On-Again, Off-Again Buddhism

Waiting 0613Dukkha is the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism and is usually translated as suffering, a concept that has always appealed to me about as much as the phrase falling apart, hence my on-again, off-again nearly thirty-year relationship with Buddhism.

Yet, it is to Buddhism that I always return, rather like everywhere I go there I am for as the Buddha said, “I teach only one thing: suffering and the cessation of suffering” (Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide).

While dukkha is the word the Buddha is said to have used for suffering, dukkha has more than one level. The first level concerns mostly our physical bodies and ultimately the fact that we die. This kind of suffering involves “outer discomforts” and is considered ordinary.

The second level of suffering pertains more to our stress/anxiety in accepting that nothing stays the same, no matter how hard we might try to make it so. This is the “dukkha produced by change.”
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The third level of suffering is often referred to as the “dukkha of conditioned states,” translated as “dissatisfaction” or “never satisfied.” Pema Chödrön explains:

“Dukkha is kept alive by being continually dissatisfied with the reality of the human condition, which means being continually dissatisfied with the fact that pleasant and unpleasant situations are part and parcel of life.”

Over the decades, it has actually become apparent that if I accept each moment as it occurs— the dukkha of conditioned states—the first two levels of suffering fade away, which is not to say accepting impermanence is easy.

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For any level of dukkha, meditation helps us strip away our storylines, our drama from any pain or emotion we are feeling. Meditation takes us into the energy of our suffering so whether or not we can do anything about the circumstances, we can decide whether or not to suffer.

If we accept that we fall apart and come together all through our lives, we begin to practice compassion, first with ourselves and later with all those circumstances beyond our control. Because we are human, we are not always compassionate but every time, we have the choice to return to compassion. It is our inner version of war and peace.

In a comment on my initial post on falling apart, Ann E. Michael was kind enough to remind me of these lines from “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ often quoted poem on the aftermath of World War I:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned….”
~William Butler Yeats~

Every time I read Yeats or other World War I poets, I am reminded WWI was the war to end all wars, as if any war ever could. When we are at war with ourselves, we must remember that having compassion with ourselves is where peace begins for everyone.

All three levels of dukkha wend their way through our lives: physical pain, decay, and death claim each one; life will not stay the same for anyone; the constant impermanence of life is the human condition.

The Buddha taught, “I teach only one thing: suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Perhaps I always return to Buddhism because it is neither pessimistic nor optimistic but rather, things fall apart and come together again. Dukkha really is up to me.