Category Archives: The 8-fold path

Understanding dukkha

One useful definition if dukkha is not getting what we want, and getting what we don’t want.

We are constitutionally inclined to want stability, reliability, and predictability, even more than we want pleasure. But all of our experience is characterized by anicca — instability. Everything that we can perceive or know is changing: short-term or long-term, visibly or invisibly, growing or diminishing, blooming or rotting, beginning or ending. Everything in nature, including all of us, our bodies and minds, falls into this category. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of our existence.

Largely because we wish things wouldn’t change in ways we don’t like, dukkha arises in our experience. We may not be aware of the specific cause of our dukkha, which can be frustrating, can make life seem unfair, and can sometimes make us angry or upset. But here’s the opportunity: we can accept and work with life as it is, or we can reject and resist it.

One area in which it’s particularly difficult to discern and accept dukkha is in the realm of love and attachment. In romantic love, feelings are often mercurial, up and down, intense and unpredictable. Love between friends can take many various forms. Love of our parents can be mixed with reservations of all kinds, or can be brightened with admiration and gratitude. Love for our children is probably the strongest and most complicated bond of all, and I’ll address it in the next post.

In our affections, as in most things, we desire stability. And yet all of our relationships are in constant flux; we need flexibility and forgiveness to make them last. If the challenges are accepted as normal events, we may be able to respond more constructively, with less reactivity.

We want our children, friends, parents, siblings, and ourselves to be happy, to be confident and successful (by any definition). These are wishes and feelings that might be directed to anyone and everyone, and when they are offered freely, that is mettā. When we recognize the fluctuations of sukkha and dukkha in our experience, dwelling in and radiating mettā can become a natural state.

 

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What is dukkha?

A dear friend told me recently that when she heard that the first noble truth was “life is suffering”, she felt that Buddhism couldn’t be for her. This is so common a misunderstanding of the first truth that I feel we need to clarify things; we need to learn how to discuss the Buddha’s teachings in less absolute and more useful terms.

The first truth is: there is dukkha. It’s not “all life is suffering” or “everything stinks”, it’s a recognition that within every aspect of our ongoing experience, there is (at least) a grain of dissatisfaction. The primary way in which our experiences are colored by dukkha is that every moment of our day “could be better”. We are always feeling that if only this or that aspect of what’s happening were different, it would be perfect. Moments of complete satisfaction and joy last only as long as it takes for the thought “I wish this could last forever” to form. Even when we find the perfect physical position to relax into, with no immediate worries and nothing to do, these conditions change (against our wishes). The body wants to adjust itself or something we need to do pops into our head and we get agitated. This is a description of sitting meditation, if you think about it.

So, with respect to the first truth, our instruction is to acknowledge it. If we can recognize these moments of dissatisfaction with the way things are, we can investigate what is causing the dukkha, and possibly find release.

The Pali word dukkha has a very broad meaning that includes more or less everything that we don’t like, from the smallest itch to a major catastrophe. One image associated with the word is a wagon wheel where the axle and hub don’t fit together smoothly, so wherever the cart goes, the ride will be bumpy. Our awareness of dukkha can be when things are going well or badly. There is always some “sand in the gears”, even if it’s something like “I wish person X could be here to enjoy this”.

The opposite of dukkha is sukkha, which includes everything we like, from worldly satisfactions to subtly joyful mindstates. Sometimes we think that sukkha is our birthright and that dukkha is a error, an unacceptable aberration. It’s easier to accept sukkha than dukkha.

If we recognize a moment in which dukkha is apparent, rather than turning away from it, trying to rush past it to something we like better, we can turn inward and investigate. Often just by naming our dissatisfactions, we take some power away from them. When someone else’s behavior annoys or frustrates us, we may be able to work out that their behavior and our reaction to it are two different things. We can’t control their behavior, but we may be able to re-direct our reaction, or at least understand and have compassion for it.

The second truth is the truth of the origin of dukkha. We can simply say that some form of clinging is always at the root of dukkha, but it is more useful to recognize this in our experience. What does dukkha feel like? Is there some way in which we are wishing that things were different from how they are? How strong is that feeling? Where does it resonate in the body? What desire of ours is making this experience uncomfortable?

 

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Harmonious communities

Harmony in any community, whether a small group or a whole society, depends on a shared commitment to ethical conduct. … social harmony requires at a minimum that the members of any group share the conviction that there are objective standards for distinguishing between good and bad conduct and that there are benefits, for the group and its individual members, in avoiding the types of behavior generally considered bad and in living according to standards generally considered good. – from the Introduction to section I, Right Understanding, in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony

In the Buddha’s teachings, mundane right view is distinguished from supramundane right view. The first understanding is that we have personal responsibility for our actions and will reap the rewards of those actions, sooner or later. Supramundane right view goes a bit further in that the scope for the results of our actions to ripen extends over lifetimes and a deep understanding of right view can lead to full liberation. As Bhikkhu Bodhi does in his new book, we will do here, and focus on mundane right view.

