I’ve been pushing back against translating the term duhkha as “suffering” for quite a while now; at least since I looked more deeply into what the Buddha reportedly said about it in the Pali Canon. From my reading, it makes much better sense to describe duhkha as “stressful.”
It seems more than a little hyperbolic to call our irritation with our neighbor’s grating voice or the strong urge to urinate as “suffering,” but both of these situations are duhkha as the Buddha described it: they are stressful to one degree or another. So, duhkha as “stressful” covers the big pains of disease, divorce, oppression and natural disasters as well as the little discomforts like sitting in one position for “too long” or being made to wait in line at the bank. And it is also not an exaggeration to suggest that we live in such a pain-avoidant culture that our attempt to avoid all of life’s discomforts also creates stress (duhkha)! As well as the multi-million dollar industries such as fashion, anti-aging creams, new age “Secret” type teachings, enticing films and music, alcohol and the bars that go along with it all with the intent to distract us and deaden our dissatisfactions with things as they are.
Stress is not inherently associated only with “negative” situations and experiences. The happy occasion of the birth of one’s child is incredibly stressful, as are falling in love and getting married, getting promotions at work and vacation travel. We may find ourselves in a funk with no obvious cause, moving through the day with a general sense of discontent: we just don’t feel like doing much of anything on such days. And joy itself can be stressful if we find ourselves trying to hold on to the joy, to intensify it or prolong it: such grasping itself is stressful and often undermines the very joy we are trying to hold on to!
Loss and gain; pleasure and pain; praise and blame; fame and ill-repute are the eight worldly winds that blow through our lives causing stress. They point to the fact of ever-present change: even who we think we are changes through the years and causes stress. There is no escape from this situation, though we can grow more successful in navigating our way through the stresses of our lives if we first go against the stream of our cultural conditioning and actually look into the nature of duhkha.
Birth, aging, illness, physical pain and death are body-based, physical, biological realities that can be stressful and are simply “baked into” being bodies. At birth, we experienced unmuffled sound, cold, dry air and coarse sensations for the first time and ever since this body has had to be maintained with food, shelter, clothing, a rather narrow temperature range, protected from microbes and other forms of injuries and then aided in healing from illness and injury when our protections were overridden. And from within the body itself we are assaulted with hormonal shifts and neurochemical changes throughout our lives. Being bodies, we are touched continually by the pleasant and unpleasant objects and experiences of the physical world.
And the Buddha also included the stresses that we may think of as psychological: sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and distress. These mostly arise in reaction to situations we experience and it is here that we can train ourselves so that our reactivity becomes less problematic in causing us further stress. Worry, fear, anxiety, confusion are the mental formations that can intensify and perpetuate great duhkha and which can be lessened through meditative practice, not by eliminating such emotions, but by changing how we experience them.
And the Buddha didn’t stop there. A part of his teaching that tends to get short-shrift is that duhkha also has relational aspects. Yes, relationships are stressful! “Association with the undesirable is duhkha, separation from the desirable is duhkha, and not to get what one wants is duhkha.” In including this, the Buddha made it clear this is not just about sensory experience of things and situations but also is relevant to human relationships: “Whoever encounters ill-wishers, wishers of harm, of discomfort, of insecurity” is part of the “undesirable” and separation from the desired isn’t only about being separated from pleasant objects but also from “well-wishers, wishers of good, of comfort, of security, mother or father or brother or sister, or friends.” This is “interpersonal duhkha” and as we are social animals through and through, needed interpersonal relationships for our well-being, it is also a form of duhkha that is unavoidable.