Dissatisfaction can lead to Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is a Buddhist term literally meaning “awakened mind” that can translated as “the mind that seeks the way.” It’s the part of us which aspires to free ourselves and others from suffering – arising, ironically, from dissatisfaction. We think, “There must be a better way,” or, “There must be more to life than this.” Then we arouse the determination to find out, and this propels us down the path of practice. Therefore, it is critically important for you be dissatisfied with your life.
Rough Show Notes:
May You Experience Profound Dissatisfaction
My wish for you in a new year:
I want you to be profoundly dissatisfied with your life. I want you to question whether you’re doing everything you can to respond with compassion to the suffering in the world. I want you to notice where you fall short of your own aspirations… be passionately curious about your remaining fears, neuroses, stinginess, inhibition, lack of inspiration: What is beneath these things? What greed, hate, or delusion are you still holding on to?
And more: What have you not yet seen for yourself? What might your life look like if you felt truly free? What are your ideals and why haven’t you devoted more of yourself to fulfilling them? Why are you unable to be fully authentic, or present for intimacy?
I want you to be passionately driven to understand and practice with all of these sources of dissatisfaction, such that you are naturally inspired to practice, and the ancients said, as if your hair is on fire. To sit more often and longer, to push yourself in your practice, to constantly seek to expand your understanding of the Dharma and of yourself…
To cultivate what my teacher calls, “the habit of profound thought” – viewing each and every difficulty we encounter in ourselves as a manifestation of our separation from our Buddha-nature, and therefore as an entry point for investigation leading, eventually, to liberation and a more enlightened life.
To take advantage of each day as a precious opportunity, as 8th-century Indian monk Shantideva said:
“So hard to find such ease and wealth
Whereby to render meaningful this human birth!
If now I fail to turn it to my profit,
How could such a chance be mine again?”[i]
I want to be dissatisfied with my life in all these ways, too.
Isn’t Buddhism About Letting Go of Dissatisfaction?
Isn’t Buddhism about letting go of dissatisfaction? Yes and no. Our ultimate goal is, indeed, to free ourselves and others from dukkha (dissatisfaction, stress, suffering). [See Episode 27 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 2: The Four Noble Truths]
But we don’t attain that simply through wishful thinking.
So we can be free from dissatisfaction simply by giving up the desire to be free from dissatisfaction, right?
Well, to a limited extent, perhaps. We might use the tools of Buddhism – meditation, mindfulness, teachings – to give up our attachments and agendas at any given moment and thereby relieve ourselves from dukkha momentarily.
But to do this regularly, or only, is spiritual bypassing.[ii] As John Welwood, who coined the term, describes it: “a common tendency… among Western spiritual seekers to use spiritual ideas and practices to avoid dealing with their emotional unfinished business.”
It is not true Buddhist practice to achieve peace and liberation by giving up your desire for peace and liberation. It is not true Buddhist practice to relieve the dissatisfaction you feel due to your own limitations in terms of wisdom and compassion by simply learning to be satisfied with those limitations.
On the other hand, the last thing we need is to get embroiled in a fruitless struggle involving ideal-grasping, self-criticism, a sense of inadequacy, etc.
The key is to learn to discern useful dissatisfaction from the kind that just leads to more self-absorption and misery, and then to learn how to transform our dissatisfaction into Bodhicitta, the mind that seeks the way.
The Problem with Ordinary Satisfaction
Before I get to the question of useful dissatisfaction, what’s the problem with satisfaction? Why would I wish for you to be dissatisfied? Satisfaction seems like an appropriate goal when we reflect on the negative aspects of dissatisfaction, as described by these synonyms:
Dissatisfied synonyms: annoyed, complaining, disappointed, disgruntled, fretful, frustrated, grumbling, sniveling, vexed, crabby, critical, envious, insatiable[iii]
In a bit I will talk about how useful dissatisfaction doesn’t have come with these negative feelings, but what is negative about satisfaction, which is basically feeling content?
One definition: “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.”[iv]
(Some) synonyms: comfortable, appeased, complacent
Now, there are positive synonyms for satisfaction too (fulfilled, gratified, at ease) but I want to focus on how satisfaction can lead to complacency.
When we are content, not wanting more or anything else, it feels lovely. There’s nothing wrong with feeling content and satisfied, except that we lack motivation to keep learning, growing, and challenging ourselves.
Comparing Ourselves to a Buddha to Arouse Useful Dissatisfaction
Growth and learning are optional, of course, at least once we graduate to the status of adults in whatever society we’re in.
However, from the Buddhist point of view, for us to get comfortable and coast through the rest of our lives is a deeply tragic waste of the opportunities we’ve ended up with.
