Category Archives: dukkha

Cultivating with the core insights

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In exploring the question What am I cultivating here? we have been working with a gardening analogy. In this analogy we haven’t yet looked at what is represented by the soil, the rain and the sunshine. This seems a pretty big oversight! So let’s look at these most important aspects now:
The Buddha identified three characteristics of existence that, if understood, transform our whole way of being in the world. They are the underlying wisdom upon which all the rest of the teachings rest, and to which all the rest of the teachings point. On the graphic chart of the Buddha’s teachings, these three ‘marks’, as they are also called, are at the very center. They are the core of the teachings. Every insight that you will have in your meditation and your life will lead you to one or more of these three core understandings of the way of things. I know that’s a major claim, but try it for yourself, as the Buddha says, and see if it is true.
So what are these three characteristics of existence? In Pali, they are anicca, anatta and dukkha. Unless you plan to be a Buddhist scholar, or you just like to know terms, it’s not really necessary to remember those Pali names. But it is helpful to understand the concepts, which are:
Anicca: Understanding the nature of impermanence and our inability to maintain anything to our satisfaction. Things change and we don’t like it. Things don’t change enough and we don’t like it. Things change, we like it and assume now we will be happy forever, but we change in relationship to the thing that doesn’t seem to be changing, and we’re not happy. You get the picture. Impermanence is a fact of life, and how we are in relationship to it, to a great extent, determines our ability to be happy.
Anatta: Understanding that there is no separate self that needs constant shoring up and defending. The separate seeming nature of being is useful for practical purposes in this life, taking responsibility for this particular body, family, finances, commitments, etc. But taken to be complete reality, believing ourselves to be isolated individuals separate from the rest of being, causes suffering.
Dukkha: Understanding that, while there is pain that comes with birth, illness, aging and death; the greatest suffering we experience is created by grasping at, clinging to and pushing away all that arises in our field of experience.
For the purposes of our garden analogy, we could say that dukkha is the soil. The quality of suffering is very earthy. We can get caught up in it, ‘dirtied’ by it and buried in it. Yet when we understand dukkha, we can plant roots and draw nourishment in our deep understanding of its nature.
One student in class had a problem with planting her roots in suffering. Another student pointed out that we are planting our roots in the insight about dukkha. Since class, I have gone around in my mind whether this is an apt metaphor or not. What I’m thinking now is that earthly life, full as it is of suffering, is where we are planted. It’s not always an easy place, but as we put down roots, we become better able to sustain ourselves in it. The Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging and death are the four messengers. So there is something in the soil of dukkha that we need. When we are experiencing pain in our lives, can we be fully present for it, rooted in the experience — not grasping and clinging or pushing it away, but simply here to receive its nourishing message? I will never forget one time when I was younger and my back went out, and suddenly I understood that old people walk slowly because they are in pain! My pain nourished me, didn’t it? It cultivated an insight and compassion that has been of benefit to me in all my relationships.
This extended metaphor is a work in progress, so I’m open to ideas to make it better. Comments?

Anicca, impermanence, we could see as water. Rain comes and goes. There are droughts and floods. There are clouds and clear sky. Water is constantly transforming: Now it’s ocean, now mist, fog, cloud; now rain, snow, sleet or hail; now puddles, rivulets, streams, lakes, rivers, seas and back to the ocean. It’s also present in all life, including our bodies.

Anatta (no separate self) could be represented by water too — I often think of this fleeting life as a droplet of water flying over a waterfall, soon to rejoin with the flow of the river to the ocean. I also love the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river’ which repeated over and over again is such a comforting message of self-acceptance. But since we’ve claimed water to represent the nature of impermanence, we will let sunlight represent that sense of no separate self: We are all energy, inseparable, radiant light.
One student asked, since we are applying the elements to aspects of the teachings, what of air? Ah, air! Well let’s let air be air: The breath at the center of our practice that is both a focus and a way to shift energy (releasing excess on the out-breath, bringing in enlivening energy on the in-breath). With breath we cultivate spaciousness, putting ‘air’ around our thoughts and emotions as they arise in our awareness so that they don’t overwhelm us. Every plant in the garden needs sufficient air to thrive.
Through our meditation practice (sitting in our garden enjoying simply being alive?), the support of the teachings (all that wise gardening advice?) and our community of practitioners (fellow gardeners who support us?), we create the conditions for the qualities we explored in the two previous posts (generosity, lovingkindness, resolve, etc.) to grow and flourish.

