When the Center Can No Longer Hold, What Then?

By KM Huber

Dukkha is the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism and is usually translated as suffering, a concept that has always appealed to me about as much as the phrase falling apart, hence my on-again, off-again nearly thirty-year relationship with Buddhism.

Yet, it is to Buddhism that I always return, rather like everywhere I go there I am for as the Buddha said, “I teach only one thing: suffering and the cessation of suffering” (Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide).

What the Buddha did not say was “I teach pain and the cessation of pain.” Pain is a part of life but whether or not we choose to suffer is another matter.
Bloom of Peace 0613

While dukkha is the word the Buddha is said to have used for suffering, dukkha has more than one level. The first level concerns mostly our physical bodies and ultimately the fact that we die. This kind of suffering involves “outer discomforts” or physical pain.

The second level of suffering pertains more to our stress/anxiety in accepting that nothing stays the same, no matter how hard we might try to make it so. This is the “dukkha produced by change.”

The third level of suffering is often referred to as the “dukkha of conditioned states,” translated as “dissatisfaction” or “never satisfied.” I like Pema Chödrön’s explanation:

“Dukkha is kept alive by being continually dissatisfied with the reality of the human condition, which means being continually dissatisfied with the fact that pleasant and unpleasant situations are part and parcel of life.”

Over the decades, it actually has become apparent that if I immerse myself into each moment, the first two levels of suffering fade but I am still faced with the dukkha of conditioned states and for me, the most difficult. It is my choice whether to be dissatisfied or to accept that the moment will pass, hence the inherent difficulty with impermanence.

For any level of dukkha, meditation helps us strip away our storylines, the drama surrounding our pain. Meditation takes us into the energy of our suffering so whether or not we can do anything about the circumstances, we can begin to appreciate they will change.

If we accept that we fall apart and come together all through our lives, we begin to perceive life through compassionate eyes, first with ourselves and later with all those circumstances beyond our control. Because we are human, compassion is not our permanent state but the choice to return to compassion is always ours. It is our inner version of war and peace.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned….”
~William Butler Yeats~

Every time I read Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a poem written after World War I, I am reminded that was the war to end all wars, as if any war ever could. When we are at war with ourselves, we must remember that having compassion with ourselves when the center can no longer hold is where peace begins for everyone.

All three levels of dukkha wend their way through our lives: physical pain, decay, and death claim each of us; life will not stay the same for anyone; pleasure and pain are the states of the human condition.

The Buddha said, “I teach only one thing: suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Things fall apart and come together again. The suffering, or dukkha, is up to us.


KM Huber is a writer who learned Zen from a beagle. She believes the moment is all we ever have, and it is enough. In her early life as a hippie, she practiced poetry, and although her middle years were a bit of a muddle, she remains an overtly optimistic sexagenerian, writing prose. She blogs at kmhubersblog.com, may be followed on Twitter @KM_Huber or contacted by email at writetotheranch[at]gmail[dot]com.

© 2013 KM Huber. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact me at the above links to request permission.

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