Thursday, August 09, 2007


"Unsatisfactory Performance" was my elementary school's code for a failing grade. In elementary school, rather than separate subject classes, each student had one teacher, who assigned different grades for various aspects of a student's performance.

In high school, "Unsatsifactory Performance" was dropped in favor of the simpler, "E." (Yes, "E," not "F." I suspect that the "F" has arisen in more recent years because some of the students managed to persuade their parents that "E" stood for "Excellent" rather than "one step below a 'D'".)

College used the "F" motif for the same purpose.

Law school used numbers that ranged (so far as I could tell) from the mid-30s to the mid-80s, probably to confuse recruiters into giving us all jobs, as no one could tell what might or might not have been an "F" -- or an "E" -- or an "Unsatisfactory Progress."

Buddhism and Yoga, I've learned, also have their code-speak for flunking. They call it "dukkha." (Pronounce that like "duke - huh," being sure to make the "h" sound clear following the "k" of "duke-") I've been taught that "dukkha" is a word borrowed from (of course) Sanskrit. It's usually translated as "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness." What is the grade assigned to?


Not that everything is suffering. Only that dukkha permeates existence. Anything pleasurable will not last. Anything constructed will fall down. Anything that is born will also die. Anything aware will become unaware. Dukkha becomes the label for the perception of the failure of existence to fulfill our desires for existence.

The Buddha taught, in his first sermon following his enlightenment:

"Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."

Even though Pali is a nicely and longly dead language, the etymology exercise doesn't end with defining it as "suffering." Dukkha was a word defined in reference to an ill-crafted wheel axel turning in an ill-crafted hole -- think of a lumpy cart wheel axle turning in a not-round hole. If "dukkha" meant, originally, "lack of space to move," it's opposite, "sukkha," meant "space."

In yoga terms, "lack of space" and "space" are pretty good metaphors for suffering and ease.

For human critters, confinement precipitates mind-states that involve suffering. Openness precipitates mind-states that involve ease. Imprisonment or liberation. In yoga poses, those ideas make a lot of sense.

* * *

So today has been an exercise in dukkha. For one reason or another, when I awoke this morning, I perceived everything as unsatisfactory -- my job was repetitive, my boss was unappreciative, my performance at work was flawed, my vacation was unrelaxing, my family was dysfunctional, my body was deteriorating, my thoughts were banal, my existence was shallow, my efforts were weak and half-hearted, my, my, my, my. The fundamental shabbiness of all existence shone through even the most polished surfaces. Jesus condemned the hypocrites as "whited sepulchres." Today, everything I saw was a whited sepulchre.

Usually, when I experience that sort of thing, I either follow it down into the mire and wind up depressed for days and weeks (prior life) or (more recently) notice it and label it as "depression" and then hold it apart from my perceiving self, implement self-help measures (exercise a lot, reconnect with friends, etc.). But today was a little different. As the more recent pattern for dealing with depression presented itself to my mind, I suddenly became aware of a little bit more than I'd perceived before.

And this time, rather than labeling the experience "depression" and putting it into a specimen container and placing it on a shelf, like a collectible critter, I realized that my routine for dealing with depression is a kind of alienation of the experience, a kind of avoidance of it, aversion to it, just as spiralling down into the depths is a kind of perverse attachment to it.

So today, I just stayed present with it -- practicing, of all things, a kind of contentment with it, neither drawing it in, nor pushing it out.

Doing that allowed the experience to continue for longer than I've usually allowed it. And what I found was a kind of peculiar clarity -- as if there is a kind of light that reveals the dukkha aspects of all things, but it's a kind of light that I haven't been able to -- perhaps haven't been willing to -- let through the lenses I use to see the world.

Strange to think that practicing contentment and equanimity might allow me to see through what is desired to what is. And strange to find that what is, isn't all it's cracked up to be. And even stranger to find that the seeing the unsatisfactoriness clearly wasn't all bad.

In fact, it was strangely liberating. As if sukkha is experienced only when dukkha is allowed to be.

Perhaps there's something to say for Unsatisfactory Performance.