Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dukkha: the unsatisfactoriness of experience

Let's look a bit more closely at the use of compassion. Sometimes when I introduce the idea of "bringing compassion to direct experience" I am met with expressions of perplexity. It can be difficult for a western psyche to think of direct experience as something we participate in, not just passively experience.

Previously I wrote that the senses, the portals of perception—eyes, ears, touch, smell, taste, consciousness—all interdependently and simultaneously co-arise with percepts. Each of these arising phenomenon have a concurrently arising feeling tone known in the Pali language as vedana. Buddhist psychology notes three main categories of vedana: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. The core teaching of the Buddha was the recognition that experience of, and identification with, each of the three feeling tones leads inevitably to dukkha, a sense of unsatisfactoriness (often translated as suffering.)

When we experience pleasure, our motivation is for its continuance. This craving for unending pleasure and the effort to hold onto the idea of it as lasting, can only lead to suffering when faced with the uncertainty and impermanence of all phenomenon: all things are of the nature to arise and pass away.

When we experience pain, our motivation is to move away from it or wish it to end. This craving for an end to unpleasantness creates strong aversion in the mind and the necessity for its immediate end. This too can only lead to suffering when we are unable to recognize the reality of uncertainty and impermanence, reminding us that all things naturally arise and pass away: they do not last forever.

When experience feels neutral, the mind can fall into states of lethargy, boredom, and disconnection. This too leads to the dukkha of confusion, ambivalence, restlessness and a craving for stimulation.

The results of dukkha are what psychotherapists work with all the time. From a Buddhist psychological perspective, healing occurs when we directly recognize the source of unsatisfactoriness: the identification with the ever-shifting mental landscape of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as the total sum of "I".

Through mindfulness, we can directly perceive the process of arising phenomenon, its co-arising feeling tone, and subsequent internal response, as the true source of suffering. This is where the active application of compassion to distressful experience is absolutely necessary for mindful acceptance and clear comprehension. Without compassion self-loathing, self-judgment, self-blame, and feelings of powerlessness or overwhelm will predominate. Compassionate acceptance is a tremendous helpmate in the effort to stay present with difficult internal and external experiences. Compassion allows the mind to stay with "what is" without reflexively needing to deny it, run away from it, or fix it.

Of course it is important to understand that compassion is in no way analogous to agreement or passivity. Compassionate acceptance of "what is" creates a spaciousness around distressful experiences, lessens reactivity, and enables our capacity to respond to "what is" with thoughtful caring and mental clarity.

Here is a simple compassion practice which can be applied when we are in the throes of distressful experience or practiced as a meditation to cultivate spontaneous compassionate responses to experience. As you repeat these phrases, actively open the heart, and direct the loving intention of these phrases to yourself.

May I have compassion for my pain and suffering.
May my pain and suffering be eased.
May I be at peace (with whatever arises).


ingratitude said...

Thank you for your brilliant words. I always look forward to not only the content but the vibration of the learnings you share. I especially needed to understand how to get to compassion as a tool to make peace when i am triggered by "a sense of unsatisfacoriness" in all the levels you describe. I appreciate the practice prayer in the moment that I will incorperate starting today. Peace be to you.

Lisa Dale Miller, MFT said...

May your compassion practice be of great value to you and all sentient beings!

Mikael said...

I enjoyed that. Thank you.