Now this, bhikkhus, is the ennobling reality of suffering: birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and anguish are suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates of clinging are suffering. (SN 56.11, translated by John Kelly)
Old age, sickness and death are obvious categories of suffering that come to all of us eventually. There is also an infinite variety of sadness and misery in the world, visible to us through the media every day. But what regularly aggravates most of us falls more into the category of having to be with people and situations we find unpleasant, and not being with people and activities that we find pleasant — in short, not getting what we want.
Our minds can keep an endless tally of “I like this”, and “I don’t like that”. This is a subtler but more pervasive type of dukkha than physical pain. We can work with the liking and not-liking in our minds wherever we are, throughout the day.
We can’t stop ourselves from having preferences. The best clue to how to work with liking and not-liking is in the last phrase of the sutta verse above: “in short, the five aggregates of clinging are suffering.” The five aggregates are usually translated as the ordinary human experiences of form, feeling, perception, sankhara (thoughts and emotions that follow from perceptions), and consciousness. We’re not going to analyze the aggregates right now, but it is important to note that it’s the CLINGING, not the aggregates themselves, that are the problem.
What does this mean? When we identify with (cling to) our thoughts, emotions, physical symptoms, ideas, perceptions, etc. — that’s where dukkha begins. When we invest our bodily sensations, feelings, perceptions, and opinions with “me-ness”, they take on a life of their own. We end up feeling we have to defend our ideas, opinions, thoughts, emotions, etc. – which are by nature transient – and we get stuck.
When we identify with things, we expose ourselves to pain. My house, my car – if something happens to them, we feel it’s happened to our person. If someone disagrees with an idea of ours, we feel we’ve been disrespected.
Can we tell the difference between letting our sensations and thought-forms arise and pass away naturally vs. identifying with them (turning them into “me” or “mine”)? This is a rich area for investigation. Is our point of view the only valid or interesting one? Are our physical sensations different from, more important than, those of other people? What might it be like to have thoughts and feelings that we don’t identify with?