In the talk Compassion, Karuna, Jill says, “compassion is what flowers when metta, or goodwill, comes into contact with dukkha, with suffering.”
Today, we’ll follow Jill’s unpacking of suffering, and then tomorrow look at the how-to of compassion.
The term dukkha is often translated as suffering, but it has a much broader sense of the term than what we might think of (capital-S) Suffering. You only have to turn on the news or scroll through a Twitter feed to see the immensity of tragedy and pain – fires, floods, accidents, war, pandemic, illness, death, racism, climate crisis, … Yikes. So it can feel kind of petty that here I am, in relative safety, with privileges that many others would only dream of having, feeling a little bit annoyed that the cucumber in the fridge went soft the day after I bought it. Yet that too can be a type of dukkha.
Jill reads a passage from the Buddha, translated by Thanissarro Bhikkhu, and then explains a bit:
Thanissaro translates dukkha as stress: Birth is stressful. Aging is stressful. Death is stressful. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are stressful. Association with unloved is stressful. Separation from the loved is stressful. Not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging aggregates are stressful.
I just want to highlight that – pretty obvious – birth, aging, and death is stressful. Having to be with what we don’t like, having to be separated from what we do like, certainly not getting what we want is stressful. And elsewhere in the teachings, the Buddha used this same word dukkha in relation to more subtly unpleasant aspects of experience. …
So the Pali word dukkha covers a very broad range of different types of suffering, from the most extreme anguish on one end through to just that subtle slightly existential sense of discomfort or unease.
So again, because we’re born as human beings, because we have vulnerable bodies, vulnerable hearts, vulnerable minds, we are going to experience some degree of dukkha. That’s just a fact. But on top of that basic dukkha, we usually add a whole pile of extra dukkha in the form of our reactivity to it.
As we explore the feeling tone, vedana, of experience, we learn some of the habitual reactivity that’s in our systems – pleasant – want – oh, but I didn’t get it or it didn’t stay – dukkha. Unpleasant – don’t want – ugh, but there it is – dukkha.
Right, so we know reactivity. So now what?
In our meditation and mindfulness practice, we can learn ways to find a bit more space between the sense experience and the reactivity – and that can help release the suffering. But that’s hard to do when there are deadlines and pets to feed and everything else. And this is where compassion comes in – it can help support a wiser relationship to dukkha. More on that tomorrow!
For today, it could be interesting to gently look at suffering of any kind and how we relate to it. And see if there a little moments of release or ease when we can be less reactive.
In the following recording, Gil Fronsdal leads a meditation (after a brief discussion) on “Non-Resistance to Suffering”
With gentle wishes,