Until recently, I seldom felt satisfied. Even during those rare periods when life was going smoothly, without uproar or mood disorder, it always seemed lacking. No career, relationship, home, hobby, or vacation escaped this critique.
I knew mine was not a healthy attitude and harbored no doubt that my personality was flawed. But I could not fix the problem.
Although I don’t call myself a Buddhist, there is little doubt that the Buddha saw our human situation clearly. One of his “Four Noble Truths” states that life is inherently unsatisfying. This comforts me, because it situates the root problem in the world rather than my character.
Not that I don’t need to change, but the issue isn’t one of learning to feel fulfilled in the common sense of the word. Adjusting my personality won’t alter the fact that life disappoints.
According to Buddhist nosology, afflictions of the human spirit derive from three delusions about reality. We habitually seek permanence, satisfaction, and individuality, but impermanence is the rule, dissatisfaction is unavoidable, and individuality is an illusion.
A recent series of posts on my primary site, WillSpirit.com, attempted to tackle the last of these three, which I believe to be the most challenging. Today’s essay deals mainly with the second and a little with the first, both of which are easier to accept.
The word dukkha is a Buddhist term (from the Pali language) that historically was translated as ‘suffering,’ but nowadays gets rendered as ‘unsatisfactoriness.’ Etymologically, the word refers to a cart’s axle that fails to fit the wheel properly. It implies a rough, unreliable, unstable quality to human life.
One doesn’t need to ponder dukkha deeply to see the truth of it. Every once in a while life manages to feel fully satisfactory, like after a delicious meal with friends or a sweet session of lovemaking. But satiation never lasts. All-too-soon the mind starts to want more. The well-fed dinner guest thinks of seducing the woman next to him; the lover catching her breath begins to feel hungry.
Every staple of human life disappoints, sooner or later. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have reinforced already strong cravings for status, possessions, sex, love, and novelty. But none of these pays off in the way we expect.
Status-seeking excites the young person building a career. But by midlife most of us recognize that the ladder of success is infinitely tall. We might make our peace with the fact that no matter what we achieve there will be others who look greater, but we only delude ourselves if we think our accomplishments truly individual, exceptional, or of lasting significance.
Perhaps I say this out of frustration; after all, my own career tanked early. But I spent many years working with world-renowned physicians while training at a major medical center, and none seemed truly content with his or her success. Even if their egos had inflated to global proportions, they seldom appeared free of petty concerns about how they were perceived and treated by others.
The market economy is a testament to the endless greed that afflicts the human spirit. It exalts the notion that possessing more will bring peace of mind. But no matter how wealthy people become, they always seem to want more, at least until they mature to the point where they understand that material gain never leads to heartfelt satisfaction.
Sex hardly needs to be written about with regard to its failure to fulfill. It offers moments of intense pleasure, and it can provide endless (if stormy) adventure when pursued as a chief end in life. But it never leads to a place of ease. One can find momentary bliss, but not lasting satisfaction, in sexual exploit. The point of the reproductive drive, after all, is to create babies, not contentment. In that context the sex act may provide a sense of purpose and meaning over the course of gestation, child-rearing, and so on. But for all its deification in the media, sexual activity alone is a weak substitute for happiness.
So what of love? Long term relationships stabilize and comfort us on life’s journey. Family can bring joy. Can’t we look to love for true satisfaction? We could, if people didn’t get sick, or die, or lose affection for one another, or disappoint, or act out. We could, in other words, if people were not human. While love is vital to a meaningful life, it fails to give us lasting satisfaction because it remains tainted with loss. During a lecture about bereavement, I once heard a psychiatrist say, “grief is the price we pay for love.” Sooner or later all relationships end, and this means that although they matter a great deal to us, they fail to deliver enduring contentment. We gather our rosebuds only while we may.
Finally, there is novelty. These days most young people with sufficient means spend long periods abroad. One of the advantages of modern life is the ease with which we can travel to distant lands. Or even if we don’t physically transport ourselves, through reading and study we can investigate the world of knowledge. We can learn about distant galaxies, subatomic particles, evolution, art history, ancient cultures, or anything else we wish to explore.
I’ve done a lot more intellectual investigating than world traveling, but both activities can be exciting. Yet do they truly satisfy? I can’t go into a library without feeling a bit discouraged by the number of books on the shelves and my inability to read more than a minuscule fraction. The hunger for knowledge is wonderful in many ways, but it cannot be permanently satisfied.
Similarly, I suspect that sooner or later most globe-trotters detect some monotony in continual travel. Not that it isn’t enjoyable, but the pleasure must begin to feel a bit repetitive and forced. Or if the desire for adventure remains strong, it likely forestalls and alternates with feelings of boredom.
Name any pursuit that promises satisfaction, and you will be able to find ways in which it ultimately lets us down. As I’ll try to cover in a future post, the answer lies in not pursuing. But for today, I want to shine a spotlight how ordinary activities never to lead to unshakable contentment.
Granted, one can make peace with all of the facts I outlined above. But making deals with the devil is different from defeating him. The engines of craving can be slowed to an idle, but they can never be fully shut down via a strategy of pouring ever more fuel into the tank.
Life provides moments of satisfaction, but we inevitably oscillate between pleasure and distress. The wobbly axle forces us to endure a bumpy ride, wherein high moments are overtaken by low, and vice versa. We cannot quell this agitation of body and mind through pursuit of worldly goals. No measure of success, material accumulation, sexual gratification, loving relationships, or worldly exploration can permanently satisfy the human appetite for comfort. This is the truth of dukkha.
We can begin to decrease dukkha only after we recognize the futility of escaping it through pursuit of desires. Once we understand this fixed law of human nature, we can seek peace in the world through channels other than achieving, accumulating, indulging, clinging, or escaping.
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Last reviewed: 1 Jul 2012