At the very beginning, we recognize that we have views; whether we’re conscious of them or not, we hold underlying assumptions about meaning. There are many wrong views we could hold, for example that if we can get away with a selfish act without being punished then no other ramifications need be considered. Or that if a generous act on our part goes unacknowledged, then it didn’t count.

While the Buddha promoted ethics on the basis of the view of the moral efficacy of action – the principle that good actions lead to desirable results and bad actions to undesirable results – he also offered independent grounds for the ethical life. (quoted from the same source as above)

We’ll be looking at what makes a community harmonious in upcoming posts, but for today it seems important to point out that we can’t wait for everyone in the community, or even a majority, to behave ethically before we take on the commitment ourselves. Our own attitudes and behavior form the boundary of what we control. Our life is our lesson to others. If those around us like what they see, they’ll be drawn to it and modify their own actions accordingly. It doesn’t take great insight to see that repellent behavior repels people and harmonious behavior attracts others, at least on a personal level. This is our power of persuasion: how we behave in everyday life, how we treat people, whether we project anger or fear or kindness or calm. We begin right where we are, here and now.

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Fear and refuge

Dhammapada verses 188-192, translated by Gil Fronsdal:

People threatened by fear
Go to many refuges;
To mountains, forests,
Parks, trees, and shrines.
None of these is a secure refuge;
None is a supreme refuge.
Not by going to such a refuge
Is one released from all suffering.

But when someone going for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
Sees, with right insight,
The Four Noble Truths:

Suffering,
The arising of suffering,
The overcoming of suffering,
And the eightfold path
Leading to the end of suffering,

Then this is the secure refuge;
This is the supreme refuge.
By going to such a refuge
One is released from all suffering.

I’ve been contemplating the question of where we seek refuge, what we lean on in times of fear or disorientation. The answers are personal and individual. Some of us find peace in nature, some in community, some in our homes or cars, some in various distractions, and there are many ways we might seek comfort. These worldly solutions can be effective at diverting us from worldly problems, but the existential questions remain. What’s going on here? How can people be so blind, uncaring, even cruel? Why do bad things happen to good people?

For the deeper questions, we have to look within for answers. We have to be willing to acknowledge that some things that seem very wrong cannot be fixed. Do we run away from this knowledge, or can we embrace it and investigate it?

During the Buddha’s life, the four truths were not generally presented to laypeople. The teaching of the truths was primarily for the ordained, because although the formulation sounds simple, to fully know the truths changes everything. It turns the me-centered world inside out; we have to give up on the idea of security (as we currently conceive it). An intellectual understanding is of no help; the four truths describe a practice which starts with seeing dukkha arising, within and outside of ourselves, and culminates in a complete understanding of karma, of cause and effect, of how things really come to be in the world. We could say that most of the work of the four truths is in the first one: acknowledging the truth of suffering in our experience. Rather than averting our eyes from our subtle or gross discomforts and dissatisfactions, we can look at them squarely and dispassionately.

Perhaps paradoxically, this is where real security begins: knowing that things are not under our control, that events and feelings come to us unbidden, that nothing in human experience lasts. For an excellent reflection on the meaning of dukkha, see: http://www.lionsroar.com/deep-dukkha-part-2-the-three-kinds-of-suffering/

Deep understanding cannot be gleaned in a moment, or by moving from one place to another. It takes a willingness to stop talking, to calm ourselves and look honestly and courageously at what is actually happening right now, again and again. This investigation, and acceptance of what we find, can be our refuge.

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Mindfulness and thinking

One way we can catch ourselves being less honest and loving than we want to be is to keep an eye on our feelings. Another way is to try to track our thinking.

The Blessed One said, “Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort. – from MN19, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.019.than.html)

Sorting ALL of our thoughts would be exhausting and not practical. But most of our thinking doesn’t even get our attention. It’s just there in the background – repetitive, inconsequential,  and undirected. But when an action is imminent, usually there is some thought process behind it, and we can then discern whether it is in the general direction of:

  1. Sensual desire or aversion, ill will, or harmfulness; or
  2. Renunciation, non-ill will, or harmlessness.

If there is an intention to buy something we don’t need (and by tomorrow won’t want), this is a thought imbued with sensual desire. If there is an intention to put someone down or push them out of our way, there’s a thought imbued with ill will. Harmfulness or hurtfulness could be standing someone up or doing something to or for them that we know they won’t appreciate.

When we have a generous, kind, or compassionate thought, we can recognize it because it feels warm and good. It makes us happy to think and act in these ways. Harmlessness, non-ill will, and renunciation can be known through this process.

It’s not very complicated; it’s an invitation to bring awareness to our intentional thoughts, our thoughts that may lead to action.

Sometimes it’s easier to do this reflection after an action has been taken. What made us do that particular thing?  What were we thinking? Sometimes our good intentions go awry, and we can reflect on what we failed to take into consideration that caused our intention to be misunderstood or our action to be unsuccessful.

This is just one way in which to maintain mindfulness throughout the day. We can watch our intentions as they rise, come to the surface of consciousness, and what results come from those intentions. As a wise friend once said, “Listen to yourself!”, which in this case means “observe yourself”. Sometimes we’re trying so hard to create an impression that we lose track of our intentions and actions. We can reel in our attention and keep it close to home, close to our bodies and minds. In this way, mindfulness is strengthened.

