My Meditation on Dukkha (…a special kind of “dissatisfaction”)


I am about to turn 43.  Looking at that age written down, it looks like an old age.  It’s not elderly, but it’s old.  I always wanted to be 40.  It’s the age where you’re still young enough to do things, most people have their health, but very few consider you a “kid.”  You get respect at 40, while the degeneration process of the body and mind has not quite kicked in.  40 was my goal age.

The problem is that you don’t just get to stop at 40.  Honestly, the 3 years since I turned 40 have flown by like an instant.  The tick-tick-tick of time keeps moving.  In many ways, my life is about like I expected it to be now.  In other ways, it is completely off.  I thought there would be satisfaction in being in my 40’s.  Instead, there is a background of disappointment.  The millions that weren’t made (or at least 10’s of thousands) despite the hard work, the places I haven’t visited, the children who are leaving to live their own lives….I want them to be little again.  Where did the time go?  In short, just like happens to many of us who keep saying “if only i were XXX, then I’ll be happy” or “if only had, XXX then I will slow down,” and then we finally get there, I am on to the next bit of grasping for more.  We never really get there when we grasp for more…DukkhaDukkha is that dissatisfaction that you will always feel when you grasp at this reality, when you expect fulfillment from things of this world.  You can never gain permanent satisfaction in this reality.

This background of dissatisfaction, I’ve felt this way before.  It is the type of feeling that rushes in and makes me ask, “Is this all there is?”  I started getting these feelings in my mid-20s; I think it was when the testosterone of teenage life wore off.  In my 20’s, I had alcohol that confused the matter…lots of alcohol.  All the while, I searched for truth.  I found the teachings of the Buddha, and read about DukkhaBuddhism recommended a drug-free existence.  When I was 31, I decided that I could see things more clearly without alcohol.  So, I stopped drinking it.

Without alcohol, I could see more clearly.

Without alcohol, I could see more clearly.

It was at that point that understanding came much faster.  My motivation was much better, and my energy returned.  I could see things clearer.  Success in life began to accelerate; and I kept learning.

But that feeling kept returning, more powerful each time.  As I tried to anchor myself in this world, it became less rational.  Empty.  There is no meaning in this perceived reality.  It is emptiness.

As I age, it can be gut-wrenching.  The dissatisfaction!  Dukkha.  I think as I age, the impermanence of existence is more obvious.  I used to play the “I wonder what I’ll be doing in ten years” game.  I don’t like to play that game anymore…53 is not an age I am in a rush to attain, nor do I wish for my children to each be 10 years older, and certainly not my parents.  I can accept it, but I can wait for it…patiently.  No hurry to speed through 10 years.

Dukkha indeed.   Grasping at this life as if it were going to last forever.   All that I see around me will be gone one day.  All that I feel, all that I’ve worked for will be gone.  All that I intend to work for in the next 10, 20, 30 years will eventually be gone.  In 30 years I will be 73…if I make it to that age.

One of my goals...aging gracefully.

One of my goals…aging gracefully. ( –

When I slow down, breathe, and enjoy my existence now.  When I read, write, reflect and feel, when I am present in the moment, the dissatisfaction fades.  Writing, for me, is my meditation, and it is one of those times I feel most alive.  It is my craft and it completes me.  I think we all have one or more of those things we do that bring us back to the present moment.

When we are present in the moment, we are not grasping, and we find the end of dissatisfaction, and if we are sages we can escape Dukkha.

Beer, Fire, and on Being a Saber-Toothed Tiger’s Dinner


For context, you have to read this post first: Important Things, Useless Things, and Beer.

While it may be true that the big things matter most, the real genius of living with virtue is mastering what those things are.  In the story from my last post, the teacher says that family, health, friends, and favorite passions are the large stones, the things that matter most.  Isn’t that a bit prescriptive?  How does he know, and what gives him the right to tell me what are the “large stones” in my life?

So, telling me that there are things that should be important to me and things that shouldn’t be important is somewhat helpful, although not very specific.  On the other hand telling me what should be important to ME, is quite specific, but a bit presumptuous, no?

But isn’t it just common sense that your family would be one of those big things?  Let’s look a little closer.  What if you have raised your child one way, and she decides to go another?  What if she provides you no respect whatsoever?  As an adult, this descendant of yours has cut you off. Should I force my will upon her?  Do I invite her to Thanksgiving dinner no matter what?  Do I try to establish an intimate father/daughter relationship regardless of her impudence?  What are the factors that led to our estrangement?  Couldn’t they be a series of “little things?”  What if you are a firefighter, and you are called to extinguish a blaze during your own family holiday gathering?  Do you say, “Hey man, family is way more important, you are going to have to find somebody else!”?

As I think about “The Stones in a Jar” story more and more, I am starting to doubt its usefulness.  This poor professor thinks there is a whole jar full of “big things” and “little things.”  He thinks family, health, friends, and passions are large stones.  What he has missed is that these things are actually lumped collections of “little things.”  They are clumps of sand…they are the seemingly unimportant things that together make the whole of my life.  To say that family, friends, health and passions are important is fair, but to call them big things might not be all that helpful advice for leading a virtuous life.

We tend to be like this as humans, we like to categorize things as big things and little things.  I think it was necessary for our survival.  A saber-toothed tiger about to pounce on us is a big thing.  Whether to build a fire out of maple or oak, might be a much smaller thing.  In any case, couldn’t you classify either in the family, friends, health or passions column?  It is very hard to have any of them when you are dinner for a predator.  As far as building that fire, doesn’t that provide welfare for your family/friends, and maybe provide you with the warmth and light to pursue your passion?  Doesn’t building a fire keep you healthy by allowing you to cook, keeping you warm, and warding off saber-toothed tigers?

The devil is in the details, isn’t it?  The fact of the matter is that the “big things” are nothing more than a collection of little things, aren’t they?  In my humble opinion there are very few big things, indeed.  When it comes down to it, the big things (the “large stones”) are the concepts that guide my life and my philosophy.  I can think of three categories of them:

As an alternative story to the “Jar of Stones” (and a much shorter one), maybe we can view things as a series of “clay projects.”  I think maybe the 3 concepts above could represent the water.  With this water, I can mix in the little things, the sand, and create my big things.  When you have water, all you have is water.  When you have sand, all you have is sand.  When you artfully mix them, you can build, mold, fashion many “bigger things” with the clay you’ve formed.

…including family, friends, health, and passions.

Important Things, Useless Things, and Beer



NOTE:  There are several versions of this story.  After researching, I am reasonably confident that the author is unknown (if you think you’ve found one, let me know).  I’m sharing this version because of it’s humorous ending.  I find it delivers an important lesson in the “wisdom to know the difference” train of thought.

“A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty jar and proceeded to fill it with large stones. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. So the professor then picked up a box of small pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the large stones. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. Although with less confidence, they agreed it was.

Full or not?

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “Yes.” The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

“Now”, said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The large stones are the important things – your family, your children, your health, your friends, your favorite passions – things that, if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car.  The sand is everything else – the small stuff.  If you put the sand into the jar first” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the large stones. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out to dinner. There will always be time to clean the house, and fix the rubbish. Take care of the large stones first, the things that really matter.  Set your priorities. The rest is just sand”.

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented.  The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that, no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of beers.”

There is always room for beer.

My thoughts on this in the next post…but first some “food” for thought (read the caption):

Isn’t there room for cookies, as well?