By Duane Toops
For most of my life I’ve felt shit on. That’s not the most uplifting opening line, I know.
For one reason or another I’ve always felt a little looked down on, like I was never quite good enough, like I never quite measured up, like I just didn’t belong anywhere, like I’m not who or what I’m supposed to be. I’ve felt like, well, fine, I’ll say it: like a loser.
I know, I know, poor me. To some extent I still kind of feel that way. It’s not always at the forefront of my experience but, I can constantly feel it at the periphery of my consciousness. Here I am at the brink of 35 and I’m still bitching about my insecurities like I’m in junior high.
If you’re still reading this, chances are at some point you’ve probably felt that way, maybe you still do.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve found my way into Buddhism and meditation practice. I’m still fairly new at both but, I find myself plunging ever more deeply into both the former and the latter. Something about it feels like home. It makes sense to me, or perhaps better said, it makes sense of me, and of the world around me.
On one hand, given my inclination towards melancholia, a philosophy that begins with the announcement that life is “suffering”, certainly strikes a chord. Yet, this Dukkha, this “suffering” in the First of the Four Noble Truths, explains so much more than the seemingly juvenile suffering of self-consciousness I described above.
Not only does Buddhism openly acknowledge the suffering inherent in existence itself, but it also makes it a point to systematically demonstrate the cause of suffering, while simultaneously highlighting that there is an end of suffering, and there is a path that leads to the end of suffering. What’s interesting and insightful is this Buddhist path that leads to the end of suffering does not come about via a submissive appeal to the salvific interventions of some transcendent other but, comes from efforts made by charting a course directly through the very center of suffering itself; by coming to experientially know suffering more fully, by coming to understand the full existential and phenomenological weight of suffering, by getting one’s hands dirty with the work of dissecting suffering.
That’s precisely what Meditation does.
There is a plethora of Buddhist teachers, scholars, and practitioners who are far more knowledgeable and far more enlightened than I who have more thoroughly and more conducively outlined the subtle complexities of Dukkha. But, for the next few minutes you’re stuck with me, so here goes.
First off, suffering, or Dukkha, isn’t simply suffering, at least not how most of us think of it.
Dukkha is also thirst, craving, dissatisfaction, and desire. It is the ravenous cravings ever desirously attached to what we crave, desire, and thirst for, so much so that this thirst, craving, and desire can never be sated, and we are left constantly dissatisfied.
There are three kinds of suffering, three kinds of Dukkha: ordinary suffering, which comes from everyday life, birth death, old age, disappointment, grief, physical pain, etc.; suffering produced by change, the impermanence of everything, of all things. Nothing lasts forever. Everything changes. All good things come to an end. Insert any other pithy cliche you can think of that relates here. Then, there is the suffering of conditioned states or all-pervasive suffering. This is imbuing everything, permeating to such an extent it is not always apparent or easily seen, it often goes unrecognized.
The Buddha said, “The suffering of being conditioned is not apparent when it arises, remains or ceases, but it is still the cause of suffering.” Like a subterranean river, it is a discontent and dissatisfaction found flowing deep below the surface of all that is; all omnipresent suffering forms the distorted lens through which we view ourselves, others, and the world as a whole. It is intimately tied to our concepts and beliefs about ourselves, the world, and life in general—our concepts and beliefs about who and what we are, beliefs about the way the world works, and beliefs about the way life is.
More specifically, all ubiquitous suffering is found in our concepts and beliefs about who and what we think we should be, how we think the world should be, and how we think life should be.
We are constantly reaching, grabbing, grasping, and clinging to all that we believe will bring us some form of lasting satisfaction. Reaching for who we think we are. Grasping at what we think we should be. Grabbing at whatever we think will aid us in becoming who or what we think we should be, desperately clinging to our attachment, to our expectations of a particular outcome. We are constantly succumbing to the aching sense of failure or gnawing suspicion of failure. We are constantly found lacking and wanting, discontent and dissatisfied. In many ways, this is our default mode. If it’s not yours, lucky you. It certainly seems to be mine.
So what’s the good news? Let’s take the scenic route. You’ve come along for the ride this far. You might as well enjoy the rest of the trip. In the Sallatha Sutta we learn of what’s called the second arrow. The Buddha states the following:
When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.
Because of all-pervasive suffering, we are invariably struck by this second arrow; an additional layer of suffering. We are initially struck by the first arrow when we experience pain, sickness, loss, a difficult situation, something going wrong, something not going according to plan, etc., but, then, we strike ourselves with the second arrow. We begin to complain and lament about the pain we experience with the first arrow. The second arrow is our reactivity to the first arrow. It’s when we get angry and/or depressed about the first arrow—the difficulty, the loss, the pain. We bemoan the fact that things aren’t the way we think they should be, when we begin to judge ourselves harshly and criticize vehemently. We, quite literally, shoot ourselves in the foot, with not one but two arrows (see what I did there, pretty good right?).
Meditation is what has helped me to the see the difference.
Meditation is what has allowed me to slow down enough, and to be attentive enough to recognize the space between the two arrows. Recognizing the gap between the first and second arrow gives one an almost magical advantage in dodging the second arrow. Or, better yet, meditation is what gives us the ability to stop the second arrow in mid-flight.
Sometimes I still feel like the middle school loser but, if I’m honest I don’t get caught up in it as often or as deeply. Perhaps, the second arrow doesn’t hit its target as often, or perhaps, it doesn’t sting as much. Meditation is unlikely to ever transform me into a unicorn and rainbows kind of dude. Yet, it has helped me to see that although pain is inevitable, and although suffering is unavoidable, discontentment and dissatisfaction? Those are optional. One pain is enough.
Duane Toops is a husband, a father, a fledgling Buddhist, a struggling meditator, and a self-proclaimed writer, thinker, and content creator. You can read his writing on his blog and watch his videos on YouTube.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
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