The Buddha described it this way: Suppose the ocean covered the whole earth, and you threw a yoke into the water with a single hole. Within the ocean lived a blind sea turtle who only surfaced once every hundred years. The likelihood of the coincidence of the sea turtle putting his head through the yoke is comparable to the likelihood that you have ended up born as a human being and then not only encountering the Dharma but having the capacity and freedom to practice it.[v]
Apart from any benefit we might personally experience from practice, from growth and learning and challenging ourselves, you might say we also have a moral obligation to practice for others, because practice makes us more ethical, compassionate, selfless, generous, calm, perceptive, skillful, etc.
There is no point on the Buddhist path at which we’re encouraged to say, “Good enough.” The ideal is a Buddha, a fully awakened being, and such a person is so rare that according to Buddhist mythology, each world system in the universe ends up with only one.
It doesn’t matter if you believe Buddhas really exist. I don’t know that I do. But it doesn’t matter. It’s perfectly clear that people can be more or less Buddhalike, and path of growth and learning between our state and that of someone even 50% Buddha is more than long enough to occupy us for our entire lifetime.
The point is the direction we’re moving, not the final goal. A 1% increase in your compassion and wisdom between now and end of your life is well worth your time and ennobles everything you do.
Let us reflect for a moment on those Buddha qualities we can keep in mind to keep us from getting satisfied with ourselves: Boundless goodwill, compassion, and sympathetic joy for all beings, without discrimination; Uninhibited generosity, transcending self-interest in favor of the joy of intimate connection with all being; Profound equanimity based in transformative insight into the boundless, empty, interdependent nature of all things; Deep authenticity and inner peace arising from utter self-acceptance; Skillfulness in responding to the needs of suffering beings, based in an ability to get self out of the way and allow universal compassion to flow through you.
Useful Dissatisfaction Versus Ordinary Dissatisfaction
How do we allow dissatisfaction to arise in response to the contemplation of Buddha qualities – the contemplation of what discovery and growth is possible in this precious human life – without getting caught in the negative aspects of dissatisfaction?
To review, dissatisfied synonyms: annoyed, complaining, disappointed, disgruntled, fretful, frustrated, grumbling, sniveling, vexed, crabby, critical, envious, insatiable[vi]
As I mentioned earlier, the key is to learn to discern useful dissatisfaction from the kind that just leads to more self-absorption and misery, and then to learn how to transform our dissatisfaction into Bodhicitta, the mind that seeks the way.
The best way I can think of to describe useful dissatisfaction compared to ordinary dissatisfaction: Useful dissatisfaction is about the choices you make. You have no direct control over anything else. Therefore, no other kind of dissatisfaction is useful, even if it’s a natural part of being human.
Ordinary dissatisfaction is about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We experience dissatisfaction with our relationships, our jobs, our financial situation, the challenges and disappointments of our daily lives. The “circumstances in which we find ourselves” includes the body and mind we’ve ended up with: We experience dissatisfaction with our bodies, personalities, mental and emotional limitations, habitual behavior, lack of energy, our inhibition or lack thereof, etc.
It’s possible to examine our ordinary dissatisfactions and trace them back to useful dissatisfactions. What different choices can we make as we live our lives? What choices can we make that will bring us greater wisdom, compassion, and equanimity? Where are we neglecting our practice, or turning away from our own aspirations? Regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, how can we respond in a more Buddha-like manner?
Note: When I say the only useful kind of dissatisfaction is about the choices you make, because that’s the only thing you have any control over, am I saying it’s not useful to be dissatisfied with the injustice, suffering, and destruction we witness in the world? Absolutely not.
It’s essential to be dissatisfied with such things, but we must translate dissatisfaction with the external world into dissatisfaction with our own choices in order to make it useful. Ultimately, the question must be, “How do I respond? What should I do?”
Transforming Useful Dissatisfaction into Bodhicitta
Once we have identified a potential useful source of dissatisfaction, how do we actually make use of it, as opposed to getting caught in negativity?
Ordinary types of struggle with ourselves aren’t often fruitful, so we often resign ourselves to how we are, our current limitations in terms of understanding, compassion, authenticity, capacity for intimacy, etc.
But Dharma practice offers us a different way to approach our dissatisfaction
You don’t leap directly to responding to your life in a more Buddha-like manner. Well, to whatever extent you can, great! But most of the time we can’t.
We must take a leap of faith that something can be done – arouse Bodhicitta, the mind that seeks the way. The awakened aspect of ourselves that recognizing something is awry and thinks, “There must be a better way,” or, “There must be more to life than this.” Then we arouse the determination to find out, and this propels us down the path of practice.
Take a leap of faith based in your own intuition, hopefully some past experience, and trust in the advice and example of people you admire and respect.
Bodhicitta = Stubborn determination on behalf of beings to find a way to create positive change if there is any possibility whatsoever you will succeed
In Buddhism, Bodhicitta is seen as an absolutely essential component of practice, as something we can cultivate and strengthen, but also as a gift for which we should be grateful. As Shantideva says in The Way of the Bodhisattva:
“Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!
