We have been revisiting the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: that there is suffering in life. In the Pali language this suffering is called dukkha, and we delved deep into the doo-doo of dukkha in previous posts. But there is not just dukkha in life. And particularly for me at this moment of time it would be disingenuous to focus exclusively on suffering, when I am so grateful for this moment where everyone in my circle of family and friends is in better shape than in past months, where crises have passed and in some cases new exciting ventures are being launched, and life is suddenly more light-hearted and fun. My thoughts are filled with playful creative ideas instead of deep problem solving ruminations. Staying present with my experience, I acknowledge this temporal state of affairs. I know that conditions will shift and change, but while I am experiencing this, let me fully acknowledge it!
So as part of that acknowledgment, today we will talk not about dukkha but about sukha. Literally sukha means having a good axle-hole. While at first glance that seems to have a lot to do with this doo-doo dukkha, in fact it means that the axle of the vehicle of your life is round and even, so the wheels that carry you turn smoothly, making the course of your life less bumpy, more pleasant. So sukha is this pleasantness when things run smoothly, and noticing and taking pleasure in this smoothness.
So we’re talking about happiness. When we get to the Eightfold Path we will talk in more detail about how we can skillfully create conditions that produce happiness in our lives and in the lives of others. But as I understand it, sukha is not the conditions of happiness but our experience of enjoying it, just as dukkha is not pain but our tendency to compound it into suffering.
In our last discussion, we talked about this difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens, arising out of life itself. Through mindfulness we can reduce our risk of getting into a painful situation, but pain is an inherent part of being born, living and dying in this earthly realm. Trying to escape it just creates more suffering.
There are also moments of time when conditions are such that we are pain-free and life seems good. Maybe the weather is beautiful, our health is good, we’re doing what we want to do and those we love are in a good place. All the makings for happiness! But because we have the ability, sometimes even the tendency, to take a happy situation and look on the dark side or look all around the edges, we may miss the experience itself. Sukha is the ability to truly appreciate the goodness of life in the moment.
Now, if we take this happy condition and are unable to appreciate it because we fear it is fleeting, or we are afraid our appreciation will cause it to disintegrate, or we get into wondering why life can’t always be like this, or how we could make it be like this all the time, or any of a hundred inner conversations of that nature, then we are back in dukkha!
Sukha, the ability to enjoy ourselves in a way that is beneficial or harmless, is something we can cultivate within ourselves through concentration, insight and awareness practice. We have been spending a few weeks really paying attention to how we create dukkha in our lives, compounding any pain we find by dragging in the past and future, and we will bring more attention to that in the coming weeks. But this week, and from here on out, I ask you to also notice what is pleasurable in your life.
We talked last week about embodiment. Sensing in to our bodies is a big part of our focus in meditation practice. Sometimes we focus on the strongest sensation. But when the strongest sensation becomes overwhelming, it is skillful to find another sensation in our body to focus on, one that is neutral or pleasurable.
Because of the way our brains work and the requirements for survival in our history, we have a tendency to focus more on pain and the potential for future pain. So cultivating an ability to focus on what is pleasurable can be skillful, bringing us closer to the truth of the whole of our current situation. We don’t focus on what is pleasurable in our experience in order to escape or mask pain. We are not trying to run away from the pain, but to remind ourselves to open our embrace to hold all experience, not just the most difficult. We are bringing balance into the moment, acknowledging all of what is.
What we notice when we focus on any sensation for a long time is that it changes. What we labeled ‘pain’ may become a symphony of changing sensations. This is also true for pleasure. The most pleasurable sensation in the world may become intolerable if prolonged. It is valuable noticing to see the truth in this, to understand the impermanence of pain and pleasure. We can even take comfort in the truth of impermanence. ‘This too shall pass.’ And it serves as a reminder of how important it is to stay present with our experience so that we won’t miss the moments of our lives in pursuit of other moments, which, if we continue in this trend, we won’t be present for either.
Happiness sometimes scares us. We tell ourselves it won’t last. Of course it won’t. So what? This is life. This is the deal. Why should we ignore what is right in front of us, bouncing with delight, in favor of pondering the universal problems that abound in the world? Of course we use skillful means, compassion and wisdom to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, but it is not required of us to oppress ourselves constantly with the plagues that are ever present in the world. There has never been a perfect world and there never will be. We do a disservice to this gift of life if we are always in a state of finding it lacking. It is, once again, a matter of finding balance.
So, notice happiness. That’s your homework. Notice when it arises, when the conditions of happiness are there, and then notice what you do with them in your thoughts and emotions. I’m not asking you to “Look on the bright side” or to “Put on a happy face.” I’m asking you to bring awareness to what is pleasant, and then really notice your relationship to that pleasant condition. Make note of any phrases that come up, things you tell yourself, like, “I don’t deserve this.” Or “This is silly. I’m a serious person. To focus on happiness is frivolous in a world where there is so much suffering.” Or “If I pay happiness too much attention, it will disappear.”
Noticing our relationship with whatever arises is a part of the practice, whether it’s how we relate to pain or how we relate to happiness, how we create dukkha and how we cultivate sukha in our lives.
To deepen our investigation, I once again offer up embodiment, an anchoring into our senses. This is letting go of seeing consciousness as a little know-it-all pilot inside our heads operating the controls of this big vehicle of our body, navigating through the mine fields of the outer world.
Embodiment encourages us to take a more realistic view, once based in the facts. We are made of the exact same stuff as the earth and all the beings on it, the same stuff as the universe and beyond. We are stardust. Believing ourselves to be separate may have its uses, but it is just a construct, not meant to be taken as truth.
The truth is we are not just interconnected; we are one and the same body of being as all that is. Consciousness therefore is not a little navigational device, but a shift of awareness into a broader and deeper understanding. Expansive beyond imagining. Infinite, in fact!
When I spent a year on a personal retreat meditating most of the day, healing from the exhaustion of believing myself to be separate, what came quite naturally to me was sensing into my light nature. This sounds odd, I know. But I have sense learned that working with light is an accepted Tibetan Buddhist practice, and though I haven’t studied it and am not a Tibetan Buddhist, my own experience taught me that working with light energy is a universal part of awakening to the reality of consciousness.
When I think of sukha, the ability to truly experience happiness, I think of being fully aware of that light energy that permeates all life. At this time of year when we have just had the Summer Solstice, I am especially aware of light, as I take walks in the cool of the evening when it is still light at eight o’clock.
As we explore sukha for ourselves during the week, if it feels comfortable for you, let the practice include the exploration of light nature. Breathe in light; let it dissolve the imagined boundaries of your being. Let light shine through every pore and dissolve the capsule of skin you once believed to be the edge of your being. Radiate light out; allow your light body to grow as large as it wants. Radiate loving-kindness; wrap the earth in your light body awareness. Feel empowered by this radiance to hold the world and yourself in a loving open embrace of light. Ah sukha!