We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Necessary and Unnecessary Suffering
The second mark of existence is suffering. The Sanskrit word for suffering is dukha. This word has been translated in various ways —as pain, dissatisfaction, struggle, hassle and inconvenience, and perhaps most powerfully as existential anxiety. This range of definitions is actually quite accurate and very helpful, because it points our attention toward the fact that there are many ways in which you actually experience dukha.
Our Most Basic Level of Suffering
First there is basic, all-pervading suffering, which arises from your choiceless experience of impermanence. And this suffering has four aspects: birth, sickness, old age, and death. You may recall three of the four sights which Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, encountered when he escaped his father’s palace to see the real world: the sick man by the road, the old man walking painfully along, and the corpse being carried to the cremation ground on the riverbank.
Existential hassle, or inconvenience, is the struggle inherent in how impermanence happens to each of us. It is the basic limitation of being born into a human body. Although for each of us it may unfold on different timetables and with different degrees of apparent grace or awkwardness, it unfolds in the same fundamental way.
Your body—no matter how strenuously and conscientiously you pamper it, care for it, nourish it, and fortify it—eventually will fall apart.
Conventionally, birth expresses the sense of continuity of life, and it is therefore a cause for celebration to the family, the clan, or the community as a whole. But the Buddha taught that for each individual, birth is an expression of separation, and once the umbilical cord is cut, a journey begins that must be made alone.
Death itself here is not just the inevitable, final physical kind, but it is also the way the impermanence is experienced from moment to moment when you are really paying attention. The message of death is that you cannot really hold onto anything in your experience because it keeps shifting. It is fundamentally fickle and uncertain, despite the sense of predictability, repetition, routine and habit that comprises the general atmosphere in which your daily life is lived.
This dance of birth and death on the moment-to-moment level is continuous. It is the reality of working with a constant sense of challenge presented by new situations, and the reality of not being able to hold on indefinitely to old situations. This fickle, shifting energy tends to keep you off balance and constantly readjusting or changing in order to maintain balance.
One of the defining characteristics of old age is that you are less and less able to maintain your balance in the midst of the fickleness and uncertainty. The momentum of change becomes too confusing and threatening, so you take refuge in predictable routines, nostalgic memories, or inflexible opinions. The truth of old age is poignant and devastating—whether you experience it yourself or see it in someone dear whom you remember as vital and strong.
One way of seeing sickness from this point of view is that the stress of riding this energy eventually overwhelms you, and you get off the relentless merry-go-round for a while, and boycott its momentum until you’re ready to ride it again. Of course the truth of sickness also gives you little reminders all the time—even when you catch a mild cold—that your bodily life is not an invulnerable fortress that you can maintain indefinitely against all internal and external threats.
Suffering of Being Disconnected from What You Want
Generally, the suffering of alternation occurs because of the disconnection between what you want and what the world has to offer. It could be the dissatisfaction of not getting what you want in life. It could be the disappointment of losing what you have and are attached to. Perhaps most painfully of all, it could be the experience of getting what you want, but then later not wanting it anymore.
You lose your job and can no longer make your house payments and have to sell it. You not only don’t get the job you wanted so badly, but someone else you know does get it. The stock market crashes and wipes out your retirement nest egg. Your lover rejects you just when you thought everything was going so well. You yourself fall out of love, and telling the truth to your partner is so painful that you engage in deception. Or else you are brave enough to tell the truth, and then experience the empty-heartedness of being alone again, but older. Or you simply get bored with what used to fascinate and entertain you, and drop it from your life.
This fickleness is part of your psychological response to the underlying fickleness of impermanence. As the unfolding of impermanence occurs on a direct, somatic level, you grasp at its highlights. You look for ways to perch comfortably and happily in the midst of this flow, and occasionally you succeed for a while. But this process too is subject to impermanence, whether because of the fickleness of external circumstances that you cannot control, or the fickleness of your own internal process of longing and dissatisfaction.
This dance between desire and dissatisfaction is at the root of the suffering of alternation. You hope again and again that your recurrent and unceasing desire can be satisfied by some object outside of you, but in the long run, or the short run, this hope for satisfaction contains the seeds of its own frustration.
This search for fulfillment in something external to you is—as we’ve discussed in an earlier chapter—the underlying psychology of materialism. By clinging to any pleasure or comfort in life, you are grasping at what by its very nature will eventually either slip through your fingers, or else simply exhaust its ability to satisfy you.
Struggling Against Suffering
The accumulated impact of all this frustration ultimately leads to the suffering of suffering. Your struggle makes the whole thing more painful still. It is here that the sense of dukha as existential anxiety comes fully into play. In your struggle to relate to the ongoing experience of hassle, longing and dissatisfaction, you begin to panic. You begin to feel that you are losing the game of life, and that it is the only game there is.
Sartre wonderfully titled one of his plays “No Exit.” Just like his characters, you have a vague but growing realization that there seems to be no way out of this cycle, and that you are running out of time. You defend against this growing sense of disillusionment and panic by becoming more and more armored and careful, cynical, less vulnerable and less spontaneous. You retreat into a posture of denial. You fortify your cocoon like a psychological fallout shelter.
This inner defensiveness, this gradually increasing tightness in your state of being, and the insensitivity and numbness that accompany it, strengthens the walls of your self-created prison. It also ironically accelerates your aging. So it is a kind of vicious circle.
This is the predicament that the Buddha saw as universal for human beings. It begins with the truth of impermanence and proceeds through your increasingly complex and defensive strategies to manipulate, avoid, or outwit it—all of which are doomed to failure. And the more cleverly and energetically you try to find a way out, the more you actually intensify your experience of suffering.
Accepting the Hard Truths
When life is seen in this way, it is rather stark—and at first undeniably depressing. Historically, this teaching initially gave Buddhism a reputation among Western scholars for being gloomy and depressing. But the truth of the matter is that it is depressing only from the wishful and self-deceiving perspective of the ego. If you experience this kind of depression, it can actually be a valuable wake-up call for you. It might prod you to begin to have some curiosity about how you came to be caught in such a seemingly airtight trap.
From the point of view of the warrior—or a Buddha-in-progress, if you will—this view of life is sobering, accurate, and realistic. It is an inspiration to look further, to find out more. This is what the Buddha did, and you could do the same.
The Buddha’s first teaching after his awakening, that “Life is Suffering,” is worth exploring here, because it is significant to appreciate that Buddha taught about suffering in these two ways: as a Mark of Existence, and as a Noble Truth. The first is clinical and offers a diagnosis of our basic problem, and the second is inspirational and offers the freedom that results from acknowledging how things are.
He called it a “noble” truth. He didn’t call it the first lousy truth, or trivial truth, or insulting truth, or depressing truth. Why is this? Perhaps because he wanted to communicate that if you are willing to go into the suffering with enough openness, bravery, honesty and curiosity then the suffering has tremendous richness, and a tremendous amount to teach you about how to live as a genuine human being.
If you can finally stop evading, ignoring, denying, or sugar coating this truth, and stop entertaining yourself continually in order to pretend it isn’t there, you can finally stop altogether, look directly at it, take it completely to heart, and recognize that it applies not only to you but to all others who share this world with you. Then, and only then, the recognition of its truth could lead you to liberation, and to a deeper compassion. But you must let go of the delusion of your specialness and drop the defenses and concepts that separate you from others and from life altogether.
By recognizing shared suffering, you might glimpse the possibility that all of life is your family, not just those in your immediate family who are near and dear to you. In this way, your appreciation of the truth of suffering can become a gateway to a much larger, richer experience of your life.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner