In the winter I teach people with disabilities how to ski. I’m an adaptive ski instructor. It’s a beautiful job; I get to share something I love with others, help them overcome fears and celebrate milestones, it warms my heart in a thousand ways. And it can break my heart too.
Recently I had a client who has been coping with a new medical diagnosis for about a year, and it has really turned her world upside down. She is unable to accept this new reality and fights against it at every turn and has allowed it to defeat her. She’s put aside her faith because she can’t understand why this would happen to her. She feels totally hopeless.
I get it. In my teens and 20s when I struggled with depression I would get lost in hopelessness for huge chunks of time. It felt like the air I breathed was coated with a layer of despair. I couldn’t access hope because my whole mindset was quite constricted. And then I found Buddhism and I began to find hope.
In Buddhism, the very first truth we have to accept is that there is dukkha in this world. We all will experience dukkha. Dukkha can be translated as unsatisfactoriness or suffering or stress or discomfort. But I understand this concept of dukkha best when I have heard scholars break down this Pali word and explain that it really refers to the hole in a wheel that goes around the axel. And the hole is “bad” or malformed in some way, so every time the wheel turns around the axel it results in a bumpy ride.
We can choose to get caught in hopelessness around this bumpy ride, or we can not. Let’s say I’m driving a car on a dirt road. I just go with it, right? This is the road I need to take to get to where I’m going, it’s bumpy so I’ll adjust my driving to accommodate that, but I don’t fight that this is the road. And there are other people in the car, or other people who’ve taken this road before, so I know I’m not alone.
It may seem counter-intuitive in some way; how did me learning about dukkha lessen my hopelessness? Our job as practitioners is not just understand the truth of dukkha, but to deeply know it, and to remember we know it time and again. And as I have begun to embrace the truth that life is a bumpy ride, I’ve been able to get out of the story that I’ve done something wrong, or that the world is out to get me. Instead, I see that we are all going through this, and that gives me hope.
In his 2011 talk “Working with Our Emotional Life”, my teacher Matthew Brensilver shares this important reflection:
It is helpful to know the universality of emotional pain. It is helpful to know how this is such a deep part of what it is to be human. It’s helpful to remember that it is this very bearing with pain that leads us to deeper and deeper well-being. It is helpful to remember that whatever it is we’re experiencing there is also love.
As we accept the truth of dukkha we stop fighting what is happening. We see that if we sit with it we actually can ride with it, and that we’re not alone.
My relationship to dukkha changed slowly. Take my depression. In my teens and 20s I would hold my diagnosis as a label – “I am a depressed person.” There was no hope in that statement; I was fixed on the idea that depression was my sole reality. But as I got introduced to Buddhism, and connected to the truth of dukkha, and implemented a regular mediation practice, I began to see that this wasn’t my only reality. Yes, there is something that happens in my brain that makes me have periods of times when I am depressed, but are there plenty of times when I am not.
And as I saw my experience more clearly, I saw other’s experiences more clearly. And could see that there’s a lot of people experiencing dukkha, many quite similar to the dukkha that I am experiencing. So I can rely on them for support and wisdom, and also not take the struggles in my life so damn personally. We are all experiencing dukkha, and that erases the hopelessness for me.
For me, hope springs from a point of connection, from feeling I am not alone, from knowing that others have walked this path before me or beside me. When I truly know dukkha I know that this is a universal experience and I have a choice on how I respond. And yeah, of course I have moments when I get stressed or worried or sad, but hopelessness is no longer my default. I can always find at least a small sliver of connection and hope.
Throughout that lesson with my student, we tried to focus on acceptance of her new reality. She can still ski, it’s just going to look a little bit different. As she relaxed into the experience I could see moments where she stopped fighting her diagnosis and just enjoyed skiing and had some hope this was something she could continue to do with her family for years to come. And it was a beautiful thing to watch.