By James P. Howard, II
In the movie Sneakers, there is a scene near the climax where Cosmo, played by Ben Kingsley, encounters Bishop, played by Robert Redford.
Cosmo starts to enter Bishop’s aliases into a database. As Bishop is wanted, he might now be found. Bishop pleads, “Don’t do it, Cos…”
Cosmo asks “Pain?” Bishop nods, and Cosmo replies, “Try prison,” himself having escaped from prison with the help of a criminal syndicate. The film’s opening shows the characters together hacking into banks and redistributing money to those they deemed worthy causes. Cosmo is arrested; Bishop gets away.
Here we see two very different conceptual approaches to pain. Bishop may have gotten away, but he has built a life as a respectable businessman since then. Cosmo went to prison, got out under mysterious circumstances, and had gone back to crime. Both had experienced suffering, as sankhara dukkha, and they shared the experience in only seven words between them.
Sankhara dukkha is often translated as the sense of “unsatisfactory” feeling, but it goes deeper.
Sankhara dukkha is unsatisfactory feeling with the conditioned experience, but this philosophical statement is a long way from clear. Our existence, moment to moment, is based on how we existed in the previous moment, but also the state of all other entities. If I want to sit down and drink tea, I can if I have made some. I cannot if there is no tea to drink. My existence at this moment is predicated upon all prior moments.
Sankhara dukkha, in a sense, is the unsatisfactory feeling of the current moment and how we got here.
In the case of Cosmo, it is clear from that exchange that he has spent substantial time contemplating his pain. He nursed his pain, giving it life. He and his suffering are now one with each other. Pain and self are now indistinguishable in Cosmo; he is deeply unsatisfied with the place he is and how he got there. That is why he is ready to take revenge on his old friend.
Bishop has run from his pain, having abandoned his old life with no notice. He lives in fear of his pain, and the risks associated with it. He has avoided prison for years but at the cost of his own self, which is why he wants to avoid association with his old name. While he is deeply unsatisfied with the place he is and how he got there, if caught now, the self he sacrificed will no longer have been worth the trade.
What we learn from this story is that life becomes more difficult not only when ignoring the pain, but also by embracing it.
In fact, we see both stories presented again and again across media. Deliberate contemplation must be taken in moderation. At the risk of sounding like a guided meditation, the objective here is not to live in pain but acknowledge its existence. This acknowledgment is the core of modern mindfulness practice, but for good reason. The acknowledgment of sankhara dukkha is the first step on the pathway to freedom from it. We must first accept that dukkha exists.
In an article in Contemporary Buddhism, Teasdale and Chaskalson point out there are three ways to change dukkha:
The first is to eliminate the source of the pain.
The second is to change how we think about the pain.
The third is to change our view of the pain.
Each of these is difficult and, for sankhara dukkha, the first may not even be possible. However, this is what the Buddha spoke of in the Four Nobel Truths. We have seen both that suffering exists and is caused by craving.
For Bishop and Cosmo, the root is craving—they are craving what was. They are craving what might have been. Both are long lost to them. They are craving what might still be. Their actions now will condition the emergence of what moments come.
Their path out is working through the pain, in the modern parlance. They have each avoided the dukkha in them. In doing so, they have never come to terms with it is existence, and each suffers for this. Their respective sufferings stem from a singular moment, but live on in each a different way, coming to a head in seven words.
Each could have taken a different path and one that relieved the suffering through a closer examination of what each felt. But instead, their path out is to jointly face that suffering and reconcile with it and each other.
James P. Howard, II, is a mathematician in Columbia, Maryland. Feel free to visit his website at https://jameshoward.us
Editor: Dana Gornall