The Smile of Buddha meditating.
Meditation Lesson 8. Suffering
What do I mean by suffering, for the word is rarely used to describe the experience.
This word “suffering” directs attention to the actual experience, of what it is really like. Clearly seeing what its true nature is. Without a whole lot of mental noise. Without judgement, without justifications nor explanations, without criticisms nor blame. Not denying, nor concealing, nor suppressing.
For that will only aggravate the problem. A problem that is denied is a problem that is festering. Instead, we just face the bare truth of our experience. This is suffering. The bare, uncomplicated truth.
Suffering is most obvious and undeniable when it is at its worst. This is often at times of great trauma and crisis, when valuable things are at risk or are being destroyed, and they’re quite difficult to replace. These might be an important relationship or pursuit, or some possession that we really depend on. It includes physical trauma that could maim. The pain is intense, and in the crisis we are under great pressure and stress. Anger is to be expected, and we are likely to be in battle mode.
Such traumas are much aggravated when there is a long history of disrespect and abuse. Long simmering problems can come to a head, and explode.
Much of the disturbing pain that we experience can be from the wounding of such (hopefully) occasional great traumas. In this, the pain of the past trauma recurs in the present. If our consciousness is poor, then pain filled and pain driven thoughts will take off, and proliferate. Resentment, blame and criticism are common, or worries about what seems likely to go wrong. Or defeat and despair.
These pain filled and pain driven thoughts might have no real connection to major past traumas. Their origin is often obscure, but they still cause much suffering.
But the most insidious suffering is probably the mildest, for it is the most common. Those everyday times when we do not feel particularly at ease in the social situation and we feel reluctant to share much of real value, when tolerance and forgiveness are wearing thin, when appreciation is most reluctant and we feel most uninspired. When we feel awkward and lacking confidence, or just bored and enthusiasm is gone.
This is the suffering when we fail to live up to our full potential as human beings, and wander in bleak world bereft of real joy. Often called dissatisfaction.
A3. The Defilements.
Suffering can also be defined by a list of the defilements or kilesa. These are many and diverse , and can be conveniently grouped to aid understanding -
- Fear of attack or ridicule, fear of loss or failure, embarrassment, feeling uncomfortable or unsafe or awkward or vulnerable
- Friction, irritation, resentment, criticisms, back stabbing, hostility, suspicion, miserliness,
- Guilt, shame, feeling excluded or disempowered or useless or
- Feeling hurt or disappointed or betrayed or cheated
- Arrogance, manipulation, exploitation, blackmail, corruption
- Malice, destructiveness, hate, vindictiveness, revenge, violence,
- Grief, sense of loss, broken heart, yearning,
- Exhaustion, apathy, despair, loss of purpose, dullness, impotence, hopelessness, laziness, boredom
- Stupidity, ignorance, confusion, blind to the problem, delusion,
- Disrespect, dishonesty, surliness, no appreciation, untrustworthy,
- Indiscipline, indulgence, comfort eating, addictions and addictive behaviour,
- Anger, rage, wanting to fight and destroy the restrictions,
- Agitation, haste, can’t rest or sleep, compulsive thinking, impatience, feeling disturbed or frustrated.
- Lust, greed, jealousy
A 4. About Defilements.
Defilements or kilesa are numerous and varied, but they all have the same flavour – suffering.
Defilements will arise, sooner or later, whether we will or no, whether or not we deny, suppress and conceal their arising. That is their nature, “since beginning-less beginning”. As if they are sent to trouble us by some malignant and external force. This is called Māra in Buddhism.
In the traditional imagery, Māra sends his “soldiers” in armies to attack us. Another imagery is like this : we find ourselves “working for Māra”. In our daily tasks, we are actually feeding the defilements like impatience, frustration, resentment or whatever. We are expressing these defilements in our actions and speech.
Defilements perform an important function – to drag down or defile our consciousness and so block our access to the enlightened state. If they are allowed to continue to grow, they eventually will attempt to (re)gain control.
When they succeed, we become upset, and we become destructive to important and valuable things like health and healthy relationships.
Like any entity, defilements want to survive and thrive. They do so by seizing control of our will, and driving us to cause more suffering. Pain is the food and nourishment of defilements. They grow strong when suffering is active. (Eckhart Tolle calls this “the pain body” in “The Power of Now”.) In a sense, they can have a will of their own.
For this reason, it is helpful to stop viewing them as merely “bad feelings” or “negative thoughts and emotions”.
When we are overcome by a real problem, that simply will not go away, the defilements have really got their claws into us. They will simply not let go until we find a solution. The more we think about the problem, the worse it becomes.
This is the important function of hurt filled thoughts. Their role is to ... keep ... the suffering ... going.
When we are really under the influence of defilements, they distort our perception and we can no longer steer ourselves thru life’s hazards with any roadworthy-ness. Everything looks bad. The historical Buddha described it as “Everything is suffering”.
We can have great difficulty in remembering the good times with any real honesty. It seems that this state of misery is ongoing. It can even seem permanent.
We actually believe in all the hurtful thoughts that are going thru our head. We identify with them, and energise them.
And there is no objectivity to the suffering, we don’t even have the honesty to admit to ourselves that suffering has indeed arisen and taken control.
This is suffering at its worst. At such times, the best we can do is self restraint and damage control, to minimise the inevitable harm that will occur when we are severely upset.
A 4. Defilements as dukkha anicca and anatta.
Clearly we need to do something to (try to) prevent suffering getting out of hand to this extent. So Buddhism offers an important theme of ti-lakkhana or “three characteristics” that we can apply to the defilements. In short, defilements are described as –
- suffering or dukkha
- impermanent or aniccha, and
- not really me nor mine or anatta.
This theme is offered as something to reflect on. It involves being perfectly honest about defilements, that they are suffering, and that no explanations nor justifications are needed about them. If we stop fuelling them, then they will soon dissolve and cease to trouble us. And as they dissolve and pass away, then we can reflect : “Are they really me? Is my true nature to be defiled?”
But this is easier said than done. We need some effective techniques to help us realise the ti-lakkhana. Something we can practice when the pain is far milder, when it is still (partly) manageable. When there is no real risk of the serious damage caused by real crisis and trauma.
This leads us to the topic of : Sati or “mindfulness," published under the Introduction Chapter of Spiritual Practice, Section A 5.