“…you can experience what is called a “direct” or intuitive knowledge of the meaning of suffering in your own life. Through this…you can find a new relationship with your suffering that will bring you increased meaning, joy, and liberation, no matter how difficult your life may be.” Phillip Moffitt
‘The future is always other than you imagined it. ‘Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future…Looking deeply at life as it is in the here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.’ – The Buddha
It seemed not an auspicious start of what was likely to be an arduous 40-hour journey to Indonesia. The airline agent, overworked and frazzled because a co-worker had failed to appear, was willing to check my bag only part of the way. My luggage, she said, would end up, rolling around, alone, on a carousel in Singapore. The computer, she insisted, was adamant. There was nothing she could do. I asked her to consult her equally frazzled supervisor who concurred. Yes, impossible. I asked them to call their supervisors, pleading that this could not possibly be the new policy. Yup, they all said, new policy. Not possible. She looked past me to the next in line.
Disgruntled but running out of time, I decided to board the plane and work on it again at my next, more lengthy stop. As I boarded, however, I discovered to my dismay that my assigned seat on the first, long, 16-hour leg was already significantly occupied by another woman. Partially hidden in her abaya, her ample size more than overflowed from her own tiny middle seat into mine. My impulsive first efforts to claim all of my own seat were confounded; there simply was no extra space for us either in our already cramped seats or in the filled-to-capacity airplane. Not what I wanted. A difficult airline experience had just become worse. My body contracted, reeling in discomfort, my emotions raged, and my mind exploded in prejudice, complaint and worry. Dukkha. Unpleasantness. Stress. Suffering.
Yes, teaches the Buddha; life is sometimes like that. There is dukkha. It’s not your fault. The unpleasant happens, influenced by infinite causes and conditions, most of which are well beyond our personal control. He invites us to be awake to dukkha when it arises, to – in a seeming paradox – to be mindful, present. He invites us to allow ourselves to feel the “ouch” of it in our bodies: “It’s like this now. Dukkha”. He notes that painful experience is one thing but that our efforts to fix our pains often amount to adding a “second arrow” to the pain of the first.
For our ordinary minds, this doesn’t make any sense at all. We are used to trying to solve problems by eliminating the obstacle or trying to make things as pleasant as possible. As far as it goes, this is perfectly sensible. The problem, the Buddha noticed, was that it often doesn’t work. Life has a way of not being in our control and not working out according to our personal views, wishes and plans. Looking at my realistic options at those moments, the obstacles were simply there: intransigent and starkly unmoving. At moments like these, one can have understanding of those who try to solve painful experiences through homicide. Phooey. Now what?
I decided that I needed to use my practice to find a wider awareness or it would be a very long journey, indeed. Reactivity, unlikely to solve the problem, was likely only to ripen into more suffering. I remembered the words of Thanissaro Bikkhu who quoted one of his teachers about how to release suffering when confronted with the pains of human life:
“Is a mountain heavy? It may be heavy in and of itself, but as long as we don’t try to lift it up, it won’t be heavy for us… You don’t deny their existence — the mountains are heavy — and you don’t run away from them…you deal with problems where you have to and solve them where you can. You simply learn how not to carry them around. That’s where the art of the practice lies: in living with real problems without making their reality burden the heart.”
This is, indeed the core of Buddhist practice: learning how to be with life in such a way that it doesn’t “burden the heart.” The thing is, once we let go of our narrow, constricted insistence, we can open to see what possibilities exist, what choices we actually do have.
So I worked to settle my awareness and to shift attention first of all away from external struggle and from elaborating my internal flood of views, opinions, perceptions and stories about what was wrong. I moved to a more direct, embodied awareness and a deeper internal and external presence. Dukkha. “It’s like this now.” Slowly my mind calmed and my body followed. Still tired and cramped, I felt a bit more ease.
I relaxed. Limited by a language barrier, my seat mate and I nevertheless, negotiated a peace. I began to have compassion for her suffering: imprisoned in a middle seat, her discomfort was likely even greater than mine. As I settled in, I also discovered that her body now offered me a very large and soft pillow; there was nothing to do but lean into it. Both figuratively and literally, we rested in/on one another’s arms. We slept. Toward the end of the fight, we labored through our different languages, attempting a bit of conversation. I learned that Amira was a school principal in a small town in Pakistan, returning home after a visit to her son who was studying in the US. As we separated in Doha, Qatar, she was a little bewildered by the chaos of the airport. I helped her to find her way. When we parted, we looked; we saw each other. “I will keep you in my heart and in my prayers” she said. ” Yes, and I you; may you travel safely.” We embraced in a moment of tenderness and love. Nourished by the surprising sweetness of the encounter, I made my way to a customer service desk where an amazing, helpful agent kindly spent 1 1/2 hours finding and re-tagging my luggage. More unexpected opening. “It’s like this now.” Delicious.
So it isn’t that the Buddha asks us to attend to suffering instead of the pleasant. Quite the contrary. He simply proposes that when we chase the pleasant, when we insist with our minds that life be more pleasant than it actually is, when we make our total well-being dependent on life meeting our own plans and wishes, we will suffer unnecessarily. This is true on every level of experience, from the relative and mundane through levels of reflection to levels of resting in pure awareness and unobscured love. We learn over time to open to ever wider and ever deeper qualities of goodness and well-being. We cultivate a quality of freedom and well being that doesn’t depend on any particular circumstance.