The building where I used to run a meditation group was on the same street as a fire station. One could almost guarantee that sometime during the meditation a fire engine would come rushing past, sirens wailing. Not surprisingly, people would afterwards complain. “How could I meditate with that noise?”
How often have we felt something similar? There’s an unspoken assumption that the mind can only become quiet if the world around is quiet. We imagine the ideal meditation setting to be somewhere far from the madding crowd — a retreat deep in a forest, a peaceful chapel, or the quiet of one’s own bedroom, perhaps. It is much harder for the mind to settle down in a noisy environment. Or is it?
I suggested to the group that the next time a fire engine came blasting by they look within and explore whether the sound really was that disturbing? After the following meditation, a woman reported how the noise no longer seemed a problem. It was there, but it didn’t disturb her. The disturbance, she realized, came not from the sound itself, but from wishing it weren’t there.
This was the essence of Buddha’s realization 2,500 years ago. We all experience what he called dukkha, conventionally translated as “suffering.” In Pali, the language of Buddha’s time, dukkha is the negation of the word sukha, meaning “at ease.” So dukkha might also be translated as not-at-ease, or discontent — an experience we all can relate to
The root meanings of these words add further insight. Sukha stems from su (good)-kha (hole), and generally referred to a good axle hole in the wheel of a cart. The wheel was a great technological boon of the time, and whether or not it ran smoothly around its axle would have been a primary concern for both comfort and efficiency. Conversely, the root of dukkha is duh (bad)-kha (hole). There is resistance to the smooth running of the wheel, leading to friction and discomfort. Continue reading