The Nature of Suffering (and how to end it)

Most of us are attracted to meditation because of the serenity and ease it fosters.  That can keep us going for the rest of our lives.  But our practice can do so much more.  It can make us much happier than we ever imagine possible.

There are two main points to remember about the Buddhist idea of “dukkha,” often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction.  First, the Pali term dukkha isn’t about bad stuff happening, but about how we react to events.  Dukkha is created inside our psyches.  Unlike events that we can’t control, dukkha is something we can put to an end. 

The second point is that dukkha is universal.  The Buddha’s first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, has no pronouns.  It doesn’t talk about your suffering, or mine, or Uncle Bob’s.  It’s everyone’s.  You might say we all have the same keys on our emotional pianos.  We just play different keys, and play them differently.  Some people bring out the full potential of every key.  Others just pound the anger key for everything.  We work with whatever dukkha we have.  Recognizing its universal nature helps us have the compassion needed to end dukkha.

How we work with dukkha is what the Dharma is all about.  The Four Noble Truths tell us a lot.  Here’s a table of each Noble Truth and what we can do about it.

            Noble Truth Number:                            This Is To Be:

  1. dukka exists                                              fully understood
  2. the cause of dukkha is clinging                 abandoned
  3. dukkha can be ended                               realized
  4. the way to end it is the Eightfold Path      developed

To understand dukkha, we need to study it.  This means facing into it and carefully observing the experience of responses that make us unhappy.  Many people balk at this very notion, assuming it will magnify their distress, but it actually does the opposite.  It’s like visiting a friend (ourselves) in the hospital, not to try to ‘fix’ them but to bring them the healing comfort of our loving and compassionate attention.  That’s how we should watch dukkha arise, change and pass away in our experience.  It’s best to start this practice with minor irritations, like getting home to discover we were given the wrong take-out, rather than really big things like a loved one’s death or betrayal.

As you get to know a form of dukkha, what led to it and how it feels physically, you’ll be in a position to abandon the clinging that causes it.  Part of the practice of studying dukkha is to stop fueling it by going over and over the “story” about the event you’re reacting to.  Whenever you turn your attention away from those thoughts and toward nurturing thoughts like lovingkindness, you’ve abandoned that dukkha in that moment.  That’s definitely worth realizing. 

The root cause can also be abandoned, by continuing to observe deeply the way it conditions your emotional responses, which resonate as physical sensations in the body.  You’re creating the conditions for insight about this hang-up to arise.  Often, when it comes, insight can uproot that entire source of unhappiness.  Just remember, insight can only be invited to arise, not made to.  When a root cause of dukkha has been cut off, we need to realize that’s happened.  A day may come when you recognize that you haven’t fallen into an old emotional rut for months.  Celebrate it.  Contemplate it.  Know that dukkha has been ended.

This way of working with dukkha is integral to the entire Eightfold Path.  We develop the Path in our lives by learning the Dharma, by holding the intention to avoid harming any beings through our speech, actions or economic activity, and by meditating regularly.   This is how the mind is purified of the causes of dukkha.  This is how we are freed to be calmer, wiser and happier than we can imagine being even if everything, including ourselves, were just the way we wanted.

Note:  This topic is developed further in my dharma talk with the same name, and several others on this site.

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