Have you ever woken up dreading the day ahead? Or perhaps you were let down by a lunch nowhere near as delicious as you expected it to be. What about that holiday you dreamed of for months – did each detail unfold exactly as you’d planned? It’s a common assumption that suffering accompanies only the greater hardships in life: loss, grief, disaster, ill-health, heart-break, you know the kind. The rest of the time though, we are supposed to be joyful and carefree - right? We all know it’s not that simple.
Suffering, whether big or small, is an ever-present part of being alive. Ancient yogi’s called this duhkha, a term with various shades of meaning from suffering to sorrow, emptiness to distress. Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. Only by acknowledging and understanding duhkha are we able to meet its sweeter sibling – sukha; happiness, ease or bliss. Suffering and sweetness go hand in hand, and understanding their delicate dance can help us to deepen practices both on and off the mat.
Pervading Unsatisfactoriness, Inside and Out
We tend to think of suffering as coming only from the outside. From those external forces, over which we tell ourselves we have no control: the angry boss, the cheating partner, the hopeless financial situation. From a badly brewed coffee to a full-blown natural disaster, we almost always seek out someone or something to blame for our suffering. And yet, if you’ve ever tried exploring your mind for even a minute, you may have noticed that it appears to actually enjoy resting in a state of discontent.
Forever chasing after memories of the past and fantasies of the future, the mind is continually at war with reality; ill at ease with the present moment as it actually is. This vague, pervading sense of unsatisfactoriness isn’t exclusively uncovered in meditation, most of us glimpse it on some level every day. From the disappointment we feel when things aren’t as we pictured them, to the uneasy aversion that accompanies the things we don’t feel like doing. Even when our external circumstances appear pleasant, our mind loves to declare otherwise; it’s all too easy to envisage a holiday where the sun is too bright, the ice-cream too cold.
Kleshas: The Sources of Suffering
Buddhists, Hindus and yogis alike have examined and explored suffering like a never-ending science project; scrutinising every detail and searching for its source. Though each tradition provides answers of its own, it’s mutually agreed that duhkha is a pervasive part of life. We all experience suffering on some level. But why is contentment so tricky to cling on to?
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali identified five kleshas or afflictions as the root cause of all suffering; avidya (ignorance), asmita (egoism), raaga (attachment), dvesha (aversion) and abhinivesha (fear). This is a curious approach for most of us, since each klesha, each cause of suffering, stems from a ripple in the mind rather than an outside variable. (Learn more in Exploring the 5 Kleshas.)
Delusion, Grasping and Aversion
In essence, we are unhappy because of delusion, grasping and aversion buried deep in our minds. We suffer mostly because of our reaction to a situation rather than the situation itself. If what is going on around you is unpleasant, it’s quite understandable that you might have a negative reaction – disliking the present moment, feeling aversion, grasping for change. The less palpable layer of suffering is exposed when we apply these same kleshas to more pleasant circumstances.
Go back to that holiday, for example. Maybe it hasn’t gone exactly to plan and maybe the sun is a bit too strong, but you seem to be enjoying it overall. Then, in the back of your mind, you start counting down how many days are left, quietly fearing its end. Most of us know this sweet sorrow. Grasping onto pleasant sensations, wishing and willing them to stay the same forever. This kind of dissatisfaction with the present moment is duhkha at its sneakiest.
No Sweetness Without Suffering
Of course, who doesn’t want to end suffering? It’s an almost absurdly relatable goal. But the truth is, just as we can’t always control the outside world, we can’t always control the mind. And yet, whilst we are busy twisting away from the present moment or digging in our heels for it to stay as it is, we forget a simple truth. Everything is already ok. There is joy, love and peace to be found in every moment. Afflictions of the mind separate us from direct experience of bare reality, exactly as it is; we get caught up in stories rather than truly appreciating what is in front of us. The sweet realisation that comes with recognising this is sukha. It is impossible to know sukha without duhkha, we couldn’t know sweetness without suffering.
Yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices help us to glimpse this sweetness; to momentarily pause in sukha and experience liberation from suffering, however brief it may be. Perhaps the most experiential understanding of sukha can be found during asana practice. Have you ever noticed that holding the first downward-dog can feel excruciating, until rounds of dolphin and side-plank make it suddenly seem so sweet? The inter-being of suffering and sweetness means that we simply cannot understand and appreciate one without the other.
Welcome the Present Moment
Once we acknowledge and recognise the presence suffering, its roots become clearer, more understandable. Through understanding, we can move past delusion to accept and welcome the present moment, exactly as it is. With practice, it becomes possible to feel a sense of ease that isn’t coloured by affliction or aversion, a moment of pure bliss. Experiencing sukha allows us to see ourselves and the world around us more clearly, reminding us that there is always sweetness to be found, even amidst the most troublesome suffering. The more you practice, the sweeter your life will be – both on and off the mat.