The Buddhist tradition identifies three fundamental characteristics of reality. Dukkha, usually translated as suffering, dissatisfaction, or anxiety, is one of the three. The other two characteristics, impermanence and emptiness, are somehow more graspable to my rational mind, and it’s therefore much easier for me to talk about them in a way that seems to make sense, even when I’m struggling to actually grok them fully.
Suffering is an odd ball of wax. First of all, it is considered both a fundamental characteristic of reality and the subject of the first Noble Truth. Second, the other two fundamental characteristics (impermanence and emptiness) would seem to be immutable – that is, those characteristics persist regardless of our understanding or relationship to them. On the other hand, the teachings of the third Noble Truth state that an end to suffering is available.
I’ve been experimenting with this by asking myself many times each day: “Am I at peace right now, or do I feel that something is lacking?” Other ways of saying this are “Am I craving something, such that I expect more happiness if I get it” or “Do I expect this project/task/job to really satisfy me” or “Where and when are my contentment, if not here and now?”
When I make this a genuine inquiry, I very often find that I have abandoned the peace available in the present moment, and that I am leaning forward emotionally, counting on something or working towards something or hoping for something, the fulfillment of which I assume is necessary before I can finally and truly be at peace. This is a tragic misunderstanding, and one that I imagine most of us experience.
There is such a huge difference between engaging in creative endeavors (including “work”) in hopes that doing so will somewhat magically make us happy, versus doing so from a genuine and wholesome pleasure in the creative act.
Dukkha, or suffering/anxiety/dissatisfaction, may refer to the insidious, pervasive, and chronic presence of a low-level anxiety that is an artifact of what was an important evolutionary advantage for our paleo-ancestry: For an animal living in rough country with predators to outwit and harsh winters to survive, the tendency to sit quietly in stillness and peace may not have been super valuable.
Most of us, on the other hand, have our basic physical needs met with relative ease. Restlessly looking for possible improvements and novel opportunities may not continue to serve us. Indeed, this instinct, taken to extremes and capitalized on by our own cravings for security, may have become counter-productive for the species.
Sitting quietly, at our ease and gently focused, may now be a revolution in the health of our species. Though it may come unnaturally at first, the benefits of doing so very quickly eclipse those restless machinations that never seem to permanently satisfy. And, indeed, it is precisely this act that the sages prescribe as a remedy for the restless heart.