The Three Characteristics: Suffering

Dukkha, “suffering” (also translated as “unsatisfactoriness”), is central to the Buddha’s teaching; in fact, he reputedly said, “I teach only suffering, and the end of suffering.” We’ve already encountered the role of suffering in the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha also appears as one of the three marks or characteristics of existence, permeating our lives and our surroundings through and through. There are things that please us, beguile us, hook us in; but none of these things satisfies.

When we’re young, we are full of plans for what we want to do with our lives. For most of us, these plans might include things like a career, marriage, children, a nice place to live, money to spend on necessities and a few luxuries, travel, hobbies, good food, nice clothes, and friends. Young people are encouraged by their families and teachers to look to the future and to consider their immediate difficulties to be transitory. I recall a conversation with my mother and one of her friends, during a time in my life when I didn’t fit in. “Some day,” they told me, “none of this will matter.” They were wrong: as I became an adult, the identity I formed in adolescence proved to be remarkably tenacious.

Enter the Buddha and his teachings regarding dukkha. One of my dharma teachers, Kenneth Folk, has said that “the Buddha is not your friend.” Warm, rosy predictions of a brilliant life in samsara, the turning wheel of birth and death, are entirely unfounded. Some adults in our own culture might agree with him once we hit our midlife crisis, when we realize that our fond hopes in youth have not materialized; or maybe they have, but without bringing the happiness we had expected. People may be tempted to jump ship, make a career change or look for a new partner, or buy a new house or car they can’t really afford. It might work out in the short run, but letdown is inevitable.

From time to time I imagine my life as if it had been different in some significant way. Maybe I never had the stage fright, and would be able to perform in music ensembles without stress. Maybe I had the kind of systematic focus that would allow me to work an eight-hour day, go home and relax, engage in an enjoyable hobby, and then go to sleep without difficulty. Maybe I wasn’t plagued by the grandiose illusion that I needed a big, fat career, and so would never be constantly comparing myself to others, or feeling like a failure just doing a good job day in and day out. In other words, I imagine a life without dukkha.

This Other Laurel is still a meditator, I’ve decided. She gets up early, makes herself a cup of tea, maybe takes a brisk walk around the block, and then settles down for some cushion time. After work she heads to the meditation center for a half hour sit with a group before heading home. She also volunteers in her community (because of course, she has the energy for it). She lives simply but comfortably; she is not tempted to spend more than she earns. Is she married? Sometimes I imagine her as single, but it seems like a lonely life to me, so I give her my husband, except he’s the Other Husband, also free of dukkha.

I have found a place for this paragon to live, and have even imagined her car and her wardrobe. The entire fantasy seems to be an equivalent of the dreams I had as a young person, except instead of dreaming of my imaginary future, I dream of an imaginary past. But although I can see the outer trappings of this person’s life, I am unable to make sense of what lies within. I can only try to imagine the absence of things like stress, depression, boredom, regret, negative judgments, and anxiety, all the while knowing that it is impossible.

Traveling allows us to see other places, and imagine what life might be like for us if we lived there. We read novels or watch movies and television shows in order to put ourselves in the place of the protagonist. Maybe we fall in love with one of the characters—the protagonist’s love interest, most likely—or imagine ourselves working in that person’s occupation. Such experiences help us to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world, to place ourselves in another person’s skin or context, which is an essential component of a moral education. Still, they can never be more than the product of our imaginings.

I have recently longed to move somewhere else, either to the city that is an hour’s drive from here or to a warmer climate, or maybe even out of the country altogether. These longings are accompanied by imaginings of Other Laurels living in Other Places with the Other Husband. Yet several years ago I looked out the kitchen window at the trees in my neighbor’s yard, and just realized, “This is it!” I laughed. It was so simple that I might not even have noticed. This is it, just this. This is all that is it. No other, no else. Just this.

The Big Wow

I think it was in a post by Brad Warner that I first heard about The Big Wow, or perhaps it was just on one of the Internet forums I frequent. The Big Wow is the overwhelming, transforming, hit-by-a-bolt-of-lightning mystical experience that changes you forever after. Everyone wants one of those, and once you get it, you spend a good part of the rest of your life wanting another, and another, and another. Yet it’s not the Big Wow that actually transforms you; it’s the plodding, day-to-day grind of sitting in meditation, doing walking meditation, practicing mindfulness during the day, questioning yourself, and getting your act together on a number of fronts (which is what the Noble Eightfold Path is all about). You may be able to draw on the memory of that experience to motivate yourself to keep plugging away, but in the long run it’s a mistake to make too much of it.

My Big Wow happened when I was 19. It was March of 1973, and I was returning to college from spring break. For some reason, my violin teacher had loaned me her car for the week, a reflection of how close we were during that period. I was traveling east on the Massachusetts turnpike, going a little over 70. There was a school bus in front of me, and we were approaching a slight hill. I got in the left lane to pass the bus, accelerated to about 80, and then without warning the school bus pulled in front of me (I can still see it in my mind’s eye). Being a young, inexperienced driver, I did the opposite of what I should have done: I slammed on the brakes, putting the car into a tailspin. I overcorrected with the steering, tried the brakes again, and then began to panic as I lost all control of the car.