The Finite Balcony vs. the Infinite Garden
Without being rooted in the infinite wisdom of the core understandings of
anicca, anatta and dukkha, you can still cultivate these qualities, but it’s as if they are planted in little pots on a balcony, finite and contained rather than rooted in the infinite, and you need to attend them constantly. They will not spread and propagate, and they are not connected to the vast web of interconnecting gardens full of birds, butterflies, etc. that help keep the garden healthy. (If you are an apartment dweller and like your potted plants just fine, or if you have no interest in gardening whatsoever, remember this is just an analogy!)
As we practice and have naturally arising insights in our lives, we recognize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. We don’t adopt them or accept them because the Buddha was an enlightened being and who are we to question what he taught. He asked us to see for ourselves the truth. That’s the heart of our practice. Being at ease in the practice, we create fertile ground for insights to arise. As arising insights do indeed confirm the Buddha’s teachings, we release any self-sabotaging doubt we may have had about the value of our practice and our path. Our practice itself becomes a celebration of gratitude where we can delight in the garden just as it is, ‘weeds’ and all.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But don’t let it become a distant ideal. If you feel stuck on the balcony tending little pots, hey, you are still creating more beauty in life! But every day in your practice notice your inner ‘balcony’ expanding until it becomes an inner garden.

How does happiness happen?

smiling buddhaMy granddaughters are seven and five years old. Their definition of happiness is getting what they want when they want it. If things go their way then it’s the ‘best day ever’ and if they are denied anything, then it’s the ‘worst day ever’.

There are plenty of adults who concur with this definition of happiness. They see it as some externally regulated occurrence over which they have little or no control. Their emotional lives wobble about like a yo yo being yanked on a string. This is not happiness! It’s helplessness. No amount of ice cream, stuffed animals, compliments or cute shoes can create true happiness. Which is not to say we can’t enjoy these things, but we delude ourselves if we think they will make us happy.

As part of the maturation process, most people recognize that if they want food, shelter, clothes, transportation, etc. — the basic necessities of modern life — then they will have to work for them. Maybe that motive of achieving happiness through attaining these things is helpful in its way. These things can provide some sense of security, contentment and maybe achievement. But sustainable happiness? Not so much. It still may feel random and elusive. So they may begin to blame themselves. They feel that there is something inherently wrong with them if they can’t appreciate all they have, especially if on that list, besides stuff, they also have close relationships they value, most of the time. They may feel guilty for not feeling sufficiently grateful for all they have, making them feel even more discontented.

Watching my granddaughters go through their emotional gyrations reminds me of myself as a little girl. I too knew the soaring heights of, say, Christmas morning seeing a pile of presents under the tree. Then within a matter of minutes I knew the lows of sitting amidst the litter of ribbons and torn wrapping paper, realizing it was all over.

‘Is that all?’ I would ask. Go ahead and call me a spoiled brat, but I had a hunger no amount of presents could fill. And we all do.

‘Is that all? Is this what life is? Seeking happiness through the acquisition of stuff?’ If you were a person who was made permanently happy by stuff, you would not be reading this. So let’s be honest and acknowledge together that it is not for lack of stuff that we suffer.

You may be familiar with the Buddhist word dukkha. Dukkha is suffering that is caused by greed, aversion and delusion. Dukkha is such a great word because when it comes to us English speakers, it already contains the quality of, excuse me, shittyness in its syllables: doo-doo, cah-cah. We just double-down on the word dukkha. There is an instant understanding of how dukkha feels. We’ve all had times we could easily describe as shitty. And there’s a relief in being able to acknowledge that.

Let’s look a little closer at greed, aversion and delusion:

  • Greed is a hunger that can never be sated, not just for stuff but for experiences, for novelty, for approval, for accolades and so much more. It is a bottomless wish list.
  • Aversion is an endless hit list, all the things that annoy and threaten us in one way or another, activating fear, anger and hatred.
  • Delusion is a listlessness, living in a fog, being tossed about on ocean waves, not knowing how to surf, always gulping for air.