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Getting (relatively) calm

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. –Blaise Pascal  

All the practices we’ve been talking about require some degree of reflection, which in turn is well-supported by a daily activity that helps us down-shift from our normal workaday pace. We can’t be mindful and frantic at the same time.

Many times I’ve heard people say, “I tried meditating, but I just can’t do it.” There are several possible reasons for this statement. Some people mistake deep concentrative states for  meditation and have difficulty achieving what they think “meditation” is. Some people don’t give it a fair go: “I tried it for twenty minutes!” Others don’t believe it’s important.

Let me go on record saying that it is important to have a daily practice that supports our mindful reflection throughout the day. There is now scientific evidence that a regular mindfulness practice reduces stress and increases well-being for everyone, including schoolchildren and the incarcerated.

So, I want to encourage each of us to commit to finding and pursuing a daily calming activity that works for us. The two essential elements are a relaxed body and space for the mind to settle (relatively) outside the “me-centered” framework. This leaves a wide array of choices

1. Traditional meditation practices

  • Mindfulness of breathing
  • Mantra meditation (e.g., “Budh-ho”, repeated internally with the in-breath and out-breath)
  • Walking meditation (walking for a period of time in a straight line & back again, mindful of the body)
  • Mettā (kindness) or karuṇā (compassion) meditations
  • Sweeping the attention methodically through the body from top to bottom and then back again – repeat.
  • Chanting (from memory) words and phrases that are meaningful to the practitioner. Personal prayer and participating in Catholic mass could fit this category.

2.  Non-traditional methods can be anything that raises awareness of body and mind and provides relief from thinking about “me”:

  • Tai-chi or other martial art forms
  • Yoga
  • Swimming without external distractions (timers or radio)
  • Inquiry: try to identify/locate one’s self, physically or otherwise

There are many other practices that may cultivate calm, the above are only examples. The two essentials are dailiness and commitment while practicing.

Gardening, making art, and other outward-focused activities may calm the mind temporarily and can be useful, but they don’t provide the opportunity for the “small self” to be examined and transcended. As soon as our absorption is over, we snap right back to the me-centered universe. An inward focus makes mindfulness different.

There are myriad resources to help establish a daily practice. Eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses are available in many, if not most, cities and can be very useful in getting started.

I don’t often talk about meditation because there are other, better sources on the internet and (especially) in person to fulfil this need. I don’t want to leave the impression, though, that it’s an optional extra. We have to train our minds just as we train our bodies if we want to develop and not decline. Only we can make the difference by prioritizing our own growth daily.

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Available energy

From chapter “Stewarding Resources: Viriya Pāramī” by Ajahn Sucitto:

Let’s consider energy or viriya. Energy is fundamental for all of us and to anything we do. When our energy is bright and steady we feel good and act effectively; when it’s low or scattered we feel bad and mess up. So energy is relevant both as the resource of vitality and as the way that we apply that resource….

However, the topic of energy can bring up an uneasy feeling: when I’m already tired, and stressed, do I have the capacity or the interest to exert myself further? Well, that worry itself is another wave that has to be met and enquired into.

A wise response to that worry would be to say that the priority is to learn how to conserve energy and not dissipate it. Also, energy needs to be regulated: many of our problems are connected with either not having enough energy, so that we feel flat, or having too much of it, so that we’re overcharged and bursting at the seams. The irregularities are because the mind’s natural inclination is to orbit and check out what’s happening in its external and internal domain – so its attention gets caught by attraction, aversion or confusion. These forces can capture energy and overwhelm the mind. So the degree of exertion should be determined in accordance with what we’re meeting. When we’re tired out, energy is most usefully applied to kindness, and letting go of the need to sort out business. Then we come out of the grip of confused priorities. And in all cases, mindfulness – acknowledging the present state of the mind – is essential….

Entire book can be downloaded here: https://forestsangha.org/teachings/books/parami-ways-to-cross-life-s-floods?language=English

The previous post was about deciding what we should do next, and one determinant of that is the level and quality of our available energy, right now.

Ven. Sucitto’s words identify a common discomfort with talking about energy: most of the time, we feel that we should have more energy than we do – not a helpful beginning. As with all mindfulness practices, we try to discern what IS, not what we wish were the case.

If our energy is in balance, our choices are clear; with reflection, we can choose wisely. But what if our energy is scattered, wound up, and anxious or low and resistive? What then? In either case, task number one is to recognize what energy, both physical and mental, we have available at the moment. If we’re unsure, an honest inventory of our physical sensations should be revealing. Anxiety and lethargy can be felt in the face, torso, hands, etc. What is the quality of our breathing? Free and deep or tense and shallow?

The breath can be used to understand our energy level and also to regulate it. A few deep, slow breaths can dissipate an energy overload AND can bring extra oxygen to bear on weary minds and bodies. With our energy not too low and not too high, we can meet whatever conditions are present without defensiveness or aggression. We can inquire into the elements of our current experience and discover for ourselves what’s true, whether action is called for, and what might be best to do next.

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