contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Dukkha

LIVING WITH EASE

The first unit of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – left me with some contemplative exercises. The first one began by asking me to identify the difference between being completely happy and what I experience now. What makes the difference? What stops me from being completely happy – or, to put it another traditional way, ‘living with ease’?

I had to ponder that one, because I’ve reached a generally happy time in my life, though of course there are ups and downs. What was the deepest and most authentic answer to these questions? I find a pervasive background anxiety (my brand of dukkha). At this stage of my life it manifests as a felt sense of vulnerability in the world and of my capacity to navigate it as I age. This is turn is linked to an anticipation of increased personal frailty whilst witnessing a collective mismanagement of our world in the Anthropocene Age.

I believe that this anxiety is natural, largely realistic, and offers valuable information about me and my environment. I would not want to swat it with, say, a simple injunction to live in the present moment. It is true that, subjectively, I live in a flowing present and have never been out of it. Past and future do not exist. But memory and anticipation exist, as human skills, and are part of my flowing present. Anticipation gives me a limited power of foresight and prediction. It enables an awareness of actions and consequences. So, for me, imagining personal frailty and social stress in the future has a value. A measure of energetic arousal, which I might label ‘anxiety,’ is also not in itself a problem: it can be helpfully motivating.

But I do see problems, two of them. The first is identification with the anxiety, so that it becomes ‘me’, rather than the affective aspect of a message, whose cognitive aspect is a scanning for threats with my inherited ability to anticipate them. The second is feeling bad about the anxiety and wanting it to go away. If I am identified with the anxiety as well as feeling bad about it, I can end up feeling bad about myself. At worst, I can fall into a narrative of not coping, when in fact the initial experience may contain seeds of good coping.

My solution to the dukkha dimension here has two aspects. The first is disidentification. I am not my anxiety, which will come and go and change its taste and texture on the way. The second is acceptance. I welcome this anxiety into the field of experience. It has a place at my hearth. I don’t let go of my anxiety so much as my rejection of it – for it comes bearing gifts. This, I think, is what I mean by ‘living with ease’. I have always liked this phrase, because it has a sense of relaxing into enjoyment, an enjoyment which may hold anxiety itself within a larger loving awareness. Ultimately, it’s the larger loving awareness that makes the difference.

WOODEN TIGER, ENNOBLING TASKS

“A ferocious wooden tiger stands before the door you wish to enter, but he harms no-one”. According to the Kuan Yin Oracle (1), now is the time to put things to the proof, submit to the ordeal and separate the wheat from the chaff. It is the time of the seed and the pearl, when I am tasked to find “the hidden treasure behind the play of illusions”. The Oracle also suggests to me that it won’t be too hard to do this, because “basically, you are a realist”.

I started an online course yesterday, concerned with a fresh look at Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, reframed as four ennobling tasks. This course is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/  –  for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.

As part of its mission, “Bodhi College wants to recover core insights of early Buddhist teachings, so as to develop fresh ways of understanding the Dharma today. It seeks to provide a contemplative education that inspires students to realize the values of the Dharma in the context of this secular age and culture”.

Classically, the Four Nobles truths are framed as statements about suffering (dukkha) and what to do about it. Some people don’t like ‘suffering’ as the English translation and prefer to talk about stress, ‘the painful’, that which is hard to bear, unsatisfactoriness. My sense is that dukkha covers the range. One of the course tutors, Christina Feldman, calls it “the arguments we have with all that is unarguable” – things like illness, ageing and death, as the Buddha pointed out right at the beginning.

Taught as a doctrine, the Four Noble Truths assert:

  1. The existence of suffering as an inescapable part of life
  2. The origin of suffering in four forms of attachment: to sensory pleasures; to our opinions and views; to rites and rituals at the expense of genuine spiritual experience; to our belief that we exist as a solid, permanent self
  3. The end of suffering, through taming the forces or greed, hatred and delusion either temporarily or (ideally) permanently
  4. The path to end suffering, this being the eightfold path of right (or skillful) understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

The suggested problem with this presentation is that it asks people to take a position on a set of propositions – agree, disagree, partly agree/disagree, don’t know. The invitation of the course is to look at this in another way, which the tutors say may be truer to the earliest Buddhist teaching. The suggestion here is that Buddhism needed such metaphysical formulae to become a respectable Indian religion of the day, whereas the Buddha himself may have been something of a sceptic, immersed in creative conversations with inquirers and avoiding dogma as far as possible. However, the real issue is about what kind of Buddhism people want to develop today.

Here, the proponents of my online course are very clear. The four proposed tasks can be summed up in the slogan: understand, realise, give up, develop. So far, I take this to mean that I ask myself what if anything ‘suffering’ means to me and how I might know that I am experiencing it. How, in my understanding, does it come about? What could I do towards letting go of it and in what ways might this lead to a different kind of life? This exploration is tied to an ethical quest: how do I become the kind of person I aspire to be? How can I help to create the kind of world I want to live in? (Hence the notion of ‘ennobling tasks’). These are open questions, and I work on them in my own life, rather than generating opinions about statements. Relative to many other spiritual traditions, Buddhists tend in this direction anyway. This approach simply takes the spirit of inquiry further and perhaps gives it more freedom.

I’m only at the start of one brief online course (six weeks). I do know, already, that if I’m going to be involved more in the Buddhist world, this is a direction I would want to move in. I’m encouraged.

  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009
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