You can see how much suffering, how much dukkha, is caused by these ways of relating to the life. But there is another word, sukha, that is the happiness that grows from our own cultivation of mindfulness rather than waiting for someone else to hand us happiness on a platter. It offers a sense of freedom from constantly craving more.

So how do we cultivate true happiness, sukha?
Wherever we are right now we pause, release whatever tension is present, come into all the senses, cultivate spaciousness to hold all the thoughts and emotions that may be entangled in tight knots. And we give ourselves some infinite lovingkindness: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be happy. Then (and only then) we extend our well-wishing out into the community of all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be happy.

Sure, we still may feel some extra energetic zing when our ducks are all lined up in a row or we receive a nice surprise or we feel relief that some bullet has been dodged, and we might have a little happy dance or celebrate any way we choose. But at a deeper level we recognize that there is a kind of happiness that exists without the need for perfectly aligned ducks and that every moment is a cause for celebration. It is unconditional happiness or joy that is expansive enough to hold even our disgruntlement, disappointment, grief, anger and every other emotion, because it rises out of the wisdom to see every emotion as a fleeting condition, like a cloud passing through an otherwise infinitely blue sky. Even when conditions are such that there’s no blue sky to be seen at all, just gray storms and even thunder everywhere we look, we know that there is a blue sky that holds it all, even the most difficult emotions. Our happiness is not dependent on every day being sunny, every flower being in perfect bloom or our bodies being pain free and flawless. Things can be going to hell in a handbasket, as the saying goes, and yet somehow we find joy in the moment.

It isn’t like living in a bubble of immunity to pain. Pain happens. Loss happens. Bad news can still make the heart feel like it is breaking. Tears still fall. Fear in all its guises still arises at times. But it is visible. We see it just as it is. It is not an enemy to confront or hide from. It is not the boss of our experience. It is not who we are. It is just what is passing through our experience in this moment.

Think of a parent caring for a crying baby. The parent holds the baby, cuddles the baby, soothes the baby with soft words, coos and sings until the baby settles down. The parent is supportive witness to the experience, acknowledging that it is okay. We can be in relationship with our own emotions in the same way. We hold them with compassion and kindness. We are not making light of the experience. We are simply holding the space for the experience within the greater understanding of the nature of impermanence. This too shall pass.

As with all I teach, this exploration is for myself as well. If you have been following along on this blog, you may remember that my brother is dealing with a life-threatening illness. He is certainly being challenged, and all of us who love him are also challenged, to adjust to the new normal, and find a way to accept the unacceptable. And we all will, one way or another. Whether we do it by railing against the nature of impermanence, against illness and old age and death, or whether we find a more open and friendly way to be with it, whatever the ‘it’ of the moment is, that’s a journey for each of us to make in our own way. We can each only do what we can do. The more difficult the journey, the more grateful I am for my meditation practice. It doesn’t help me to escape anything. It helps me to stay fully present, to recognize the preciousness of each moment, to let go of everything but that awareness and gently hold the moment like the precious jewel it is — even seeing someone I love in a hospital bed hooked up to drips and machines. Touching his arm, hearing his voice even as he complains, I can hold the moment like a jewel, for this moment — each and every moment — is rarer than the most valuable stone ever mined. It cannot be duplicated or relived. There is only this moment. Just as it is. And living at that level of aliveness, being that present, is sukha, happiness.

What a gift to be alive, fully alive! Even as things fall apart, understanding that it is the nature of things to fall apart, and to come together, again and again and again.

We don’t need to put our lives on hold for happiness. And we don’t need to put happiness on hold while we live our lives. Seeing that true happiness is fully possible in every moment, we wake up to notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise and pass through our experience. We don’t make enemies of them. Just by seeing them for what they are and holding them with compassion, we attain increasing clarity, until each moment is illuminated like the radiant precious jewel it truly is. With wise intention and wise effort, we cultivate happiness within ourselves and let it ripple out to all beings.

It’s not the road that’s bumpy!

