Hiding from pain by pursuing pleasure


Merry-go-round canopy.

There’s a famous teaching, the Sallatha Sutta, in which the Buddha discusses our suffering as consisting of “two arrows.” The first arrow is simply the unavoidable suffering that we all experience as a result of being human. We’re all going to experience loss, hurt feelings, physical pain, illness, etc. The wise person simply observes this pain mindfully. The unwise person responds to suffering through resistance: “Why is this happening to me? This is terrible!”

The Buddha called this reaction “grief, sorrow and lamentation,” and he pointed out that this was like responding to the first arrow with a second one! Our resistance to pain simply causes further pain—perhaps even more than we’d originally experienced. Every thought we have along the lines of “This is awful; I wish it would stop!” merely adds another stab of pain.

But the Buddha pointed our another unhelpful way that we commonly respond to pain. Many people skip this when discussing the Sallatha Sutta—probably because the Buddha didn’t offer an image to accompany this third form of suffering.

“Being contacted by painful feeling, he seeks delight in sensual pleasure. For what reason? Because the uninstructed worldling does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure.”

Those with more wisdom know that the escape is, once again, mindfully bearing with the painful feeling until it passes. He or she “understands as it really is the origin and the passing away” of the discomfort.

It seems to me that the attempt to escape from underlying painful feelings (which are more likely to involve boredom, anxiety, or loneliness than physical pain) more often involves the pursuit than the experience of pleasure.

There may be pleasure involved when we attempt to hide from discomfort by bingeing on ice cream, indulging in a marathon session of “Orange is the New Black,” or having a few too many beers, but often there isn’t. In these cases it’s the pursuit itself that is the real distraction. That’s why these activities continue for so long. I sometimes find myself, late at night, restlessly clicking on a link to read “just one more article,” as if pleasure was just a webpage away. There’s little pleasure in this restive surfing, but much pursuit. It’s because stable pleasure isn’t found that we keep faring on.

For me, the creative escape from the fruitless pursuit of pleasure comes when I shift my attention from the screen in front of me to the unpleasant feelings in my body that are driving my behaviors. The moment I connect with my felt experience, it seems that an umbilical cord of emotional attachment between me and the computer is broken. Mindfully aware of my discomfort, I am now free to act in ways that are more truly in my best interests. I’ve stepped out of the “faring on” that is samsara—at least temporarily.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • This is a beautiful insight and very practical.

  • Really well writen article!
    I’ve arrived at the same insight recently and I didn’t know how to really put it into words.

    I’ve struggled with addictive behavious for more than 10 years and only when I started to practise mindfulness and to be aware of my disconfort, anxiety, boredom and craving was I able to change my behavior.

    I’m on a 2 week streak of avoiding mindlessly surfing/gaming, sugar and weed, which were my main sources of “pleasure” and apparent confort, but these vices brought me more suffering than pleasure.

    I’m now getting aware of how some other self-sabotage behaviours are related to this incessant pursuit of pleasure as a way to supress my feelings of “suffering”. I’m considering becoming sexual abstinent for a year because the way I approach sex causes me more harm that pleasure (to me and my sexual partners).

    My main motivation is to drive all this energy and focus to other more meaningful aspects of my life: wisdom, connection, creativity, meaning, self-mastery, …

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I will delve more into buddism in the next weeks (at least).

    Regards from Portugal,


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