We’ve been looking at the three characteristics of awakening as clues to what wisdom might be. We looked at anatta (no separate self) and anicca (impermanence), and now we will look at the third, dukkha, and how it relates to the other two.
The word dukkha has no exact English translation. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, it literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole.’ So imagine yourself driving along and one of your wheels is out of whack so that at every revolution you go ka-bum. Ka-bum. Ka-bum. Eventually you probably get used to it, but there’s an underlying discomfort and dissatisfaction with the experience, right? That feeling, that way of being in relationship with our experience, is dukkha.
What a perfect word! There’s no English word that comes close to so accurately describing this experience. Dukkha combines the scatological sounds of doo-doo and cah-cah. So whenever you could use the word ‘shitty’ in regard to your current experience, you’ll be reminded, ‘Oh, this is dukkha!’ And that is a really important bit of awareness! The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is about the importance of acknowledging dukkha.
Note that dukkha is not the external situation or the condition we are going through but the way we are relating to whatever is going on. We are ka-bum, ka-bum, ka-bumming along the road of life, dissatisfied and not knowing why.
When we pause to pay attention to this moment of angst or misery, we might notice how we take the naturally occurring pain of life — physical or emotional — and exacerbate it by piling on thoughts about the past and the future. We might say to ourselves, ‘Oh no, not this again! I thought I was over this pain,’ and ‘How long will this pain go on?’ imagining relentless agony for the rest of our lives.
Anicca, anatta and dukkha, the three characteristics of awakening, have a relationship to each other. Without the insight into the oneness of all being, we suffer dukkha because we struggle to connect, to be seen, to be loved. We are like fish swimming around in the ocean wishing for water, not knowing we are already at home.
Without the insight into into the dance of impermanence, we rail against the natural systems and patterns of life, longing for and fearful of change, thus creating dukkha.
Conversely, when we embrace the oneness and the impermanence that is this life, the dukkha is released. We experience pain, sorrow, grief and all human emotion, but we don’t add to it.
Once we understand the nature of dukkha, it’s easy to see how we activate the Deluxe Dukkha Delivery System in our lives and the ways we make ourselves more dukkha-prone. Maybe we’re striving to be perfect. Maybe we are seeking approval and validation. Maybe we are caught up in longing or feel strangled by fear. But instead of making an enemy of dukkha, thus creating more of it, we can befriend it as a messenger. We maintain our practice of meditation and practice being mindful and compassionate in our lives to whatever degree we are able. In this way we set the stage for awakening to the wisdom of no separate self and the cyclical dance of impermanence, and thus free ourselves from the ka-bum, ka-bum, ka-bum of that ill-fitting axle hole of dukkha.