Birth is stress, ageing is stress, death is stress; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stress; association with the unbeloved is stress; separation from the loved is stress; not getting what is wanted is stress. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stress.
Nibbedhika sutta (AN 6.63)
To illustrate the practicalities of reaching the heart of sadness (cf. heart of sadness — conceptual framework) and moving beyond, let’s focus on one of the manifestations of dukkha, the “separation from the loved.”
A difficulty sometimes experienced by the practitioner is that the rawness
of dukkha gives it an ‘evident’ or ‘obvious’ nature which makes any
further enquiry difficult.
For example, “separation from the loved is stress” might seem ‘evident’ to most, so much so in fact that they struggle to study deeper: why is it so? How is this manifested? Etc.
As this is a common occurrence, let's give an example of how “separation from the loved” might lead to indirect unwholesome tendencies, therefore to the perpetuation of dissatisfaction.
The ‘loved’ might be any ‘object’ of consciousness, e.g. a person (a lover, a friend, a parent, a child, a role model…), a house or a material possession, even a belief that used to reassure us or give ‘meaning’ to our existence…
there are these four kinds of clinging. What four? Clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self.
Cula-sihanada sutta (MN 11)
As one clings to a person, separation (be it by death, by physical distance
—exile, prison…— by the jealousy of one's partner, or by a decision from this
very person —e.g. entering into another relationship or stubbornly refusing
any contact after a particular disagreement) might prove directly
Not only some certainties might crumble to the ground (notably views about one's “worth”), but also plans and hopes might vanish (previous related ‘investments’ suddenly appear pointless and create the anguish of having ‘wasted’ valuable resources for nothing, e.g. wasted one's youth, one's chances to have children, etc.).
Overall, a sense of powerlessness might seize us. Classical stages
of grief might be manifested: denial, anger, seeing oneself solely as a victim
of ‘undeserved’ experiences, etc.
It is useful to acknowledge that the sense of powerlessness arises not so much from the loss of the ‘object’ but from the loss of anticipated use of the object. Few people fret when leaving their house in the morning or letting their partner go to work every day, they don't experience this as a distressing separation because they anticipate a reunion. One of the keys to dukkha is the clinging to views (anticipations) more than to the objects themselves. Adjust the view, e.g. by some terrible news, and suddenly panic arises (regardless of whether the news was true or actually affected the object itself). Similarly, any regret of having ‘wasted’ resources would relate to what other ‘use’ we project as possible.
We ‘count’ on objects to provide comfort when we'll need it, but our focus varies through time: we count on e.g. a friend to be present except when we count on something else (e.g. other friends, or simply a swift traffic on our way to work, a pill to fix a headache…). Although our focus varies, the ‘power’ lies in supposedly having the permanent possibility to use any object we count on, should we choose to. We have views on what we can and cannot act upon, and we naturally cling to the views that we feel ‘empower’ us. These views rely on a delusional projection of permanency though!
Engaging with direct consequences
Few people have difficulties to agree with the above, although fewer ‘realise’ this enough not to fall into the classic patterns, ‘comprehend’ this enough to engage differently with such a situation.
As hard as it might sound, engaging differently starts with
accepting things as they are,
which means “not wasting time wishing the situation
to be different” and “taking the present situation as the starting point of
responsible engagement, not of day-dreaming hypothetical worlds.” As was
discussed in the first part on the
heart of sadness, patient equanimous engagement and wise resolve are key to
pass through the suffering to the other shore. Patience is not passivity.
Once seeing things as they are, accepting them as such means to pick a constructive attitude towards the situation. It often requires to step back from the “you vs. me” conflict mode, and to embrace the search for a way for the situation to evolve for the better, regardless of the past it arose from. It often requires to drop the prejudice that the past was ‘better’, to drop the myth of the Golden Age (a prejudice which all too often only captures an anguish from facing the unknown and covers a “better the devil we know!” attitude).
Fully realising the above also gives sense of some classic unease and boredom. In many relationships (between people, or between people and object), the impermanence of phenomena ensures a ‘loss’ although much of the ‘object’ is still present. That's simply the end of the honey-moon period. If we cling to a view of the object from day-1, and the object evolves and loses its shine, then the mismatch between view and reality creates anguish. And by focusing on the loss of day-1 enthusiasm, one might be blind to the richness of day-2 inter-dependence. If we focus on what ceases without paying attention to what it gives rise to, clinging to the past and cultivating aversion for the new, we're unlikely to engage constructively.
Can the discernment reach down to even subtler nuances, can we enquire even deeper into the heart of sadness? Clinging to a past pollutes our present as discussed above, by motivating a resistance to change, by blinding us from the wholesome aspects of the new, etc., but can we discern other ways by which clinging might pollute here&now? Causality isn't a chain: many ‘causes’ are combined to give rise to one ‘effect’, and each ‘cause’ contributes to many ‘effects.’ Can we commprehend a wider range of the consequences of clinging in a context of separation?