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Dukkha And Destructive Emotions

Embracing the First Noble Truth: Dukkha and Destructive Emotions

For anyone new to Buddhist practice or for those who have been at it for a long time, coming to terms with the teaching and implications of the first noble truth can be challenging, confusing and ongoing. For some, the way in which the Buddha normalizes suffering as a universal experience is met with relief and reassurance. For others, and can give rise to a kind of striving inspired by idea that we can end our suffering once and for all if we master the practice of the Dharma. For me, this teaching has haunted me, inspired me, confused me and often puts me in touch with all that troubles me as I attempt to move through this world with as much awareness and empathy that I can muster.

Over the course of the last decade through my practice of the Dharma as well as the work I have done in various forms of therapy, one thing that began to emerge was that most of my suffering, historically as well as currently was, emotional. What made this challenging was the fact that I was finding my Dharma practice wasn’t getting at the cause of my emotional suffering in a way that felt adequate. During this time I began to explore how western modalities were being developed to do this very thing. In the 2000 the Dalai Lama held a conference in India were he invited the worlds leaders from both the Buddhist tradition and those working within the various fields of science. The conference was entitled: Destructive Emotions.

What has emerged from the initial findings of this historic meeting was the integration of Buddhist meditation techniques to specifically explore and transform the world of our emotions. The goal here being: not to get rid of difficult emotions, but to develop a constructive relationship to all of our emotions. For the last few years this has been the primary focus of my practice.

Recently, due to Covid-19 and having lots of time on my hands I have been looking into the early texts to see how and where the Buddha may have been pointing us to the difficult world of our emotions. With little surprise I found myself starring at the teaching of the first noble truth: the reality of Dukkha. As I began looking over how the Buddha described Dukkha, I found myself gaining access to three particular emotions in a visceral and compelling manner.

This is dukkha: birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha; not getting what one wants is dukkha, getting what one doesn’t want is dukkha; encountering what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what s dear is dukkha.

Right out of the gate, the Buddha talks about birth, old age, sickness and death. For me, this gives rise to a tremendous sense of fear. Coming to terms with my own mortality and my ultimate demise is an idea that has filled my mind with fear for as long as I can remember. Here I believe the Buddha is pointing us to the emotion of fear as something we must embrace and come to terms with. Secondly, he points out that we don’t always get what we want, we often get what we don’t want. This is often the source of our disappointment and frustration, two experiences that are at the heart of anger. Anger often drives us to fix, change and attempt to control our lives in a way that is unskillful. Lastly, the Buddha is reminding as that we experience loss. We lose friends, family members and jobs. In the end, we lose it all. From the view of emotion; loss is about sadness. As a universal emotion, we all must embrace sadness in the face of loss. A very difficult experience for many.

When we are unable to do the hard work of completing the task of the first truth, to embrace Dukkha, we become vulnerable to destructive emotions.