Learning About and Experiencing the First Noble Truth: Dukkha

By Catherine Sproat

Crossing the flood of Dukkha to the shore of freedom.

Crossing the flood of Dukkha to the shore of freedom.

Dukkha is the Pali word for suffering.  It’s not so much the ailments of physical suffering but also the mental suffering we go through. Dukkha includes sickness, the loss of someone or something, tragic events, as well as not having something go your way. 

Sometimes on the path, I am dumbfounded by the links between what I experience or see others experience and what I am learning. 
Sometimes the experience and lesson interconnect right at the same time. Often the information comes just as I need it. This was the case in a recent experience while beginning to study the First Noble Truth: there is suffering. 

I see dukkha being related to attachment as well as to the mental suffering caused by stories the mind creates. These stories create more dukkha as the mind plays out scenes of what could have happened and poses “what ifs?” I find that I can become attached to something that didn’t even happen or attached to something that is already finished. This adds to the dukkha and is known as the second arrow of dukkha in our practice with the first arrow being the actual bad event.

Recently my family experienced a very real scare and potentially tragic situation with my newborn granddaughter. My son and daughter-in-law came very close to losing her after she suddenly stopped breathing. The blessing was that when she stopped breathing my son was holding her and noticed something was wrong. Once the paramedics came and took her to the hospital, my son informed me and other members of the family about what happened. When I heard about the situation, I felt like I was hit with a brick. Right away, dukkha set in. I could not imagine what my son and daughter-in-law were going through and what stories or scenarios were going through their minds. Being a student of the Dharma and the Four Noble Truths, it was a time to use what I have been practicing daily. It was time to put my learning into practice.

I felt the fear and grief inside of me. The turning of the stomach, the mind racing and the breath quickening to keep up with the mind were just a few things that were happening inside of me. The more I looked inside at what my body was telling me, I realized that a lot of my suffering was from knowing that my son and daughter-in-law were suffering. I didn’t know how to ease their dukkha or what to do for them. Then came the mental suffering of “what ifs?” — the second arrow of dukkha we fling at ourselves. The stories I made up in my mind were worse than the actual event itself. 

Then I read and a quote by Ajahn Sumedho in the book I’m reading on the Four Noble Truths: This moment is like this. Reading this brought a moment of relief, respite from the suffering I was drowning in. It opened me up to accepting and sitting with my suffering and helped me focus on the event and the realization that everything was out of my control. The baby was safe and in the care of the doctors and nurses. It helped me stop my mind from creating stories and made me more present for my son and daughter-in-law.  

I’m definitely not saying that dukkha is over for me. I am still dealing with the lingering residue of the experience. But I’m in a lot better space than I was three weeks ago when this happened.  

Every day is a day to sit with dukkha and explore it instead of reacting to it or pushing it away. The tools I have learned from studying the Dharma and practicing mindfulness reinforced my ability to respond instead of react and allowed me to get over the main dukkha. Through my mindfulness practice I know this moment is like this.