Weekly Practice (Dukkha, or Suffering)
We’ve covered a lot of ground in these Weekly Practices, and now you should have a good idea of what mindfulness and concentration are and how meditation develops both. We’ve also looked closely at the impermanence of everything, including the five aggregates that we tend to mistake for a static self. Lastly, we took a good look at craving and attachment.
This week we’ll examine dukkha, often translated as suffering. Dukkha is also the third mark of existence and the subject of the noble truths.
We know what suffering is. We complain about it all the time. But in Buddhist practice we do more than notice it, complain about it, and wish it would go away. A common misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it’s a practice of avoidance, of detaching from life and resisting anything bad. On the contrary, Buddhist practice teaches us to be with whatever arises in our experience, including suffering.
Dukkha, or suffering is not just what we deem miserable. There are some fascinating processes and conditions going on in the arising of suffering that we need to closely examine. We tend to think of suffering as negative events in our lives, the things or people that make us angry, hurt our feelings, stop us in the middle of the highway, or ruin our day. That is simply the surface. Let’s look more deeply under the covers of what else is going on . . .
What Buddha Said
“Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.” — SN 56.11
“‘Dukkha should be known. The cause by which dukkha comes into play should be known. The diversity in dukkha should be known. The result of dukkha should be known. The cessation of dukkha should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of dukkha should be known.’ Thus it has been said. In reference to what was it said?
“And what is the cessation of dukkha? From the cessation of craving is the cessation of dukkha; and just this noble eightfold path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration — is the path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha. — AN 6.63
Normally when suffering arises, we tend to get so caught up in it, the feeling, the thoughts that build stories, the reactions, that we miss what is going on beneath it.
Question What the Buddha Said
Read the paragraphs above a couple of times. Notice that in knowing suffering, we don’t just look outside ourselves to the cause, but we are being asked to look inward as well, to check for craving and attachment to the aggregates, to desire, aversion, etc. Additionally, we are being asked to move towards the cessation of craving, and then to actions that follow the eightfold path. The eightfold path will be covered in future practices. For now be mindful when suffering arises, question what’s really going on.
Continue your meditations as you have in previous weeks, focusing on the breath for concentration, and being mindful of whatever arises. Whenever something arises, a thought, a feeling, a sound, an emotion, etc. note it, then go back to the breath. Be present, following the breath in and out.
Sometimes the mind can be particularly active. Thoughts keep arising, stories continually beckon you. If you find yourself getting annoyed, instead of returning to the breath, turn your attention to the feeling off annoyance, or the desire that keeps pulling you away from the breath. Notice if you can feel it in the body. What is the source of the craving or desire? How does it make you feel? Explore what that feeling is. What is it that’s making it difficult to let go and return to the breath? Examine these feelings closely. Then return to the breath and continue with concentration on the breath.
If concentration is solid and you are remaining on the breath, note from time to time how this feels in the body, then return to the breath.
Bringing Meditation into Daily Living
While suffering does sometimes arises in meditation and can be examined closely at that time, more often suffering arises as we go through our day. Mindfulness is profoundly useful when we can pay close attention to ourselves, what arises in our experiences, be mindful of how we are feeling in the thick of it, and later, when we have a few minutes, to sit with it and contemplate what is happening even deeper down.
Anger can cover what is really going on through thoughts that build stories, through powerful emotions, through the self asserting itself in thoughts and feelings of justification, and it’s often hard to step back and take a closer look. The next time you get angry, resist reacting to the external cause, find a place you can be by yourself, and examine how you are feeling. What does the body feel like? Do you have muscle tensions? Do you feel temperature sensations, etc.? See if you can sit with the anger directly, and focus on the body, letting go of the many thoughts they may be trying to bombard you. When the thoughts tug at you, are they attempting to rekindle the anger? Are they building stories of justification? What happens when you let go of the thoughts and stories and just focus on the emotion itself, the feeling tone, the body?
If sadness arises, we usually know the external cause, but what is happening in the body, in the thoughts, in the feeling tones? How is the feeling or thoughts of self asserting itself? Is there clinging or aversion to the situation and/or the emotion?
Try to find a place you can sit and just feel the sadness, where it’s sitting or moving in the body. How is the sadness affecting the nature of thoughts? How are your thoughts attempting to create more story? Do you feel desire, aversion, or craving? What happens if you focus your attention on that feeling? Can you resist the stories in your mind to feel how your body is reacting?
Most of the time we try to get away from our suffering as quickly as possible. This week’s challenge is to be with the suffering, to examine closely, to feel how it engages the body and mind, to learn to let go of the thoughts, then return to them. Try to let go of the emotion, then intentionally return to it. What happens when you do this? Can you feel the craving or aversion? How does craving and aversion affect the amount of suffering you’re feeling. Peel down through the layers of suffering, rather than running from it.
This way of examining suffering instead of avoiding it is often confusing, frightening, and strange to people. It’s hard to break old avoidance habits, habits of reacting quickly, and it’s a challenge to be mindful in a difficult situation. But you’ll be amazed by the results if you try, try, and try again.
Share your experiences and what you discover in this week’s practice in the comments area below.
- Making Peace in My Own Backyard (an example of how I sat with and examined anger, as described above)
- Embracing Joy and Sorrow Fearlessly by Letting Go
- What is Dukkha?
(If you are new to the Weekly Practice, start here Be a Buddha, not a Buddhist: Introduction to Weekly Practice)