When we experience dukkha, our first instinct is to move our attention away and distract ourselves. We have billion-dollar industries based on entertainment and consumption keeping us distracted from this core truth of life. But are we more content? Conversely, we can become addicted to pain, finding ourselves repeatedly gravitating toward worry, old wounds, and resentments. We can even wallow in suffering, our own and others’. Some people become sufferers, great martyrs thinking “no one suffers as much as me—let me just tell you about it.” We all have complex reactions to this everyday experience of unsatisfactoriness.
The meaning of dukkha that conveys this process is derived from the breakdown of the word into du, which means “apart from” and kha—or akash—which means “space.” This gives the sense of being apart from the spacious, the perfect, and the complete. In this way dukkha conveys the deepest anguish and dilemma of the self, which is its state of separation from the whole.
Dukkha is different from pain. Buddhist thought makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is part of our human experience. For example, getting sick is painful, as is grief at the loss of a loved one; this is natural and appropriate. However, we then tend to generate a whole extra layer of suffering, through our difficulty in accepting how things are. When we resist the natural flow of life we create suffering, stress, and struggle. When we assume ownership and permanence in a world that is constantly changing, we become burdened.
To have a conscious relationship to suffering is different than having an unconscious one. We will all experience pain, simply due to our incarnation into form. It is part of being human. We experience bodily pains, ill health, fatigue, hunger, thirst, and as we get older we will feel the pains of aging. That’s just the way it is. Freedom from dukkha doesn’t mean eternal youth, or that we are never going to have a headache, never going to feel irritation, or loss, or get betrayed and hurt by others. Freedom from dukkha is not abdication from the human race, but a deeper acceptance of how we are, an acceptance that brings both equanimity, and also a clearer response.
Awakening quickens through wise contemplation of suffering. Instead of blindly reacting to the experience of dukkha, shifting around it or blaming someone else for it, we apprehend it directly, and more quickly. A conditioning factor for this process is what the Buddha called nibbida, which means “disenchantment.” We finally come to a place in ourselves when we know another experience isn’t going to alleviate our basic sense of discontent—the next holiday, the next acquisition, or the next exciting distraction. In our contemporary society, when we feel disenchanted it is seen as a problem. We are encouraged to go shopping, take medication, or find some other escape. We think, “If I sit on the beach today I’ll be much happier than staying here.” So we go to the beach. We’re happy for a few minutes and then think, “If I just had a nice coffee, I’d feel better.” Or we think, “It’s too hot here. If I go up into the mountains where it’s cooler, I’d be happy.” This seeking drives us on and on. It’s a good sign when we begin to be suspicious of endless pursuit; it means we’re not buying into it so much. Periods of retreat bring us into direct confrontation with what we’ve been trying desperately to avoid—this basic feeling of dissatisfaction…
From Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism by Kittisaro and Thanissara