Buddhism has sometimes been accused of being pessimistic, with its apparent focus on pain and suffering. However, the Buddhist concept of ‘dukkha’, sometimes translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ can actually tell us a lot about happiness and the ways we can learn to live our lives more fully, in the face of inevitable challenge.
The Sanskrit word ‘dukkha’ can be translated as ‘suffering’, ‘pain’, or ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ and has been likened to an ‘ill-fitting chariot wheel.’ Roughly speaking, it encompasses three kinds of experiences:
1. Pain – including physical, emotional and mental pain
2. Impermanence – this means that the things that we may come to rely on for happiness we will ultimately lose.
3. Conditioned states – the existential unease of being human
It is important to remember that suffering is a part of the human condition and is not necessarily a sign of having done something wrong. Suffering is nothing to be ashamed of. When we can treat ourselves and our suffering with more kindness and embrace the trauma of life, we can begin to use our dukkha to connect with others. As Kristin Neff suggests our suffering can be a source of self compassion and connection – although we are all different, we all experience every human emotion at some point. When we are in pain, instead of beating ourselves up, we can remind ourselves ‘oh yes, this is what it’s like to be human!’ Sometimes it feels pretty rubbish, but if we can stop fighting, then maybe that rubbishness can be ok, can even be quite beautiful?
Loss is part of the human condition. We must lose everything that we love. This does not mean that we shouldn’t love. However it can put us in touch with the preciousness and fragility of our experience. I have recently finished reading a wonderful book called ‘The Trauma of Everyday Life,’ by Dr. Mark Epstein, which explores this precise question. I was particularly moved by a passage in which Epstein describes visiting renowned Thai forest master Ajahn Chah:
‘Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. ‘Do you see this glass?’ he asked us. ‘I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.’
This passage really stopped me in my tracks. What would it mean if I really took this seriously? How would my life change if I truly understood that I would lose everything – and was powerless to stop it? Could I really experience the preciousness of life and love moment by moment, irrespective of how long that moment will last? So often, we are so afraid of losing what we love – be they people, wealth, possessions or status – that we are unable to fully appreciate the value of what we have. What I noticed was that in those moments when I let go of the fear of loss, when I stop planning for the future or trying to defend myself from heartache that has not yet happened, in those moments I can appreciate the beauty of what I have.
In describing managing physical pain, Vidyamala Burch reminds us that we only ever have to endure this moment. It is the fear of ongoing pain that is unbearable and unmanageable. Similarly perhaps we can only really enjoy something in the moment. I wonder how much richer this enjoyment could be if we stopped trying to make it last forever?