When Dhamma Practice Is Stressful

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When Dhamma Practice Is Stressful is an article and Dhamma talk on the common experience of stress arising from the challenges of developing the Eightfold Path.

The Buddha described the generally unsatisfying nature of life as “Dukkha.” The First Noble truth states that life in the phenomenal world is often experienced as Dukkha. Dukkha is translated to mean stressful, unsatisfactory, disappointing, disillusioning, suffering. Due to craving and clinging, dukkha becomes distraction and we become preoccupied with seeking satisfaction and meaning where satisfaction and meaning cannot be found.

Often “Buddhist” practice is initially engaged with as a response to the unsatisfactory nature of life. This begins to develop Right View but meditation and Dhamma practice should not create additional stress.

Stress is created anytime aversion to what is occurring arises. When stress arises in Dhamma practice it is always due to wanting practice to be different than it is in some manner. Often the Dhamma practice itself is seen as too difficult or too complicated. Other times harsh judgements of oneself arise. Whenever stress arise in relation to Dhamma practice, using the Eightfold Path as intended provides the direction and clarity to understand that an unsatisfying experience attached to Dhamma practice is the same as any other experience of stress.

The Dhamma is not a way to change our experience of the phenomenal world, rather it is a way of acceptance of the reality of life as life occurs without reaction. Mindfulness is holding in mind the true nature of any phenomenal experience. The Buddha described life in the phenomenal world as having three defining characteristics:

  • Anicca – Impermanence
  • Dukkha – Stressful, unsatisfying, disappointing, disillusioning
  • Anatta – there is no permanent self experiencing anicca and dukkha

(An article on Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta is linked below)

Personalizing life’s experience, that something pleasant or unpleasant is happening to “me” and should be different than what is occurring, leads to increasingly discursive and delusional mind states.

The practice of awakening through mindfulness of The Four Noble Truths is a practice of deepening insight to the true nature of the human life experience in the ever-changing phenomenal world. It is by experiencing the phenomenal world with a mind of equanimity, a non-reactive mind and within the perspective developed through the Eightfold Path, that awakening is realized. This is the intention of useful insight: to understand the impermanent nature of life in the phenomenal world so as to mindfully put aside personal attachment to it.

Phenomenal reality can never be skillfully understood by analyzing experiences and reactions, as analysis is always based on a past experience influenced by mind states that have arisen since the experience (being analyzed).

What the Buddha described as the Second Noble Truth, craving, clinging, and aversion as the cause of Dukkha is describing a mind presently stuck in the discursive experience of causes and conditions continually creating a life experience of dukkha. By desiring that life be different than it is, by wanting to avoid or alter that which cannot be altered or avoided,  human life then becomes a fruitless pursuit of temporary pleasure, security and perceived happiness based on deluded thinking.

As the Eightfold Path is a direct and simple way of being mindful of all causes of suffering, practice itself can occasionally be unpleasant. As we develop deeper levels of calm and deeper levels of insight, we begin to see our own delusional mind states, and this experience at first can be uncomfortable. Keep in mind that these mind states are all part of the impermanent phenomenal world. Insight arrises when we can accept ourselves and our mind states as life occurs, and maintain as much as possible a non-reactive mind, a mind of equanimity. As we remain non-reactive, we begin to gain Right View of all mind states.

The Eightfold Path of liberation and freedom is not a path to immediately or eventually make our lives more pleasurable or less stressful. The Eightfold Path is a way to be continually mindful of all physical, mental and “spiritual” experiences, and be free of reaction to them. To cease desirous reactions, to cease wanting the people and events of our lives to be different than they are, including ourselves, is the way of seeing clearly the First Noble Truth. By understanding and accepting the First Noble Truth we can, through practice, interrupt the discursive thinking that is created by desire.

This “Right View” is diametrically opposed to the way we usually experience the phenomenal world. A confused and deluded view is that we should always strive to experience that which brings us feelings of pleasure and safety, and to strive to avoid that which is fearful and unpleasant. This reaction can only occur to an insubstantial and unsustainable ego-personality. It is the ego-personality that the Buddha teaches is “anatta.” Anatta means not-a-self. This means that what is perceived to be a self through self-referential confused mind-states is not, in reality, a self. Once anatta is fully understood, self-referential views are abandoned.

This preoccupation with living our lives based on craving and aversion is, in a sense, being mindful of the past and the future. Mindfulness means to hold in mind or to recollect. This unrefined application of mindfulness can only lead to more confusion and more suffering. It further creates stress by distracting our minds from this present moment. This is what is meant by discursive thinking.

The refined mindfulness that is developed through the Eightfold Path develops a life of lasting peace and happiness. It is unpleasant initially to put aside the conditioned thinking that is focused on satisfying the senses. Recognizing and putting aside these mind states is an integral part of practice.

Being mindful and non-reactive of whatever our experience is, in this present moment, brings a deep awareness, a deep mindfulness, a deep and abiding peace, without the constant preoccupation with impermanent mind-states. Be at peace with less than peaceful mind states. Be at peace with yourself. Enjoy your practice.

Understanding Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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