What happened next is hard to describe. I remember skidding back and forth over the highway with a few other cars in view, and I remember a look of concern on someone’s face through a window of one of those cars. I recognized with a sickening horror that I might not be able to get out of it alive, when suddenly I surrendered and everything stopped. I felt myself gently pulled upward, out of my body, and I felt the various parts of my identity fall away as if I were dropping layers of clothing. I had a thought: so now this one is over, the one called Laurel, tall, blonde, a violinist—and so it ends, and now I’m returning. And then I was flooded by an indescribable love, and thought briefly with regret about my parents, how they would grieve. But consolation was immediate: soon they will know, in no time at all. And there was relaxation into that love which was my true home.

The next thing I recall was returning to myself in a daze, with the car on the left shoulder, facing in the opposite direction of the road. I had no idea how I got there. I eventually made my way to the right shoulder, where I was approached by a kind man who had stopped to help me. I slowly followed him and his family  to the nearest rest stop, and had a cup of chicken soup and some tea. “See,” he told his young daughter, “Laurel went through all that and now she’s sitting right here.” We parted and I drove the rest of the way into Boston.

It would have been lovely if, in the aftermath of that experience, I could have integrated its insights and lived my life forever free from the fear of death. Instead, I was left with another phobia about driving on highways, which has stayed with me to this day. It would also have been lovely if I had gained the kind of perspective that would have led to better mental health, or at least more maturity. No such luck. I did spend time and energy puzzling over it, in an attempt to put it in some kind of framework that would make it intelligible. At the time I was under the influence of my Christian Scientist music teacher, who urged me to put it out of my mind and not speak of it. Traffic accidents fall in the same category as illness, something that involves the unreal material world, which according to that doctrine we must transcend.

Later, when I became serious about Christianity, I viewed my experience as an encounter with the pure love of God. I read mystic writers with a sense of having something of my own to bring to the table, feeling a little smug about it, to be honest. I had fallen into the trap of seeing myself as special, an inevitable pitfall of the spiritual life. Later still, as a Buddhist, I saw it as one of the stages on the Path of Insight. In some respects it fits the profile of both traditions. I have come to prefer calling it The Big Wow, however, because that term is just irreverent enough to keep it in perspective. Such things can happen, and then other stuff happens, and it’s best not to wallow in it. The most such an experience can do is inspire you to keep practicing when you might otherwise skip it. It is ancillary, not central. That is all.


The Three Poisons: Aversion

I am going to admit one thing right here: I am an aversive type. Figuring out one’s type tends to resemble reading about symptoms of various diseases on the Internet, in that a person can easily imagine being afflicted with all of them. Still, when I face up to my most basic reactions to the world, the answer is clear.

Aversion, or hatred, is the flip side of desire. People have a strong response to something, but instead of wanting to draw it close, the impulse is to push it away. Aversive types walk into a room and find the one jarring note, the flaw that ruins everything around it, while greed types find themselves wanting everything they see.

Each of us flavors our aversion in our own way. When I was younger, I hated noise: the sounds of other people eating, chewing gum (especially bubble gum!), laughing loudly, snoring, just living their lives. I was the annoying neighbor who would pound on your door and demand you turn the music down, or track down a radio outdoors and tell the malefactor to turn it off. I was the silly person who would come outside in her bathrobe at 7:00 a.m. and tell the guy to quit mowing the grass while I was trying to sleep. You get the picture, I’m sure. On and on it went. Barking dogs, crying babies, children playing, weekend parties, the folks in the apartment downstairs making love, everything. I say I used to do this because for the most part I’ve stopped. Until that happened, though, my life was always just one intrusive sound away from being bloody hell.

Then there were the quarrels. For pretty much all of my life I’ve had at least one person in my immediate surroundings who would drive me crazy. Usually, but not always, these people have been women. I’ve journaled about them, talked endlessly about them, carried on interior monologues about them, dreamed about them, and ground my teeth when around them. Exposure would mean fresh fodder for rumination, although absence brought scant relief. The only way of getting rid of an obsession would be to find another one to drive it out.

Typically, the objects of my wrath were colleagues, peers, co-workers. Often they were rivals. In most cases, the adversary would either initiate or at least participate in the hostilities, out of jealousy or a desire to gain dominance. Seminars and department meetings were excellent venues for carrying on a passive aggressive campaign, finding just the right weapons to inflict pain without anyone else knowing what was going on. For an academic, this would mean introducing subtle notes of disagreement to discredit the other’s point, undermining without appearing to do so deliberately. At parties and social gatherings, hostilities might escalate through subtle flirting with another woman’s husband.

After hours, I engaged in countless phone calls and coffee breaks with allies, in which we’d rehash the person’s misdeeds, stupidity, bad hair, or whatever. I tried bringing these things up with my husband, but he was not a satisfying sounding board because he almost always would signal either boredom or disapproval, precipitating a fight between the two of us. All I can say is, Stephen, I’m sorry, and I am eternally grateful to you for sticking by me through all this tedious nonsense!

Aversion frequently drives people to embrace causes, which in turn leads to admiration from like-minded people. I have an award plaque from our local AAUP chapter for having advanced the cause of academic freedom. What that amounted to in reality was declaring all-out war on the college administration, standing up in faculty meetings, sending out all-faculty emails, participating in a grievance procedure, and ruminating day and night on the wrongs perpetuated by the evildoers. I had a tight-knit group around me keeping the fire alive, all of us assuring one another that we were fighting the good fight.

My actions actually helped both individuals and the college as a whole, but underneath all of it I knew that something was off. I was exhilarated, but I was also miserable, for I had no peace. It took me years to understand what it means for seemingly virtuous actions to come from a dark place. I am grateful beyond words to have learned this lesson.