Knowing this basic truth is essential for us to live our lives. Only someone deeply deluded would act in ways that ignore this truth — and they’d pay the price: falling down stairs or jumping off of the roof has consequences. Acting in alignment with this truth of gravity means that we set our glass down gently on the table; we don’t let go of things in mid air, etc. Knowing about gravity allows us to be more aligned with the way things are; to be with things as they are; to be with what IS, to be aligned with the truth. Understanding Dukkha is just like this! Understanding Dukkha is aligning ourselves with the truth of how things are.

Accepting that there will be some pain allows us to experience that pain without thinking something is wrong. Being aligned with the fact that life has it’s rough spots (measured on any scale: years, days, moments, lifetimes) allows us to experience these rough spots AND STAY PRESENT FOR THEM. Knowing that doing our work is going to involve some effort, some level of discomfort, some boredom, or some uncomfortable challenges allows us to do that work without recoiling when these unpleasant feelings arise. We can be less distracted when these feelings arise. We expect them instead of experiencing each feeling as a little push or pull, tossing us constantly this way and that. There is a little bit of FREEDOM from knowing and allowing a measure of dukkha to be present in experience.

Reacting to experience, through aversion and clinging, is to continue spinning the wheel of becoming; to continue on the cycle of birth, death and suffering. Alignment with the truth of Dukkha allows us to stay present. This staying present, with more equanimity is the very definition of mindfulness!  Being with what is, without craving and clinging is to break the cycle of dependent co-arising: the very process by which suffering itself arises. We can be with the difficulties that are already manifest, while simultaneously not creating the causes and conditions for more suffering in the future. In this way, we can slow the wheel. We can eventually step off of the wheel all together.

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