I have had a hard week. Not a ‘my cat died’ week, a ‘dealing with a serious illness’ week or a ‘falling apart’ week. Still, I have suffered. I have felt the burden of my responsibilities to the people and projects I am in relationship with. I have been crushed under the weight of a too-full schedule, despite decades of practising ‘doing less’. I have felt melancholy about both the new arthritis in the finger joint I rest my pen against, and global-scale tragedies as they continue to unfold and worsen.
I could go on. I could tell you about the self-doubt which has swirled around me like poisonous gas. The nagging guilt that has pricked at the back of my eyes. I trust, though, that you know what a hard week feels like. Your tough times will look different to mine, with your different external circumstances and your different internal landscape, but I think that we have something in common.
What we have in common is dukkha. This is where the Buddha began, when he set out his very first teachings after becoming enlightened. The Four Noble Truths. On days like today, when suffering is sludging my veins, I love that he started here. It makes me feel like I can trust him. That he knew how it was to be alive.
What is dukkha?
There are many different translations for dukkha – suffering, irritation, pain, unhappiness. What the Buddha tells us is that (this is the bad news) dukkha is inevitable. We cannot live without irritation – without encountering sickness, old age and death. Good things slip away from us, we try to pull them towards us and we fail, and that sucks. Bad things encroach on us or invade us, and we try to push them away and we fail, and that sucks too. Even trying to ignore our difficulties only works for so long.
What can we do? I am going to restate the Buddha’s teaching with gentleness mixed in, and I hope the he would approve. From what I read about him, he seemed like he personified gentleness, embodied it. He was sharp when he needed to, but he was also patient, clear, grounded and loving. So – difficult things happen – we have a bad week. We have a reaction to those difficult things – we feel sad, frustrated, and despairing. We approach this reaction we have with a firm gentleness, and we transform or funnel this energy into wholesome actions. The result – ta-da! – the Eightfold Path of right view, right speech, right livelihood and all the rest. A good and noble life, lived alongside the reality of ongoing suffering.
The context to this teaching
A part of me is rebelling from this teaching, even as I type it. This part of me is saying, ‘it’s too hard to do that. I’m already under enough pressure to be the perfect human being – now you want me to transform all my suffering into good deeds on top of that? You’re crazy!’. I’m glad to hear from this part of me, because it reminds me of the vital context of this teaching. The Buddha accepts and loves us, whether we are able to ‘do the right thing’ or not. We are being offered a way out of our suffering, and the Buddha knows that it will make us happy, but it’s up to us whether we take it or not.
I want to just zoom in for a moment on meeting our reaction to suffering with a firm gentleness. What might that look like for me today? First I feel a wave of compassion for myself. I can see that I’ve been pushing myself too hard again, and expecting too much of myself – old patterns. I can feel a wry humour at how embedded these traits are in me – they have changed, and maybe they’ll change some more over time, but maybe they won’t and I’ll be stuck with them. It feels like a relief to admit this. It also means that there’s even more reason to be gentle and kind with myself.
What I need right now is to forgive myself for my workaholism, and to feel forgiven by the Buddha. I need to remind myself of the spaces in my schedule at the weekend and next week. I can remember how it is to be a human being, suffering, and open my heart a little to meet others who are suffering with the same compassion and forgiveness. As I offer gentleness to myself, or allow the Buddha to offer it to me, I can feel everything starting to soften. Maybe it’s not so bad to be alive.
Our tendency is often to meet our failings or our suffering with harshness – in an attempt at whipping ourselves into shape, or to try and repress the emotional burdens that threaten to overwhelm us. This is a totally understandable strategy. Also, in my experience, this only works for so long – something has to give. When something gives, then we have an opportunity to connect in to gentleness. Gentleness is always available – it wells up from deep inside us, and it is always just outside us, offering us a hand. There will always be suffering – it will continue to come and go, sometimes slipping out of sight and sometimes enveloping me completely. There will always be gentleness too – the ground underneath us, the magical substance that penetrates everything. I hope you can lean into it, as I am doing right now.