A hard place

The Buddha is endlessly portrayed as a pragmatist and the Buddha-Dharma as a therapeutic endeavour, with a single purpose: to end dukkha. 

Satipanya Buddhist Retreat
Satipanya Buddhist Retreat

Dukkha is a subject that fascinates me and is, really, the whole reason anyone gets into this kind of whacky contemplative stuff in the first place: seeking can be a groping towards the light or a running away from a dark place, but either way, you’re trying to get away from somewhere not comfy to somewhere better. It is variously translated as ‘suffering’, ‘anguish’, ‘stress’ and ‘unsatisfactoriness’, ‘hard to bear’, and other formulations. I am not a Pali scholar and I don’t want to get into a debate on the Suttas, but I do know that none of those quite cover it for me and so I like to use the original word, despite the inaccessibility. There are various categories of dukkha in the Theravada Suttas, and a very strict Buddhist might not like this post for giving my own interpretation.

There’s something a little bit mystical and mysterious about dukkha itself, in that it is very slippery, not something that can be pinned down easily. It makes a lot of sense if you put two and two together in the context of the teachings on emptiness, and see that it has its own non-inherency. It can’t be boiled down to the viscerality of pain, nor thoughts that confuse, the perception of liking and disliking, the memory of past sorrows, fears for the future, illness, death; and you don’t have to have all of these present to be suffering. While I said in another post that there isn’t really such a thing as mental suffering, there is definitely something about the suffering of mental illness that is somehow equally or more unbearable than the pain of injury.

Perhaps that’s a good definition for it: not bearable, and yet borne, and the thrashing about in impotent rage this causes trying to scratch the itch. Meditation brings to light that there is suffering in literally every phenomenon (every phenomenon) and this is innately unacceptable. Once again, giving my own interpretation: the aggregates, or elements of existence, are dukkha. The essence of living is to not be satisfied; it’s not the same thing as saying ‘life is pain’ (step away from the angst!) and reaching the conclusion that everything is somehow poisoned or hollow, but there is nothing with characteristics that is unconditionally agreeable from every angle.

There is an obvious physiological basis to this: the most basic organisms retreat from toxic stimuli and move towards what will nourish them. They have to keep doing this to ensure their life processes can carry on. It’s reached its epitome in humans, with the most sophisticated psychological conditioning of delayed gratification that nevertheless needs to end in exactly that- gratification. Unfortunately it isn’t so helpful for humans that aren’t in a fight for survival every day, and issues of repression and addiction follow on. The mind’s attempts to win the game of the pleasure principle are in themselves caught up in it. Enter contemplative practice onto the scene, riding a white charger and wearing shining armour. Or something. The irony that we have the stimulus to move beyond stimulus is not lost on the Buddhists, with the skilful use of desire to overcome desire being a central topic.

The secret of the earlier stages of meditation is basically that you have your face pressed against the millstone: you are confronting dukkha in a visceral, conscious and intentional way for what might be the first time, or the most startling way you ever have, and it is crap. What’s worse is there’s still a lot of sense of agency that says that you are the one doing the pressing. If you feel like your effort is directly translating into pain, then the automatic response is to stop doing it- ‘take your hand out of the fire’ is a perfectly natural learned response. The acute agony goes away, but the chronic pain of seeking seeps back in. It can be hard to tell what suffering is necessary for insight and what is just masochism- and I make absolutely no apologies for stating that, for me, suffering for my art (darling) is very necessary still, and in fact unavoidable due to the fact that I have, at base, no control over the process.

So, I meditated, and after some fun fireworks, it got really, really hellish. I wanted to have a good look at reality, and I got the good and the bad in cycles I only later found out were pretty much par for the course. This is because the whole process of craving and aversion, of wanting and not wanting and the basically fucked-up nature of it, is being pointed out. Why fucked up? Because after a while, it seems quite perverse to be running after things that clearly won’t satisfy forever, and almost a sick joke at times. (I might be writing from the ‘dark night’ part of the cycle as we speak. Excuse the melodrama.) I sometimes feel like someone who has picked at a loose thread on a favourite jumper with casual carelessness, and am now watching it slowly fall to pieces. You can’t start doing vipassana and then stop where you want to, eradicating the suffering from the parts of your life that you’d choose to. The dukkha inherent in all things starts to show itself.

All of the nasty side effects I’ve experienced in meditation are basically reactions to this many-faceted recognition of the nature of reality. They aren’t me pushing through bravely into new territory; they’re more like me having a tantrum as I am again cheated, hoping beyond hope that I can have my cake and eat it this time, that the universal will be different now that this barrier has been surmounted (oh gawd, the mixed metaphors). The hindrances are resistance to what the most deep parts of you knows, and that you are at least trying to face by practicing: while the thin privileged veneer of your conscious mind is saying ‘yes, I want to face my fears!’, the immense wild mind lying underneath thinks its existence is being threatened.

If all of this sounds depressing, don’t worry, there is a bright side! The summary is: if dis-ease is the hallmark of the world, then what we’re moving towards in practice is unconditional peace. If you have no choice, then improvement is inevitable. ‘Suffering less, noticing it more’ is one of the excellent one-liners Bill Hamilton had (I wish I had a whole book of ’em): you have to be willing to move through ever more acute awareness of dukkha in order to penetrate the process of identity construction that creates it. It’s just a relationship, practically speaking; as I notice more and more than phenomena are just phenomena, without any in-built judgements inherent to them, the relationship of craving and aversion retreats. Where will the dukkha be left to hide eventually, if I stop seeing it in everything?

But it is important to see into dukkha in a very unflinching way, especially if you have traditionally done a practice that emphasises things like joy, togetherness, relaxation and the cultivation of positive vibes. I suspect that you can get a long way in this business by focusing on the positive, and indeed I’m only now learning that I’m a bit of a miseryguts on some levels and I could do with developing the stability of samadhi. But I’m still convinced that even this is an expression of that awareness of dukkha: deliberately re-framing your perspective as a moving towards divinity rather than a flight from suffering, is still a flight from suffering, albeit a positive one that I can’t fault. Basically, as Peace Pilgrim says, get acquainted with the things that you fear. Go into experience rather than hiding from it. Get down into the trenches. It’s a hard place, but that’s all it is.

Practice suggestions

  • What exactly is your experience of suffering? Can you narrow it down? How does it manifest?
  • Observe physical pain as it arises. Divide it into the physical sensations of warmth, vibration, pressure. Are these dukkha?
  • Can you notice like and dislike, craving and aversion, pleasure and pain?