Don’t Marry Your Dukkha

shutterstock_293835950There is a scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions where the central character, Kilgore Trout, offers his parakeet (unironically named “Bill”), what he really wants – freedom.

“I’m such a big shot in the universe that I’m going to make your three biggest wishes come true” he says to Bill, then he opens the door of the birdcage (the first wish). Bill flies to the window. Kilgore opens the window for the second wish, but Bill becomes so frightened that he flies back into his cage. Kilgore closes the door and praises Bill for choosing a very smart third wish: to have something left to wish for.

I see this happen from time to time in meditation. Meditation is all about finding freedom from suffering. Whether it is in temporary blissful states, like jhanas, or in the lasting relief that comes with awakening, ending suffering is what it is about. But it is easy to hold on to suffering, to become the sufferer, to cling to the anger, the restlessness, or the desperation that it gives you. To become, and remain, the troubled artist, dark night mystic, or the person fighting the good fight.

I call this “marrying your Dukkha.” It happens in ways that most of us never notice until we are, like Bill, confronted with the real possibility of freedom and have the impulse to run back in our cage. This usually happens when the meditator begins to exit the dukkha insights. As she realizes that there is no longer a struggle with dukkha, that it can come and go without being a problem, there is sometimes the urge to stop and fall back into the dark night.

Awakening means giving up who you believe you are. This is how it is for everybody, and that isn’t easy. But it is even harder when you believe you are the very suffering you are working to overcome. It takes a lot to take that leap, especially when it means giving up everything you know. This is the “faith” part of the practice. Trust the process of awakening and know that if you give up something that feels both painful and safe, there is freedom to be had.


Posted on July 11, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Man, what a great story, I’ve never read Vonnegut. Maybe I will.

  2. Touche! 🙂

  3. Hi, Ron. Bill here (not the bird). But this post has given me something to wish for–I wonder if you could elaborate on the kinds of things meditators believe in and are afraid to give up.

    As someone whose cutting edge seems to have set up housekeeping in dissolution, I make no claims to insight progress. However, having been born and raised in a Western country
    and spent much of my adult life in an Eastern one, my identity and values have gone through a great deal of self-scrutiny. Consequently, I think I can honestly say that just about all the typical identifications–with occupation, country, causes, ethnicity, moral stances–have been seen through and discarded. Even what’s left of the self is feeling more and more tenuous. Most of the time I don’t feel like anybody in particular–I certainly don’t believe I’m somebody–and am not troubled by that. The fact that suffering remains may call into question just how thorough my self-scrutiny has actually been. But I don’t want to be married to dukkha. On the contrary, nothing appeals to me more than the idea of signing divorce papers.

    Maybe it’s because I haven’t gone through the Dark Night, but it’s hard to imagine any kind of cage that I would want to fly back into. So, if you please, in what ways do some meditators believe they are the suffering they’re trying to overcome?

  4. Hi Bill – the people that I’m thinking about here, those who have really married their dukkha, are those who have built an identity around some kind of suffering.

    Being the troubled person that everyone is desperate to save, the depressed musician who is in love with the heartbreak in his own songs, the struggling artist or revolutionary fighting against some great monster that has taken over the world in secret, the social change agent trying to save everyone through self-sacrifice, or simply the person who has bought into the terrible idea that suffering is a virtue – these are the folks I am thinking of.

    I don’t run into them often, but when I do I find that equanimity, that first faint flush of liberation, can be a paradoxically frightening experience for them. There is a kind of existential crisis in it. For the great majority of meditators (at least those I have met), this is not a problem at all. But for those who do have this problem, having a name for it might help, and that is why I decided to write this.

  5. Hey Ron, Noah here. Just wanted to say that I am definitely one of the types being discussed. It seemed like a synchronicity to read it today, based on how I have been tackling my own identifications lately. So, thanks, definitely very helpful.

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