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.

deluxe-dukkha-delivery-serviceThe 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.

“I’m in an abusive relationship with life.” – Homer Simpson


We’ve been exploring the concept of dukkha, the suffering that can pervade our lives, or at least crops up from time to time. Dukkha is such a central concept to the Buddha’s teachings, I want to be sure we all understand it before moving on, because without understanding the nature of our unhappiness, how can we create happiness?


Many of us have habitual patterns of dukkha without even realizing it. We go through life mentally being the referee of others’ behavior. We are ever vigilant to call out a bad driver or an inconsiderate line-jumper or someone who just has a bad attitude. Is this useful? Effective? Does it cause happiness? Or is it just a pattern of ongoing critical thought that causes us and those around us suffering? (This is quite different from being in a situation you can actively do something about. We’ll talk more about that in our exploration of Wise Action in the Eightfold Path.)


If you recognize yourself in this description of a referee, consider this option: When you see someone doing something unskillful, recognize the mindlessness of their action. Recognize the dukkha they are dealing with. Recognize that you have at times also been mindless, maybe even in just the same way. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness, to that person, instead of judgment. This doesn’t condone their action, but it does acknowledge their humanity. Sending metta effectively short-circuits the counter-productive pattern of thought that makes you mindless as well, and lets you get back to the activity — driving, for example — that needs your full attention.


Here is a wonderful classic Buddhist story that illustrates the nature of referee dukkha.


Two monks were walking in the mountains and came upon a young woman on the bank of a river, in distress because it was too deep and rapid for her to safely cross. To the surprise of his companion, one of the monks offered to carry her across. She agreed. He picked her up and maneuvered across the river and deposited her safely on the other side. Then the monks continued on their way in silence.


Quite a while later the other monk said, ‘Brother, you violated a vow by carrying that woman across the river.’


The other replied, ‘Brother, I set that woman down over an hour ago. You are still carrying her.’


Isn’t that the way it is? The mind gets totally entangled in playing referee, in replaying a wrong, in judging the actions of someone else or ourselves, and we suffer. That’s the nature of dukkha.


Maybe you are not the referee. Not to worry, there are plenty of other ways to create dukkha in our lives. See if you find yourself in any of the following examples:


  • The gardener who is only happy when everything is in ‘perfect’ bloom.
  • The person who is devastated by what they see in the mirror because it isn’t the youthful face and figure they remember.
  • The person who gets yelled at by a passerby on the street and takes it personally.
  • The person who indulges to excess, then bemoans the painful consequences.


If you have been following along in previous posts, you might recognize that the first two illustrate not understanding or accepting the nature of impermanence. The third shows the lack of understanding ‘no separate self’, and the last one is how we create suffering through the addictive behavior of desire to ‘change the channel’ rather than simply be with what is in this moment.


When we know dukkha, we can name it in our experience. When we bring it to our attention, we are better able to release the tight patterns that bind and chafe us.


What experiences in your own life do these various examples bring up? When you find yourself suffering, pause to explore it. Instead of blaming it on a cause,condition or person, check in with how you are reacting to the cause or condition. This is not to blame yourself, but to look at the patterns of thought that arise again and again. The story of whatever is going on is not nearly so important as the noticing how you are relating to this story.

And whatever you do, give yourself metta. ‘May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.’ This process of noticing what’s going on, bringing yourself into the present moment, and then giving yourself and any others involved the warmth of universal loving-kindness, will go a long way to reduce suffering and create happiness.

Dat Darn Dukkha

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.

Three Marks or Characteristics

Over the past many months of exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we have looked at the nature of impermanence. We’ve looked at physical form, the world around us and our own bodies, and we’ve seen that the only constant is change.

We’ve also come to understand that there is no separate self, that every time we think we can say ‘I am this’, when we investigate we see that we are not that. So there is no isolated fortress of self that we need to defend.

We have learned Anicca (impermanence) and Anatta (no self). These are two of the three Marks or Characteristics that are key to understanding the nature of things. The third mark or characteristic is Dukkha, the quality of unsatisfactoriness that is part of this experience of being alive. Understanding that there is dukkha is the First Noble Truth.

