“Losing the Game of Life” via Frank Berliner, from the Autumn 2005 issue.
The second mark of existence is suffering. The Sanskrit word for suffering is dukha. This word has been translated in various ways—as pain, dissatisfaction, struggle, existential hassle and inconvenience, even as fundamental anxiety. This wide range of definitions is actually quite accurate and helpful, because it points our attention toward the many ways in which we experience dukha. In fact, the Buddha taught that it occurs on three distinct but interconnected levels. So this teaching is sometimes called The Three Kinds of Suffering.
First there is basic, all-pervading suffering, which arises from our choiceless experience of impermanence. This suffering has four aspects: birth, sickness, old age and death. You may recall that when Siddhartha, the future Buddha, escaped his father’s palace, he witnessed suffering for the first time: a sick man by the road, an old man walking painfully along and a corpse being carried to the cremation ground on the riverbank.
These vivid images re-appeared when he taught the first level of dukha.
Here, the most relevant definition of dukha is that of existential hassle or inconvenience. It is the hassle inherent in how impermanence impacts each of us. It is the basic limitation of the condition of being born into a human body. Although it may unfold on different timetables and with different degrees of apparent grace or awkwardness, it unfolds in the same fundamental way for all of us. And it begins at birth, which is a shift from our conventional way of viewing birth as cause for celebration. The implication here is that birth is a cause for celebration from the point of view of the community as a whole, the family or the clan—because it expresses the sense of continuity of life. But for each individual, birth is an expression of separation, and the beginning of a journey that must be made alone. Indeed, the moment when a baby emerges from the warmth of the womb—after having been merged and meshed so intimately with the mother—the moment the umbilical cord is cut can be a shocking moment of confused awakening. The cord that has connected us to a life support system that endlessly feeds and sustains us, though the process of nurturing continues if we are lucky enough to be born into a nurturing situation, still the basic separation has already occurred.
The rest of our life journey only reinforces this truth. It is interesting to reflect that in our culture, when people are old and sick and no longer able to sustain their physical lives by themselves, their families often
decide to put them on life support, mimicking the mother’s all-encompassing support for her child in the period before birth- with an artificial womb of metal machinery, plastic tubes and chemical fluids.
Death here refers not just to the inevitable, final physical cessation of our life, but it is also the way we experience impermanence from moment to moment. When we really pay attention, we notice that we cannot really hold onto anything in our experience because it keeps shifting. It is fundamentally fickle and uncertain, despite a more general background of predictability, repetition, routine and habit that characterizes the context in which our lives are lived.
This dance of birth and death on the moment-to-moment level is continuous—the reality of working with a constant sense of challenge presented by new situations, the reality of not being able to hold on to old situations. This energy keeps us off balance. In fact, one of the definitions of old age is that we are less and less able to maintain our balance in the midst of this fickleness and uncertainty. The momentum of change is too confusing and threatening, and we take refuge in predictable routines, nostalgic memories or inflexible opinions. And from this point of view, sickness occurs when the stress of riding this energy overwhelms us, and we get off the relentless merry-go-round for awhile.
And of course the truth of sickness gives us little reminders all the time—even when we catch a mild cold—that our life is not an invulnerable fortress that we can maintain indefinitely against all internal and external threats. And the truth of old age—whether we experience it ourselves or see it in someone whom
we remember as vital and strong—is poignant and devastating. As one elderly friend said to me quite recently, “It’s just one physical insult after another.”
The second suffering is called the pain of alternation. The Buddha taught that this suffering happens to us in three ways: first, as the pain of not getting what we want in life; second, as the pain of losing what we have and were attached to (also referred to as getting what we don’t want); and finally, the pain of getting what we want, and then later not wanting it anymore. Try and think of an example of each of these, either personal or in the world around us. Perhaps we don’t get the position we wanted so badly—not only that, but someone we know gets it. We lose our job and can no longer make our house payments and have to sell it; the stock market crashes and wipes out our retirement nest-egg. Our lover rejects us just when we thought everything was going so well. Or we fall out of love, and telling the truth to our partner is so painful that we engage in deception, or else we are brave enough to tell the truth, and then experience the empty-heartedness of being alone again, but older (and none the wiser for it!). Or we finally get that new house, car or outfit we’ve been wanting, then get bored with it and begin to take it for granted.
