Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Buddhist Meditation Texts

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Our usual responses to pleasure and pain

The next part of the sutta begins to tease out the difference in the kinds of suffering experienced by those who do not practice meditation and do not cultivate mindfulness:

The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.

Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.

So this is what we could call “reactivity,” where an initial experience of pain is met with mental anguish. Some commentators talk as if the first of the two arrows is necessarily physical pain, while the second is emotional pain, but it’s not always like that. In fact most of the time it’s not like that.

A good example is from a talk on mindfulness I heard the other night, where the speaker talked about seeing someone he knew on the other side of the street, waving, and getting no response. It’s always painful on a gut-feeling level when that happens, but how we respond to that initial pain is crucial, because this is where we turn pain into suffering. We can tell ourselves stories that the person ignored us, that they don’t like us, that no one likes us, that we’re unlovable, and so on, and so on. A simple pang of pain (arrow number one) gives rise to grief, lamentation, and distress (arrow number two).

“As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is resistant. Any resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure.

Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him.

He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling. As he does not discern the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling, then any ignorance-obsession with regard to that feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain obsesses him.

This is another “emotionally unintelligent” response we commonly have to pain: we try to escape pain through pursuing pleasure. We don’t recognize that the painful feeling is some thing that arises (“origination”) and passes away, and that it’s OK to simply allow it to do that. We experience “resistance” to the presence of the painful feeling. We don’t want it to be there. We think that there’s something “wrong” with us if there’s a painful feeling present.

And so we want to replace the painful feeling with a pleasant one. And we think that the way to do this is to “delight in sensual pleasure.” We want to have a pleasant experience. If we go back to the example of a friend not having acknowledged our wave of the street, we move from thinking “Nobody like me” to thinking “I wish that I was like my friend — everybody likes him/her.” We assume that if we were liked then this would be a source of pleasure. Now this is where things can get really tricky, because if there’s no prospect of a pleasant experience then that in itself becomes painful, and then we react to that too!

Or we may simply try to create a pleasant experience. We might try being rude to someone else, on the assumption that since (we think) someone has been rude to us and (presumably) taken pleasure in it, then if we’re unpleasant to someone else then we may get pleasure from that. Or we may go shopping or have a drink, or try to lose ourselves in watching television.

Sometimes these things to work to distract us from our unpleasant feelings and the cascade of reactive thoughts and emotions that they unleash, but of course they don’t help us to get rid of the underlying tendency to reactivity, which will simply manifest again the next time we have an unpleasant experience. And of course those pleasant feelings too will pass away. Sometimes that too can be a source of disappointment and therefore of a kind of pain. And so the cycle goes on.

Identifying with experience

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person joined with birth, aging, and death; with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering and stress.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the passage. The two paragraphs quoted above explain the dynamics of reactivity — how an initial painful feeling (usually mental rather than physical) leads to a cascade of painful responses — but here the Buddha is pointing to the underlying problem, which is our relation to our feelings.

How we relate to our feelings is crucial. The fundamental problem with the spiritually-untrained mind is that it identifies with its experience. We have a painful, pleasant, or neutral feeling, and we fail to recognize that it’s simply a phenomenon arising in the space of consciousness and that it is not inherently a part of us.

Instead, we assume on some almost instinctual level that our feelings are indeed a part of us, and that they say something about who we are in our essence. So when we experience pain (the friend not acknowledging us) we quickly move to the assumption that there is therefore something wrong with us (nobody likes me).

It’s hard to put into words exactly what this means and how it works. In essence it’s something we have to experience by practicing mindfulness. When we meditate we start to see how often we identify with the contents of our consciousness — the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that pass through us. And we start to stand back from those thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and to have a less “joined” relationship with them.

No longer attached to them, and no longer identifying with them, we start to see them as simply experiences that are passing through. And this is enormously liberating.

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