Let’s look more closely at what the word actually means. It’s tricky because there is no perfect English translation. The word dukkha, when broken down into root parts literally means an ill-fitting axle hole. Now that would be very uncomfortable wouldn’t it, to be on a journey and at every turn of the wheel there’s a jolt from the wheel not being properly fitted?


Staying with that image, we can all think of at least a time in our lives when this was certainly how it felt. And if we look closely at the nature of things, we might recognize that quality of ongoing friction or the wheels of our lives being slightly out of balance. This is the quality of suffering the Buddha asks us to acknowledge.

For many of us when we hear the word ‘suffering’ we don’t think of ourselves. We look around at all we have, where we live, all our good fortune, and we feel we would be ungrateful to see suffering in our lives. We put suffering outside ourselves in those who are victims of all the natural and man-made disasters in the news, and certainly there is pain in the world and our compassion is called upon to acknowledge it and perhaps act on that acknowledgement with generosity of spirit, time and resources.

But the kind of suffering we are talking about here is a chronic human condition that most of us ignore. When we tie suffering only to a particular cause or condition, then as long as the conditions of our life are fine, then we are not suffering. If we and our loved ones are healthy and none of them has died recently, then we are fine. We are blind to the chronic suffering of ourselves and others, because we just look at the nice house, the shiny car, the successful career, the healthy body, etc. and conclude that we or they must be happy. But if we are really paying attention, we might notice that even when everything is fine we hope these conditions will continue and fear illness, turns of fortune, aging and death for ourselves and our loved ones. This wanting things to stay the same or wanting things to be different is dukkha, and it’s universal.


We may feel we have no right to such feelings, given all these favorable conditions, so we hide our fear, subsume our feelings in self-destructive behavior, and/or focus on the ‘positive.’ We may ignore the truth that gnaws inside us and we create a false persona. Constantly trying to sustain that false persona is one bumpy ride where we never feel completely at ease, isn’t it?

So the Buddha asks us to look at dukkha, that ill-fitting axle hole of life experience, and acknowledge it. That is the First Noble Truth.

Fortunately there are three more Noble Truths that disprove the rumor that Buddhism is a gloom and doom tradition. In fact, there is infinite joy in the Buddha’s teachings. But the joy is not conditioned on external causes. As we explored in the Awakening Factors in the previous post, this joy is a pervading quality that arises out of the practice of being fully present and compassionate with ourselves when we haven’t been present. We can experience a quiet balanced sense of joy and gratitude regardless of what we are going through in our lives, regardless of the bad news we’ve just received. This is not a training to be insensitive or uncaring. It’s a training in being spacious enough to hold all that comes in loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.

If you’ve been following along in our investigation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, you might notice that this quality of dukkha pretty much sums up what it’s like to live with the Hindrances and Aggregates we studied earlier. The Five Hindrances are: lust/craving, aversion, sloth & torpor, restlessness & worry, and doubt. The Five Aggregates — our body, our preferences, our knowledge or understanding of the world, our urges and intentions, and our consciousness —  get us into trouble when we believe them to be permanent, separate and under our control.

Not understanding annata (impermanence) and annica (no self) leaves us with the experience of dukkha (suffering). Conversely, as we come to understand the nature of annata and annica, then we develop the ability to be soften and even dissolve patterns of dukkha.

So we can see why the Buddha developed the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Through them we can see for ourselves the truth of impermanence and no self, and we are given the tools to release suffering that we create in our lives.

This is an ongoing practice, so do not despair if you feel you haven’t ‘got it’. Just keep practicing the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with yourself when you discover you haven’t been present at all. Remind yourself that in this moment of recognition you are present! That is cause for celebration not harsh judgment.

What to do when we feel helpless

I attended a dharma talk by Rick Hanson this week about the Three Marks or Characteristics: impermanence (anicca), the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and no-self (anatta).

Then Thursday our traditional brief reading of an excerpt from ‘Pocket Pema (Chodron)’ also happened to talk about them. So I shared with the class a little of what Rick had said because I felt the way he explained the relationship between the three, rather than just listing them, was very useful.


