I always enjoy including this Uncle Remus tale when teaching and exploring the concept of dukkha. Now remember how Brer Fox was always out to catch Brer Rabbit? Well, this one day Brer Fox figured a sure way to get ‘em. He knew Brer Rabbit had a sociable nature and would always stop to talk to anyone in his path, so Brer Fox decided to build a trap with a lure in the form of a tar baby. He dipped some sticks in pitch mixed with turpentine, put them together and studded the figure with gewgaws until he figured it was gussied up enough to appeal to Brer Rabbit, then he stuck it along the road where he knew Brer Rabbit passed by on a regular basis, and hid himself behind a bush. He didn’t have to wait long.
Soon enough Brer Rabbit came hopping on down the road – lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity, just as sassy as a jaybird – and spotted this dark alluring creature sitting there and stopped to say hello. But the tar baby didn’t respond to his greeting. He tried to make civil conversation with her, and still the tar baby wouldn’t speak. He asked her if she was deaf, because if so he could talk louder, but still she said nothing.
All the while, Brer Fox, he lay low, having some inkling how this would go. And sure enough, the next words out of Brer Rabbit’s mouth were angry. “Well, you’re just stuck up that’s what you are. I’m going to have to teach you how to talk to respectable folk.” He warned the tar baby, but the tar baby didn’t respond, so Brer Rabbit pulled back and hit her on the side of her head.
But his fist got stuck and he couldn’t pull it loose. The tar held him. Now Brer Fox had to stop himself from laughing out loud as he watched from behind his bush. “If you don’t let me loose,” Brer Rabbit said, “I’ll butt you!” She didn’t. He did. And now his head was stuck too.
All the while the tar baby doesn’t say a word, which makes Brer Rabbit even madder. “If you don’t turn me loose, I’ll kick the stuffing out of you!” She didn’t, he did, and now his foot was stuck too. The more Brer Rabbit reacted to the Tar Baby, the more stuck he got. Sound familiar?
This is how we are in our lives with our dukkha, the suffering we cause by the way we react to our experience. Perhaps there’s a person in our lives who brings out a lot of reactivity in us, and becomes our tar baby. We react, then we struggle to get free of all the dukkha that comes up around our reaction. But it doesn’t have to be a person, this tar baby. It’s any situation, cause or condition to which we automatically react with a set pattern of thoughts, emotions and behaviors that drag us deep into the tar of our dukkha.
How do we create the sticky tar of our suffering? That certainly wasn’t our intention. Or was it? It’s hard to know what our true intentions are without really paying attention to our experience. When we really are paying attention we might see that we hold some pretty dukkha-prone intentions.
This is something we have been discovering as we work with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. One of the Five Aggregates is Volition, aka urges, impulses and intentions. We might not even know we have these intentions until we become more mindful. They are likely rooted in one of the Hindrances that we studied — Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor and Doubt.
Let’s talk about a few very common mostly-unconscious intentions many of us have:
The Need to Be Perfect
The strive for perfection is laden with dukkha. The tar is very thick when we get caught up in comparing ourselves to some ideal that is unattainable, not just by us, but by anyone. We can see now that there is a dangerous mix of Hindrances in that concoction of an intention to be perfect. There’s desire as well as aversion and a quality of self-doubt. There is the belief that unless we are perfect then we cannot be at peace, we cannot be loved or respected. It’s rooted very deeply the fear of disappearing because we hold ourselves to be separate, we hold ourselves apart from the wholeness of being, and we create misery for ourselves and others.
The Need for Approval
Another closely associated dukkha-prone intention is our desire to receive approval from others. Talk about self-doubt! Talk about worry! This intention throws us completely off-balance as we try to imagine what someone else wants from us, then from that flawed imagining, try to modify ourselves to suit. Striving
The intention to achieve great wealth, fame or success, in whatever form that takes for us is the hindrance of desire, lusting after something that will shore up this separate self we feel we must defend. Goal setting where the goal post is a bigger presence in our lives than what is happening in this moment creates dukkha — a sticky place of disappointment, perhaps guilt over unskillful actions done in pursuit of our goal, and perpetual fantasizing.
Having Something to Prove
The intention to prove something to the world or to someone who once told us we could not achieve something can drive us even after that person is long gone. We internalize the words, never revisit the possibility that the person did not intend them as we took them, or even if they did it was coming from their own mindless dukkha misery.
But we still are stuck in the dukkha of reactivity. What hindrance or hindrances is this rooted in? There’s an anger there, maybe even hatred, so at least aversion, but probably other hindrances combined in that help to shore up that sense of separate self.
There are many more unexamined intentions that could be marketed as Deluxe Dukkha Delivery Systems because they are so effective at transporting us directly into deep sticky dense suffering.
So what happened to Brer Rabbit and his dukkha?
Well, when he was as thoroughly stuck as possible, Brer Fox came out from behind that bush. He couldn’t help laughing and gloating over Brer Rabbit’s predicament. And he made it clear he was going to barbeque him for dinner. Or maybe he would boil him. Hmm, he discussed his choices, and Brer Rabbit just kept telling him to go ahead and do that, but begged him, no matter what, to please not throw him in that briar patch. Old Brer Fox had some dukkha issues too. Even though he had his meal in hand, his desire to make Brer Rabbit suffer was greater than his hunger. So he pulled the rabbit off the tar baby and flung him into the briar patch. Once there, Brer Rabbit laughed and called out, ‘Bred ‘n born in the briar-patch, Brer Fox– bred ‘n born in the briar-patch!’ as he used some handy briars to pick off the remaining pitch from his fur and went on his merry way.
Bred and born in the briar patch. Brer Rabbit freed himself from his tar baby dukkha dilemma by returning to his source, the place where he felt most comfortable in all the world.
So what is our briar patch? Where is the place in ourselves where we feel most at home, where we don’t have to defend ourselves or struggle? It’s ourselves fully relaxed in this moment, accepting ourselves as we are and this situation as it is in this moment, even if it is painful or challenging. This is the place where we are grounded, where the energy is spacious, joyous and supportive. It is a place of conscious awareness, of clear seeing and deep pure intention.
This is the place we come to know through sitting in meditation, through walking in nature in silence, through noticing moments of simple contentment in our lives. We rest in a state of gratitude for this moment of being fully alive.
For most of us these moments are fleeting. We enjoy them but then can’t help but wish they would stay longer, or that we would make ourselves available to them more often, and suddenly we’ve created a little tar baby to tangle with.
At these times maybe we can remember Brer Rabbit and get ourselves back to our briar patch – back to noticing the rising and falling of our breath, the sensations in our body, and the light in our surroundings. Because we were born in this state of being fully present, and we can return to it through our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover that we’re stuck in the tar of dukkha yet again.