Tag Archive | Dukkha

My Dukkha and Everyone Else’s

I was in an AA coffee shop when a worker there told me that many people who were instrumental in her initial steps in recovery were now relapsed.

My heart broke. I have been struggling this past winter. I let the whole world know through my blog: this is my life and, for the moment, it sucks. Apparently others around here feel similarly and are dealing with it even more poorly than myself.

Dots started getting connected. How long can people do without a job or even a remote hope of getting one? How long does one live without hope? Define “living”. I’ve been so busy digging myself out of my own pit that I hadn’t noticed others mired in theirs. The person telling me this did not know that just a few hours earlier my god sister told me that she had just lost her minimum-wage job because she couldn’t keep up with the output quota. Seriously? A quota for a job where you still qualify for welfare? And we wonder why so many people are “mentally ill.”

How can I help? I have to be more functional before I can reach down into someone else’s pit.

I looked around and saw that there is no longer any kid of social/financial safety net for people anymore. I don’t know if it is fixable or if we should just start over. It would not shock me to hear a few years from now about an ongoing suicide problem in Michigan. Hopefully, by then, I will be long gone. Living without hope or sunshine is a bit much.

But people do not acknowledge the problems because they have come upon us so incrementally. I hear people say all the time (including my god sister), “I’ll be fine.” They still falsely assume that a social safety next exists. It reminds me of an old episode of Roseanne. She and Dan were having financial problems and someone told her, “Don’t worry. Things will be fine.” Her response was perfect. “‘Standing on our own two feet’ fine? Or ‘eating government cheese’ fine?” In other words: define fine.

The normal translation of dukkha is “suffering” and I think that covers the more dramatic and sudden situations, but there is also another translation that I simply love: “unsatisfactoriness.” I think that covers the bulk of human experiences: not quite fulfilling.

I feel like my job now is to get on my own two feet so I can help others.

Dukkha and My Friend Leaving

I am very sad now. One of my best friends will be leaving Michigan. She has been looking for employment elsewhere, but she was just informed that her hours will be cut at the non-profit she works for. I will help her pack. I am helping her look for jobs in Maine, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

This is how bad it is. People who are serious about paying back their student loans are forced to seek employment out-of-state. She does not want to leave. Most of her children live here. Others where she works are also leaving the state.

One is moving to Wisconsin, for a job that pays 70K. For some reason, that’s where he wants to live. It wouldn’t be my choice.  It’s no warmer there than here. If I am going to go to the trouble of packing up all my crap and relocating, it will be to somewhere with better weather, not some other northern-tier state. I got an MBA so I can find work any darn place I want.

I never thought she would leave the state before me. But she has to go. Eventually, I will as well.

Buddhism’s word for suffering is “dukkha.” I love the translation of “unsatisfactoriness.” The original meaning is all about a wheel that does not turn properly; in other words, it is stuck or makes noise. The recipe for suffering is this: life changes and you do not change with it. Instead, you pretend things haven’t really changed.

That’s the strategy of Michigan businesses: demand graduate-level qualifications and offer $10/hour in return and then whine that qualified applicants for positions cannot be found. When Michigan was full of good-paying factory jobs, educated spouses could be underpaid with no negative consequences. There is no “skills gap.” Don’t buy the business community’s propaganda. In reality, it is a “compensation gap.” The “skills gap” theory explains nothing and mystifies the obvious: employers demand MIT qualifications and offer Burger King wages.

My heart breaks. I miss her already. As for Michigan businesses, I have no pity. They brought much of this upon themselves. Let’s see what they have to say when they can’t pay enough to keep educated people in the state, no matter how they offer.


That urge to do something I have been resisting is called “shenpa.” It is that basic addictive feeling of needing to something, anything, to get rid of that feeling of “unsatisfactoriness” known as dukkha. Pema Chodron says,

“The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.” (“How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked”, Shambhala Sun online)


Here is a subtlety of understanding that I haven’t found in the Christian world. “When shenpa hooks us, we are likely to get stuck.” I’m sure some of the disgraced preachers would give a hearty amen to that. I have spent most of my life feeling stuck and not knowing what to do about it. Now I know what the problem is: attachment. Attachment to pleasure, objects, avoiding pain, relationships, organizations, and all else. It is so clear now. Whatever I hold onto keeps me stuck with it. Life is about flow and change. To hold onto anything not moving is a form of death.

Signs of life are movement and response. If you see an animal lying on the ground and you want to know if it’s alive, what do you do? Perhaps poke it with a stick to see if it moves or reacts. If that doesn’t succeed, then you check for a pulse. I’ve belonged to many organizations that weren’t going anywhere. Regardless of how the world around it changed, it kept doing the same things that no longer worked. Most of those organizations haven’t survived to this day. They did not change in a changing world and got left behind.

Sometimes the challenge is to not react, to feel the feeling and let it go. Let people think you are dead while you feel the habitual feelings and choose deliberately not to react to them (the people or the feelings). They will know something is up. They haven’t manipulated you again. Once you stop playing along with their denial, beware. The next stage of the acceptance process is anger and you will likely get their full wrath. They might get ugly, but that is on them, not you.

Responding peacefully to wrath is the beginning of peacemaking, but be prepared to get crucified on the Internet or in public. Whoever is trying to manipulate you likely has a following and you will lose those friendships as well. Of course, their friendship with you was only based on being mutually manipulated by the same person. To let go of the manipulator’s schemes is to let go of all the manipulator’s allies simultaneously. Once you reclaim your human dignity, everyone that had something to gain from manipulating you will let you go. It can be painful to lose one’s friends and social circle, but if it was only based on manipulation, having it vanish can be immensely freeing.

This is where meditation comes in. Pema continues:

“Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do. Generally speaking, we don’t catch the tightening until we’ve indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness towards ourselves, refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against it. The Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down, shaking it up.”

 There is no need to berate anyone, including ourselves. The whole idea is to be kind to all, including ourselves. Are we ready for a life of that?