Sharon Salzberg tells this story about her time in India. She was really struggling with her practice, and when all you are doing is practicing, that is quite a struggle. I remember when I was at my first silent retreat I had a panic attack. I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it through the first day. And Sharon was in India. She was very young and thousands of miles away from home. I think most meditators have these kinds of experiences, and they can be brutal.
So she went to her teacher for a private interview and explained what was going on. She expected that he would give her some magical advice on some new meditation practice, some antidote for her condition. But all he said was, “That’s dukkha.”
It is a funny thing that Buddhism is so often characterized as being pessimistic. That is because of the First Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of Dukkha/suffering/stress. But the Buddha never said that life is suffering. He was simply stating a fact about life, that it inevitably has dukkha. He never defined the term, but he did give us examples. Not having what one wants is dukkha. Having what one doesn’t want is dukkha. Clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha. Sickness, old age, and death are dukkha. Even birth is dukkha.
Denying the truth of dukkha not only denies one of the most fundamental realities of life, that denial is a way to make the reality of dukkha worse. I have recently had a number of conversations with dear friends, all of whom are having very difficult times. One friend has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s. Another has two sisters-in-law who had to go into assisted living. One of them has kidney failure and needs dialysis every three days. Another dear friend is having cancer surgery on Monday. And so it goes. We all have our laundry list of woes. I have mine and I am sure that you have yours.
I suspect that for almost everyone, one reason that we suffer unnecessarily is because there is some part of our brain that says, “It shouldn’t be like this.” “This should not be happening.” “I don’t like this and I don’t want it.” And the extreme form is “Why me?”
But if it really shouldn’t be that way it wouldn’t be. And sometimes it is very helpful to simply acknowledge that this is the way life is. Dukkha is what binds us together in experience. Sometimes it is really good to simply say, “That’s dukkha.”
Of course, the Buddha did not stop there, thank goodness. The first Noble Truth is simply the diagnosis. The cure is the Fourth Noble Truth, the path that leads to the end of suffering. The Buddha said that there are two responses to stress and suffering. The first is confusion and all its related factors: anxiety, anger, fear, depression, and stinginess. The second response is faith that there is a way out.
And my sense and my experience is that if you can recognize that dukkha is just what it is, that you can even learn to smile at it. Dukkha just does what dukkha does. You can acknowledge it and press on. And it certainly is a strong incentive to practice because dukkha is never fun.
But one of the many beauties to Dharma practice is that it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The path itself is very beautiful. Generosity. Virtue. Serenity. Wisdom. It is noble. It is a gift that you give to yourself and others. Ultimately it is the gift of unshakeable freedom from dukkha.