He said that impermanence is a given. (This is exactly what we have been learning week after week in our exploration of the Five Aggregates.) But we have the choice of whether to react to it with the grasping, clinging and aversive reactions that cause suffering –dukkha, or respond to it with anatta, no-separate-self, and hold the impermanence of experience with ease and even joy.


So, thanks to Rick for that nugget of wisdom.


As we have looked at each of the Aggregates over the past weeks, we first recognize the quality of impermanence. All arises. All falls away. Sometimes immediately, sometimes eventually, but if you attend it closely you’ll see the process is always in cycles of motion.


Every moment is a pivotal moment of change. (If we stay present in the moment we can have a conscious effect on the nature of that change! If we are living in the past or future, whatever change we cause by our actions or words is unconscious, and therefore often unskillful.)


Wanting things to be permanent or imagining things to be permanent and reacting negatively to that belief causes us to suffer. (And when we suffer, we never suffer alone. We always cause suffering to others with our resulting unskillful words and actions.)


What a relief to discover that we do not have to shore up or cling to a sense of separate self in order to be happy.


So if you have been asking the perennial student question How will this help me in real life? here’s your answer!


Everything we learn as we explore the Buddha’s teachings, and as we create through meditation practice the opportunity to have our own insights, is for one purpose, and one purpose only: To create spacious ease and happiness in you, that you may be in the world as a conduit of loving kindness, compassion, joy and balance.


We all have created suffering through unskillfulness, and we have all witnessed how suffering in one person can activate sometimes extreme suffering in others. What can we do as witnesses? So much depends on the situation, of course, and one hopes that our practice gives us the presence of mind to respond skillfully. But even when we are thousands of miles away watching on television a horrific event unfolding before our eyes, as many of us did this past week, there is still something we can do.


We can send metta.


Metta is universal loving-kindness that is a powerful practice we can do at any time. It is especially useful when we feel overwhelmed and things seem to be spinning completely out of our control. Send metta to the victims, to their families, the first-hand witnesses, the responders, and yes, to the perpetrators of this act.


Whoa! What? Why would we send loving-kindness to them?


Think about it. Their incredibly unskillful violent means of making whatever statement comes from such an unstable delusional place. So we send metta to them.
‘May you be well.’ Yes, may you be well enough in you mind to understand that this is not the way to make your concerns known.
‘May you be happy.’ Yes, if you were happy in your own being, you would never have thought up this violent scheme in the first place.
‘May you be at ease.’ Yes, it is the dukkha-driven restlessness and dis-ease that brought this thought to painful action.
‘May you be at peace.’ Yes, if there were peace in your heart, you would never have thought up this action in the first place.


Although we don’t send metta with the hopes that people will be different from who they are, still metta does have transformative power. But it is only powerful if it is as generous as the sun, shining on all life, not just sent out selectively to the ‘deserving’.


We challenge ourselves to recognize that sense of no separate self. We cannot send metta only to sweet-faced children or baby animals. We make no distinction while sending metta between those who we think deserve a good life and those whom we might instinctively wish hell on earth for the suffering they have caused.


Metta is not a reward. It is a universal well-wishing that actively creates a peaceful world. Those who are kind and generous do so because it flows through them as a natural response to the goodness they know to be the world they live in, even as they see unskillful painful behavior erupting sometimes.


Those who do violence do so because that is the world they know, the people they hang out with, the path of least resistance. This is not to justify their actions. It is to settle the reactivity that forces more actions and reactions within the rest of us until the violence feels entrenched and permanent. It is not permanent. When we allow the violence of others to activate the same violence of spirit within ourselves, then we are seduced by Mara, the tempter*, into mindlessness and unskillfulness. So we say, as the Buddha said again and again, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ Because we do recognize that quality, we are tempted by it from time to time. But knowing it for what it is, we see through it. We are spacious in our minds and spacious in our hearts, radiating loving kindness to all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be at peace.


* An interesting note for those of us who are Christians: A quote from Catholiceducation.org: ‘The word Satan comes from the Hebrew verb satan meaning to oppose, to harass someone; so Satan would be the tempter, the one to make us trip and fall, the one to turn us from God.’
The tempter, just like Mara, who tempted Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. And just as Jesus preached wholesome living, kindness and compassion, so did the Buddha.