Recognizing Dissatisfaction 04-20-2020

Tonight’s Dharma talk on the theme of “Recognizing Dissatisfaction” draws on two books: Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness and Mark Coleman’s From Suffering to Peace

The Pali word dukkha refers to the unsatisfactory, unreliable, and stressful nature of all conditioned things. Etymologically, the word consists of the prefix du, which means “difficult,” and the root kha, which means “empty.” Joseph Goldstein reminds us that one of the specific meanings refers to the empty axle hole of a wheel. A bad-fitting axle on an oxcart creates a bumpy ride, which the Buddha compared to an unenlightened journey through samsara, the repeated cycle of birth, mundane existence and death.

In the first discourse after his enlightenment, the Buddha spoke about the middle way, between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, and about the four noble truths. He addressed multiple layers of dissatisfaction in the human condition, identifying the root cause of suffering as attachment, and pointing to the possibility of liberation from suffering whenever we let go of clinging: 

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha…” 

Even though we consider childbirth, aging, sickness, and death as ordinary parts of life, we seldom stop to reflect upon the true nature of the body and mind and how dukkha impacts us. Without reflection, we habitually avoid aversive experiences, grasp at what attracts us, and try to prevent losing what we love. And much of our energy goes into fruitless attempts to control or manipulate reality. 

Goldstein observes that, on a very basic level, movement masks dukkha that is inevitable in the body. When we pay close attention, we see that almost all of our physical movements are efforts to alleviate some kind of discomfort. After sitting for a period of time, we make slight shifts of position to relieve tension. Hunger pangs motivate us to move and find food. If we’re tired, we lie down to rest, but after a while, the body needs to stretch or roll over. When we meditate, we realize how challenging it is to note impulses to move without acting on them. By staying still, we have an opportunity to explore how dissatisfaction feels in the body. 

Millions of people are affected by the dukkha of experiences that are painful in themselves: war, violence, hunger, chronic diseases, natural disasters, injustice, 

political and social oppression—and now a pandemic. Even more prevalent is the optional but deeply conditioned dukkha of the mind: emotions of fear, anger, hatred, anxiety, grief, envy, frustration, and loneliness. Goldstein’s teacher Sayadaw U Pandita used to congratulate him when he reported such mental states: “Now you are realizing the truth of dukkha.” Noting the arising and passing away of emotions without identifying with them releases us from suffering. 

During a chaplaincy visit, a respite patient whom I’ll call Charles tells me that his life changed radically last year. He used to live in a large home where he displayed his extensive art collection. His work as a chef and caterer brought him satisfaction, and he had an active social life with a close circle of friends. Then without warning, Charles started falling down and having difficulty coordinating his hands and feet. 

While hospitalized for tests, he lost about a third of his body weight and the ability to walk, his vision blurred, and some of his teeth fell out. By the time he was diagnosed with demyelination of the spinal cord, Charles had only a remnant of the protective coating for nerves along his spine. Now wheelchair-bound, he is relearning slowly how to dress, bathe and feed himself. When I ask how he is dealing with such radical changes in his life, Charles responds that although he is sad about never walking again, he is grateful to receive help. 

Commenting that his friends are bored and frustrated about being homebound during the pandemic, he says, “I’ve already simplified my life–giving away my art collection, selling my house and my truck, and quitting my job. For me, a good day is to get dressed without falling and to wheel outside onto the patio to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning sunshine.” Charles teaches me that in the midst of dukkha, it’s possible to find simple moments of satisfaction.  

And yet Coleman reminds us of Mick Jagger’s classic song lyrics, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” We commonly experience frustration in our quest for pleasure. It is possible to find dissatisfaction in any experience, no matter how pleasant it is. So often we anticipate an event with excitement, and when the experience arrives, we find it lacking in some way. 

The last time that Mark and I attended a Houston symphony concert, I was eager to hear Schumann’s 4th Symphony. As we settled into our seats, a very tall woman sat down in front of us, partially blocking our view of the stage—a touch of dukkha.

