“Through practice I’ve come to see that the deepest source of my misery is not wanting things to be the way they are. Not wanting myself to be the way I am. Not wanting the world to be the way it is. Not wanting others to be the way they are. Whenever I am suffering, I find this war with reality to be at the heart of the problem.” ~ Stephen Cope
Last week really sucked.
A person I love had a life-threatening surgery, which left me in a state of dukkha.
What is dukkha? Kripalu psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and writer Stephen Cope defines the Sanskrit word as a “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.” In his book Wisdom of Yoga he describes dukkha as a deep aversion of the present moment—which pretty much sums up my reaction to the surgery, as well as the feelings it stirred about aging in general.
While experiencing this “dukkha state,” I ran into two people who also had disconcerting confrontations with health issues and aging: one because of a cancer diagnosis and the other because of the death of a close colleague. Both expressed surprise at being of an age where this could happen to them—thinking beforehand that this only happened to old people.
The experience made them re-evaluate what they were doing with their lives: Was it really important to work hard only to completely miss retirement because of health-related issues? “What is the point?” one of them said. They too had been “dukkha-fied.”
Dukkha can be caused by almost any challenging event, including separation from a loved one, being with people we dislike, wanting what we cannot have, as well as the challenges discussed above.
And there is no way to escape from dukkha—it is a part of life. So, I thought it might be helpful to share the practices that carried me through my recent, pervasive unsatisfactoriness:
Acknowledge your feelings and accept what is happening. Realize that life is full of suffering and accept that there is no way to avoid it. Then get on with the business of living. This was simply summed up by Winston Churchill when he said, “When you’re going through hell—keep going.”
Reach out to others. While taking care of my recovering loved one, I continued to teach and take yoga classes. Surrounding myself with a community of caring supportive yogis, as well as experiencing the joint, muscle, and anxiety-reducing benefits of yoga—has really helped me during this time.
Be mindful and don’t take any moment for granted. After the surgery, I was drawn to local gardening stores and bought perennials to fill my flower beds. Being outside and watching the plants flower and grow was the highlight of my days.
Ground yourself with structure. With all the changes around me, I have re-adopted my favorite anxiety coping mechanism: a self-care routine which includes being with those you love. For example, I still get up each morning to walk my doggies.
Follow the Buddha saying, “Help others. If you can’t help others, do no harm.” It is easy to get overwhelmed with all that we are experiencing that we lose ourselves. This week I found myself screaming at someone who cut me off at an intersection (thank goodness, they couldn’t hear me). I stopped for a moment and noticed I was acting in a way that was against everything I believe in. I did a quick breathing practice and re-committed to the Buddhist guidance above. It really helped me stay centered through the rest of the week.
Meditate. Find a meditation or other mind-quieting practice that helps you. I have gravitated toward meditating on the mantra “So Hum.” So Hum means, “I am that,” which can be interpreted to mean I am one with the Universe—as I am meant to be. The idea of being one with the Universe, and where and how I am supposed to be, makes me feel safe, protected, and grounded with unconditional support.
Be creative. Difficult situations are a great source of creativity. For example, Stephen Spielberg wrote the screenplay for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to process his parents’ divorce. How might your creative pursuits help you cope with your feelings (and maybe produce a blockbuster movie)?
Commit to worthy people. It is important to surround yourself with people you genuinely care about and love—and that they return that love and affection to you. Life can be difficult and exhausting, even within healthy, loving relationships. So, make sure who you love is worthy of every one of your days on this Earth.
Hopefully, these practices will be of assistance when you next encounter a dukkha state of mind.
And one last thing—remember that no matter the crisis—it is our attitude and perception of it that matters. We are free to define our responses to what happens. That freedom is the strength that allows us to thrive when we are “dukkha-fied.”
How might you use the practices above to thrive in the face of pervasively unsatisfactory events (dukkha)?
“Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver (The Summer Day)
Author: Donna Yates Kling
Image: Megan Leetz/Flickr
Editor: Sara Kärpänen