Dukkha is
a Pali term central to the Buddha’s teaching. It’s difficult to translate.
“Suffering” captures some but not all of its aspects. Dissatisfaction captures
another portion of is variance. Even if were to speak Pali as the Buddha did,
the word wouldn’t be enough. Dukkha translates to “bad wheel.”
The Buddha had to turn to metaphorical images to convey the sense of dukkha,
for instance, an oxcart whose wheel was off its axle, for
example. This conveys the notion of things being “off,” “awry,” or “out of
balance.” The “bad wheel” will exert its effect on everything we do; every
experience, every perception, every everything.

While sitting in a large group of meditators at the Green Mountain
Coffee Roasters (GMCR) headquarters with Shinzen Young recently, I bumped into
another metaphor for dukkha — background radiation. As I sat
I noticed a pervasive sense of feeling, feeling with an emotional coloring.
Although subtle, it was clearly perceptible. It seemed to be a tinge of
sadness, poignancy, or some such quality as that. It was radiating in the
background of my awareness. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, and I
wondered if that was dukkha? As long as there is a story of me there
will be this background radiation. When it is no longer present, I suppose I’ll
be enlightened, but I don’t expect this anytime soon!

This background radiation can be understood as a pervasive and
unconscious feeling tone. Much of mental life (over 99%) occurs outside of
conscious awareness, and this is true for feelings and emotions too. It seems
as if this background radiation is a repository or a dumping ground for all the
“selfing” that goes on throughout the day. All the aspects of what the Buddha
called, “I, me, mine.” The things I want, the expectations I have that may not
be met or I fear may not be met. It all boils down to desire and what I do with

When you meditate you will no doubt notice this background radiation
when you sit. Fitting the definition of dukkha
it is pervasive, permeating every cell in the body, coloring in some subtle way
every thought, image, and conscious emotion we experience. This is not a bad
thing, although I think it behooves us to become familiar with this energy and
to see what memories and images it is connected too. It is also the case that
my background radiation likely feels different than yours because I have had a
different life history and have different genetics. Let me know what your
background radiation feels like.

To find it, turn your attention to your body and away from stories of
the future and past. Turn your attention from talk to the feeling tone of the breath
and body and keep returning your attention whenever it moves away. Tomorrow, I
will present detailed instruction on how to practice mindfulness meditation. 

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