So this is part of our psychological response to the underlying fickleness of the first level of suffering. In the face of the unfolding of the impermanence on that direct, visceral level, we grasp at its highlights, so to speak. We look for ways of perching comfortably and happily in the midst of this flow, and occasionally we succeed…for awhile. But this process too is subject to impermanence; whether because of the fickleness of external circumstances which we cannot control, or the fickleness of our longing and dissatisfaction.
I believe it was a French philosopher who said, memorably, “Life is nothing but our constant desire to live and our constant dissatisfaction with living.” So this dance of desire and dissatisfaction is at the root of the pain of alternation. Our psychology is such that we always hope that our recurrent and unceasing desire can be satisfied by some object outside of us. But this hope for satisfaction contains the seeds of its own frustration. This search for fulfillment in something external to us-as we’ve discussed in previous articles- is the underlying psychology of materialism. In clinging to life, we are grasping at what by its nature will eventually slip through our fingers or simply exhaust its ability to satisfy us.
The accumulated impact of the first two levels of suffering ultimately leads to a third, which the Buddha called the pain of pain itself. Our struggle with the suffering of the first two levels inevitably makes the whole thing more painful still. It is here that the sense of dukha being underlying anxiety comes into
play. In our struggle to relate to the ongoing experience of hassle, longing and dissatisfaction, we experience a sense of disappointment and anxiety. In the face of all the pain we have dealt with before this, we begin to panic. We begin to feel that we are losing the game of life.
One thinks of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” It is a existential panic, a vague but growing realization that there seems to be no way out of this cycle and that we are running out of time. We defend against this growing sense of disillusionment and panic by becoming careful, cynical, armored and less spontaneous. We retreat into a posture of denial. And this defensiveness, this gradually increasing tightness in our being and the insensitivity and numbness that accompany it, this taking our suffering and ourselves seriously—this attitude only accelerates our suffering. It is a vicious circle.
So this is the predicament that the Buddha saw as universal for human beings. Confronted with the truth of impermanence, we proceed through our increasingly complex and defensive strategies to manipulate, avoid, or outwit it—all of which, doomed to failure, actually intensify our experience of suffering. The more cleverly and energetically we try to find a way out, the worse things get.
When life is seen in this way, it is stark—and at first undeniably depressing. This teaching has given Buddhism an historical reputation among Western scholars for being gloomy. But it is depressing only from the wishful, self-deceiving perspective of ego. This realization can actually be an invaluable wake-up call for us. It might prod us to have curiosity about how we came to be caught in such a seemingly airtight trap. From the point of view of the warrior—a Buddha-in-progress, if you will—this view of life is the good news. It is an inspiration to look further, to find out more. This is what the Buddha did. And we could do the same.
The First Noble Truth, that of The Truth of Suffering, was the Buddha’s first teaching after his awakening. It is significant to appreciate that Buddha taught about suffering in these two ways: as a mark of existence, and as a Noble Truth. The first was clinical; the second, inspirational.
He called it a “noble” truth. He didn’t call it the first lousy truth, or trivial truth, or insulting truth, or depressing truth. Why is this? Because he wanted to communicate that if we were willing to go into the suffering with enough openness, enough bravery, honesty and curiosity— then the suffering had tremendous richness, and a tremendous amount to teach us about how to live as genuine human beings. He was saying that when we finally stop evading, ignoring, denying, sugar-coating this truth, stop entertaining ourselves continually in order to pretend it isn’t there—when we finally stop, look directly at it, take it completely to heart, and recognize that it applies not only to us but to all others who share this world with us—then the recognition of suffering could lead us to begin to actually enjoy our lives, to what the Buddha termed liberation, to a deeper compassion for our friends, those we don’t know well and those we actively dislike. For when we drop the defenses against the truth of impermanence and the concepts that separate us from others, from life altogether, our world opens up.
It is in the recognition of shared suffering that we might glimpse the possibility that all people are our kin, not just those near and dear to us. So suffering becomes a gateway to a larger experience of our life.
Frank Berliner, a close student of meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, teaches Buddhist psychology and meditation at Naropa University. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, Nan Kenney.