Once the orchestra began to play, I became immersed in harmonious sounds and enjoyed watching Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s delightful, dancelike conducting. Then, during a tender passage in the slow movement, a baby wailed at the back of the auditorium—another moment of dukkha. In retrospect, after weeks of cancelled concerts and sheltering in place, the instances of dissatisfaction seem minor indeed. 

In our practice, we try not to ignore or turn away from dissatisfaction but to investigate it directly. With awareness, we are less reactive when things don’t turn out as we had hoped. When we remember the law of impermanence, the changing nature of all things, we are less resistant when a positive experience ends. If we notice how often experiences fall short of our expectations and peak moments fade away, we can appreciate each moment for what it is, with all of its imperfection and fleeting beauty. 

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that suffering and happiness are not enemies. They co-exist like the interbeing of mud and a lotus. He advises us to stop our busyness and to look deeply inside, investigating the roots of our own suffering. In that process, we discover that we have inherited pain from our ancestors and our parents. The more we understand our suffering, the better use we can make of it, and the more we can recognize the pain in any person whose suffering affects others. Instead of reacting with anger or blame, we feel compassion for the suffering underlying unskillful words and actions. 

Years ago, I heard Thich Nhat Hanh reminisce about his childhood. When his mother gave him a cookie, he would try to make it last all day by taking a small bite every once in a while. I could not imagine savoring one cookie that long!

Coleman reminds us that all pleasures suffer from habituation. The first bite of a fresh, juicy peach may be delicious, but after eating the entire fruit, the impact of the taste diminishes, until we are no longer tempted to continue eating. In a similar way, no matter how engaging a conversation is or how sublime a musical performance is, our attention eventually wanes if it goes on too long. Intimate relationships may begin with a honeymoon phase, but rarely does that intensity last. 

It is important to pay attention to how we respond to disappointment about habituation. Sometimes we don’t even wait for a pleasurable activity to end before seeking new excitement. As we anticipate its completion, we grow restless or anxious about what might replace it. How seldom do we watch a sunrise or a sunset from beginning to end? Here are some excerpts of a poem I wrote to describe the experience of attuning fully to a sunrise at the Margaret Austin Center:

A pale light emanates from below the horizon, 

Highlighting silhouettes of distant scraggly trees. 

The rest of the landscape is 

Swathed in gloaming. 

Infinitesimal increments of light

Illuminate a dark cloud river

Above the uneven line of trees,  

Revealing tall bamboo stalks that bow 

Around the meditation hall.

A few tentative birdcalls anticipate

The break of day…. 

Now the cloud river shimmers in amber light. 

Noisy clusters of crows fly 

Cawing towards the radiant horizon. 

Quieter birds… wing silently 

Over glinting, dew-dropped grass.

The cloud river becomes brilliantly orange.  

Tributaries of mango and peach pour into

The mainstream of light.  

Crowds of crows raucously applaud the show….

The cloud river morphs into golden currents. 

Birds giddily serenade the dawn as 

The sun bursts above the line of trees.  

The river dissolves into wispy eddies, 

In progressively subdued tones. 

By the time my Dharma buddies

Emerge from the meditation hall, 

There is no trace of the splendid sunrise

That nourishes my senses 

For the rest of the day.   

Only when we discern that no experience can provide lasting satisfaction do we stop yearning for an exception to the rule. It is a relief to enjoy any moment just as it is, without seeking more. Joseph Goldstein points out that even in the midst of unsatisfying experiences, we can be free of the suffering caused by attachment and craving. 

Coleman quotes Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” Loss and crises are part of the human predicament. Sometimes we take our misfortunes personally and blame or pity ourselves. Mindfulness practice helps us to meet and accept our difficulties with self-compassion when acceptance is hard and when we struggle or fail to find a skillful response. Gradually, as we see that no life is free from dukkha, we develop equanimity and learn to surrender to change and loss.

For Goldstein, recognizing the truth of dukkha is a gateway to nourishing a compassionate heart that wants all beings to be free from suffering. He refers to the Japanese Zen master and poet Ryokan: “O that my monk’s robes/ were wide enough/to gather up all the people/ in this floating world.”