Except for perfect bodhichitta,
There is nothing able to withstand
The great and overwhelming strength of evil…
“Those who wish to overcome the sorrows of their lives,
And put to flight the pain and sufferings of beings,
Those who wish to win such great beatitude,
Should never turn their back on Bodhichitta.”[vii]
The Promise of Dharma Practice
Dharma practice is about employing all kinds of tools and teachings to change yourself from the ground up… to influence your body, mind, and behavior – sometimes directly, but more often indirectly. It takes time and effort.
But the message of Buddhism is that there is a cause (or causes) for every single emotional, mental, or spiritual problem or limitation you experience.
Just like a medical ailment… except the Buddha taught that all spiritual ailments can be cured, small or large
I am far from anything resembling a Buddha. I wouldn’t even claim to be 5% Buddha, if such things could be quantified. But I can attest to the fact that diligent practice based in useful dissatisfaction, over the course of years, can bring healing, resolution, growth, transformation, and increasing compassion, equanimity, and skillfulness.
The cure to any particular spiritual ailment of ours may or may not happen in our current lifetime. And assuming you don’t believe in multiple lifetimes, which I don’t, that means the cure doesn’t end up happening at all. But does that mean there is no benefit?
Example: I am still working on a source of useful dissatisfaction in my life. Despite the insights I’ve been blessed with, there’s some sense in which they remain in my mind instead of being fully embodied. When I’m going about my daily activities, I regularly experience impatience, irritation, and sometimes explosive anger when faced with practical delays and setbacks. My mind knows these experiences are based in a delusion that I am separate from the world and compelled to exert my will upon it in order to achieve an ever-elusive state of completion and satisfactoriness. My body, however, still defaults to a completely self-centered and willful mode of operating, as if all of my spiritual practice has been irrelevant.
So I contemplate: How can open up further to the Dharma, so it can permeate my body as well as my mind? Will I “solve” this problem, or koan, in this lifetime? I hope so. Maybe I’ll only make a little progress. But my intention to practice with this matter – to explore it, question it, keep my eye on it – changes my relationship to it. Instead of blindly indulging or justifying my anger, I gently hold useful dissatisfaction about it. It gives me something to work on, and motivates my practice. I know it is possible to embody realization more deeply.
To quote Shantideva again:
“Should bodhichitta come to birth
In one who suffers in the dungeons of samsara,
In that instant (s)he is called the buddhas’ heir,
Worshipful alike to gods and men.”
It is only bodhicitta that has arisen in this prisoner, not Buddhahood. But the instant bodhicitta has arisen her life is transformed. Just arousing the determination to practice is the pivotal turning point.
Coupled with Profound Self-Acceptance, Dissatisfaction Is Enlivening
Fortunately, over the course of Buddhist practice, useful dissatisfaction stops being painful, troubling, or discouraging, and starts being enlivening
This is because we come to realize we are empty of any enduring, independent, inherent self-nature. There is no kernel of essential “Domyo” inside me who is to blame for my inadequacies, no unchanging essence of “Domyo” who is inherently flawed. [See Episode 151 – The Emptiness of Self and Why It Matters]
An infinitely long and wide web of causes and effects have resulted in this being I call “Domyo.” Some of those causes were my own choices, but as those choices are in the past, there is absolutely no point in dwelling on them except as they might inform my future choices. Self-recrimination, self-pity, or wallowing in a sense of inadequacy are harmful and indulgent.
Judging my worthiness in comparison with others or even with my own ideals is similarly an utter waste of time and energy. We are all inadequate compared to a Buddha. The most enlightened people have an infinite amount they can still learn and master. If it turns out I’m really only 2% Buddha and have serious limitations when it comes to practicing the Dharma, what of it? What does that change in terms of bodhicitta? Am I going to give up out of self-centeredness, because I’m unwilling to make the effort unless I can achieve a certain level of spiritual attainment in this lifetime?
Once we really wake up to the folly of worrying about the self so much, we can embrace ourselves. A deep acceptance of our limitations, foibles, and blind spots becomes possible, and that deep acceptance is an antidote to getting caught in the negative aspects of dissatisfaction when we aim to engage such dissatisfaction usefully.
Then, when useful dissatisfaction no longer hurts, when it no longer triggers patterns of shame, self-recrimination, impatience, discouragement, etc., noticing that we’re feeling useful dissatisfaction is enlivening and motivating
We know we can investigate and find the source of our useful dissatisfaction, and it will open us up to new possibilities in terms of understanding, growth, and manifestation.
Talk to Dharma sisters, brothers, teachers… they understand
To keep our practice moving, then, it’s critical to open yourself up to dissatisfaction with yourself and your life. This can be daunting until you build faith that doing so can be useful – that Dharma practice promises learning, growth, and transformation with the exploration of any useful dissatisfaction, as long as you do so with Bodhicitta, a determination to find a way.
[i] Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1997.
[ii] Welwood, John. Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. 2002.
[v] “Chiggala Sutta: The Hole” (SN 56.48), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 1 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.048.than.html.
[vii] Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1997.