April 23, 2021

Dukkha as a “Constant Squeeze”

By Narayan Helen Liebenson

Note: Narayan will discuss her book, The Magnanimous Heart, in the IMS Book Club, May 6, 13, and 20, all at 7 PM ET. For more information, and to register the book club, click here.

In 1985, I traveled to Thailand to practice in a forest monastery called Wat Pa Baan Taad. The teacher there, a powerful master of meditation named Ajahn Maha Boowa, defined dukkha as “a constant squeeze.” This is the best definition of dukkha I have ever heard. It makes the concept so palpable. This squeeze of life is constant, although we can ignore it for limited periods of time. The problem is that our awareness of it always returns.

The constant squeeze on the heart is because of the inevitability of loss; all beings experience loss. Present loss and the sense of impending loss: both are painful and confining. When we are overtly suffering, we may know this truth clearly. At other times, when things are going well, we may temporarily forget. When the mind becomes quieter, as it does in meditation, this squeeze on the heart becomes apparent. The good news is that we can work with this in our practice.

Although loss always feels utterly personal when we are experiencing it, and in one sense it is, it is also not personal at all. The particularities are different for each of us, but loss is a given for all of us. When we acknowledge this universality, the sense of loneliness and isolation, of alienation and separateness, can ease a bit. Our challenge as contemplative practitioners is to open into the largest perspective possible, without negating, ignoring, or undermining the personal aspects of our own situation in life.

When I first heard this teaching, I experienced deep relief. I realized that I was not alone in my awareness that life is not always so wonderful. The possibility that this was a sign of my connectedness to others was already a cause for ease, even before I began a formal meditation practice.”

From The Magnanimous Heart, by Narayan Helen Liebenson © 2018. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.