Dukkha is not a tragedy, but rather a basic ingredient for insight (and)…felt with one’s heart…our heart is truly touched, (and) trust and confidence in the Dhamma arise as the way out of all suffering. Ayya Khema
Nonsuffering is having a relaxed, composed mind that is fully present with whatever is occurring in the moment. And it is the capacity to be in relationship to whatever is arising such that you’re able to respond from your deepest intentions. Phillip Moffitt
Yesterday a beautiful young couple were married on the beach. With sand in their toes, tears in their eyes and an overflow of love in their hearts, they offered to one another their commitments for life. The vows they spoke were traditional ones: “…to have and to hold…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, forsaking all others, til death us do part.” I wished them every goodness.
I wondered, though, if they really had any idea what they were getting into. Really? Better and worse? Richer? Poorer? Sickness? Forsaking all others? Are we really willing to commit to love and compassion, tenderness and generosity, patience and gratitude and forgiveness, no matter what challenges life brings us? I know that I didn’t when I married nearly half a century ago. When difficulties came for me as a young bride – as they must for each of us – I took them very personally. When storms arose, I imagined that someone or something, somewhere, must be at fault: me, my husband, my parents, the circumstances of my life and world: something. While the mind of course understood conceptually that life brings hardships, a deeper knowing hadn’t yet penetrated to my bones. I still unconsciously imagined that a life well lived would bring me only – or at least mostly – the “better, richer, healthy” sides of things. And I ruminated, judged and criticized – often myself – when things went “wrong.” Alas, this pattern continues to persist in many ways in my current life. While it has mercifully become much more subtle, I continue to lose my balance in so many inelegant ways when life presents its changing and unreliable conditions.
The Buddha was quite compassionate about this kind of suffering. One time a young mother approached him asking him to use his powers to heal her suffering by bringing her dead son back to life. He gently said yes, but told her that first he needed her to find a mustard seed from a household in which no one had died. It was such a small request; a mustard seed was such a tiny thing. And yet, as she went from door to door, there was no one who had escaped such suffering. Her heart and mind were opened as she received the full depth of this simple teaching and allowed herself to stop struggling against the experience of her painful loss.
My dear friend Eric is pondering quite a number of these painful and changing conditions as he navigates relentless health issues seemingly related to aging and its inevitable losses as his body’s youthful robustness begins to fade. “It’s humiliating,” he tells me. What a wise awareness. He begins to see – really see – the wisdom of the Buddha’s first noble truth as he comes to see that his body, his sense of “myself” and his very life are each, ultimately, not within his personal control. Eric is humbled as he gradually releases his illusions that it is otherwise. This is what the Buddha called a wise and noble truth. His invitation is for us to notice this, to allow ourselves to feel the “ouch” of it, not as a way to collapse into suffering, but as a doorway to curiosity and to discovering how to show up for life in a more wise and full way. The Buddha’s teachings point the way to releasing our reliance on what is unreliable and learning to relax and open to a vast something that is wider and deeper than our delusional clinging to what is, at best, temporary and limited.
For me, discovering this humility is a daily occurrence as I continually bump into painful external circumstances (think our American social and political struggles) or my own disruptive and highly conditioned internal mind states (think emotions like fear or rage or grief or despair.) I can watch the mind – and my ego – try to co-opt the Buddha’s teaching as it thinks “Now THIS should NOT be happening; if I/we were …somehow “spiritual” enough… this would not be arising.” I can find my awareness cluttered in rumination with these thoughts, most especially about my own internally arising mind states. The thing is, it IS happening. Both external AND internal arisings occur as a result of causes and conditions that are fundamentally out of personal control either because they are a part of a conditioning that occurred deep in the past or because one’s personal agency is so limited. It is not the arisings themselves, but, rather, how we relate to them that matters.
The invitation of our spiritual practice is to cultivate a resting in a kind and compassionate awareness. To see the agreeable and disagreeable circumstances – and even the troublesome mind states (and sometimes speech and behavior) that often accompany them – as not so special, really. The first noble truth says, simply, that there is suffering. For everyone born on this planet. The Buddha invites us to learn to simply know it without identification. Again, this is not to suggest a collapse into despair or inactivity or hatred of ourselves or others. Rather, the invitation of our spiritual practice is to know the noble aspect of this, the Buddha’s “First Noble Truth.” As we allow this truth to penetrate our awareness and our life, we are invited into the humility that Eric spoke of: to step out of concepts and directly into the current of real life. Life is like this. My life, yours – externally, internally – is like this. As the Buddha practiced in his own not-so-easy life, this coming into presence with challenge can open into deeper questions and, ultimately, into deeper realization. Where is freedom? What is needed, here, now. What is happiness, really? The fact that it’s humiliating is a good thing. It relentlessly reminds our personal ego that, even here, it is not in charge, that only spacious awareness, compassion and love will open to healing, not “me.”
And so just as the young married couple will discover, we each must find our way. Often our journey is not particularly elegant. Our spiritual practice invites us to release any sense of expectation or omnipotence and return over and over and over and over to a simple and frugal awareness of the messy, confusing, clumsy unfolding of our actual lives. The return is to awareness. Instead of becoming preoccupied with the content of our minds and trying to control life’s unfoldings, we cultivate the capacity to rest in the expanded capacity of awareness itself: “Life is like this now; the mind is like this; the body is like that.” With awareness, we can develop a new relationship with suffering as we release concepts and open to the mysterious arising of the deeper discernment which will guide what, if any, action is needed.
Expect nothing. Live frugally
Become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.
Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star;
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.
Discover the reason why
So tiny a human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally