pleasure

The third arrow

The weekend that my wife told me she wanted a divorce, she took our kids away so that she could spend a few days with a friend. The children, who were four and six years old at the time, had been at school all day and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them. My wife thought this was no big deal, but to me it was a hard blow at a difficult time, and it set me up for a lonely weekend in an empty home. As with many people, my first instinct was to stuff myself with unhealthy, fatty foods, and to open a bottle of wine.

I imagine that evolutionary biology would say that we’ve evolved the instinct to eat high calorie foods at times of crisis, to help us weather whatever trials are ahead of us. Experientially, fatty, salty, carb-laden food like burgers and fries just feel comforting in the short term. But they often leave us uncomfortable, bloated, sluggish, and unhealthy. I felt this urge, but since I’d been working on being self-compassionate, I decided that a Thai curry, full of fresh vegetables, would be healthier and more pleasurable in the long term. I also avoided the temptation to drink, since I knew that was likely to make me feel depressed and self-pitying. I touched base with a few friends in order to let them know what was going on, and to get some emotional support. I went for a walk. I meditated.

None of this made the emotional pain I was going through vanish. Nor could I expect it to. But I wasn’t hiding from my pain, and I wasn’t doing anything that was going to negatively affect my wellbeing in the long-term. In fact I was doing many things—from exercising to bonding with friends—that would make me more resilient in the future.

The Buddha gave a very well-known teaching on the “two arrows,” which pointed out that the mind reacts to pain with resistance, which then causes more pain. Our initial pain is like being shot by an arrow. The pain that comes from our reactions is like being shot by a second arrow. But there’s a third arrow as well! This third arrow is in the same teaching, but for some reason the Buddha didn’t offer an image to go with it. Here’s how it’s described:

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.

It’s not so much pleasure that becomes our escape from pain, but its pursuit. Pursuing pleasure can distract us from pain, even if we never actually experience any pleasure. Emotional eating, trying to drink our sorrows away, compulsive Netflix binges, and so on — if they’re enjoyable at all, they usually end up making us feel worse in some way.

So what kind of arrow is the third arrow? Perhaps we could think of it as an arrow that’s been dipped in a narcotic drug. It numbs us for a while, but it leaves us with an emotional hangover.

The healthy alternative to the third arrow is practicing wise self-care. Wise self-care is any course of action that contributes to our long-term happiness and wellbeing and that helps us to cope better with our painful feelings.

Wise self-care is the opposite of the third arrow. Third arrow activity involves pursuing pleasure in an attempt to escape painful feelings; wise self-care starts with accepting those feelings. Third arrow actions have short-term pleasure as their aim; wise self-care takes into account our long-term happiness and wellbeing

Third arrow actions are reactive and unwise; wise self-care, as the name suggests, comes from a deeper, more mature perspective. Third arrow actions result in more suffering being created; wise self-care reduces our suffering, and in fact liberate us from suffering. Third arrow actions prevent us from growing and learning; wise self-care leads to growth. The third arrow is blind and habitual; wise self-care is aware and consciously chosen.

Wise self-care isn’t necessarily all about dealing with crises, though. It can be an ongoing effort to deal with the minor difficulties we experience in life.

If you keep trying to push away the jarring effect of being in messy surroundings, wise self-care might mean decluttering the house. If you worry about money and find looking at your bank balance to be stressful, it might mean creating a household budget. If you have low energy, wise self-care might mean getting eight hours of sleep, or taking a walk on your lunch break. It might involve making sure you see the doctor annually and the dentist twice a year, or taking a day off when you’re sick. It might mean setting up a daily meditation practice, or reading a book instead of watching TV. These are things that help us, and that also help us to help others. If we take care of and nourish ourselves, then we have more energy to help support others. In the long run, we need to take care of ourselves if we’re to be of service to others.

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Hiding from pain by pursuing pleasure

Fun fair long exposure Photo taken at the fun fair of Hoorn

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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Any meditation you can walk away from is a good meditation

chuck-yeager

Meditation’s not necessarily going to be easy or pleasant. You may find that you’re sitting with a chaotic mind, or that you’re falling asleep, or that you have physical discomfort. And there can be a tendency to label those times as “bad” meditations.

If that happens to you, I have two sayings that you might find useful:

  1. “Any meditation you can walk away from is a good meditation.”
  2. “The only bad meditation is the one you didn’t do.”

It’s the doing of the practice that’s the main thing; whether or not there was pleasure present isn’t that important.

Ironically, though, the less you worry about whether your meditation is pleasant or not and the more you just get on with doing it, the more likely it is that your meditation will be pleasurable. Life’s funny that way.

Just do it. It may not be easy, but it changes you in ways that make your life more meaningful, rich, connected, and (at times at least) joyful.

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Self-compassion is not selfish (Day 35)

Lotus, isolated on whiteIn his book, Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, Sangharakshita has some advice for those who feel guilty about wanting to be happy. I have to confess that I’d forgotten that it was possible to feel this way…

“How can we wish for the happiness of others if we are alienated from our own desire for happiness?

“Unfortunately, many of us in the West were given to understand when we were young that it is selfish to want happiness for onself, and we therefore feel unnecessarily guilty about wanting it. As a result, we can feel guilty even about BEING happy. ‘After all,’ the perverse logic goes, ‘with all my selfish desires for my own happiness, how could I possibly deserve to be happy?’ This further produces the still more perverse belief that if we are to make spiritual progress, we will necessarily have to subject ourselves to great suffering. Such a deep-down belief that you are undeserving, even basically wicked, will inhibit your practice of the Dharma from the very beginning.”

There are lots of connections with compassion and lovingkindness here, but the main one is the simple point that our kindness and compassion should include ourselves, and so we should learn to embrace our desire for happiness, and our desire to be free from suffering. Happiness here doesn’t mean one single thing, and it’s certainly not limited to going through life with a smile on your face. It includes joy, yes, but also a sense of meaning, and fulfillment, and purpose, and peace — including the peace of accepting being unhappy. We can be happy in the face of our own unhappiness.

Learning to embrace our desire for happiness is something I suggested earlier that we can do as a conscious act as we begin a session of lovingkindness practice. And learning to embrace our innate desire to be free from suffering is likewise something we can contemplate as we begin to cultivate compassion.

When we accept the truth that we want happiness, and that happiness is rather hard to find, that we want to be free from suffering, and yet can’t avoid suffering, we’re connecting with the most vital part of our being — that deep-down drive that gives rise to every action we perform. These desires fuel everything we do.

There’s a sense of vulnerability when we reflect in this way. After all, this being human is not an easy thing. It never has been and never will be. It is hard to want happiness and freedom from suffering in a universe where happiness is elusive and suffering is almost omnipresent. Accepting vulnerability opens the heart. But there is always some part of us, when we open up to our fragility, that is willing to give us kindly support and encouragement as we go through life. And we all need such support.

And having connected with these truths, having opened the heart, having connected with the part of us that wishes us well, it’s not hard to do the same reflections for a friend, a suffering person, someone we don’t know, a person we have problems with — anyone. Any person we can think about wants to be happy, and finds happiness elusive, wants to be free from suffering and is held captive by suffering. But the miraculous thing is that there is some inherent part of us that wishes them well. There is some part that all of us come equipped with, as part of our evolutionary heritage, that resonates with the sufferings of others, and that wishes freedom, peace, and happiness for them.

It can be painful for many people to come through their resistance and to accept that happiness (whatever that may mean for them) is a worthy and right motivation and goal. There are layers of guilt that have been erected to prevent this very realization, and peeling away those layers can be agonizing. It can be hard to accept feeling vulnerable, for we can confuse being vulnerable with being weak, and so we try to hide our vulnerability from ourselves and others. But when we do so — when we pretend that we’re not suffering, that everything in our lives is sorted, our defenses become an armor that bruises and harms others. We become callous and cold and driven, and we’re unwilling to see the vulnerability of others. At our worst, we despise the fragility of others.

Accepting our own tender and fragile desires to be happy and to be free from suffering is the beginning of true compassion. And in the end there is no self-compassion or other-compassion. There is just compassion:

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
– The Buddha

Attānaṃ rakkhanto paraṃ rakkhati.
Paraṃ rakkhanto attānaṃ rakkhati.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Is meditation supposed to make you happier?

Buddha statue at wat phasawangbun temple, ThailandRobert Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God, writes from time to time about his meditation practice, especially when he’s going on retreat, for example here and (most recently) here.

Wright has found, as many people have, that meditation improves his life. He talks of the “sharp, even cold, clarity” he gains from sitting, as well as the “warm and fuzzy” feelings that arise from that clarity.

Surprisingly, to my mind, Wright finds himself in the position of having to “defend” finding that meditation makes him happier. One commenter said, for example:

Well, if you’re talking about Buddhist meditation, I’m sorry to say that you’re missing the whole point. Whether you feel “good” or “bad” or “bored” or “fuzzy” or “ecstatic” or anything else in particular has nothing to do with the whole point of the thing.

Wright replied:

“Well, I wouldn’t say that how you feel has nothing to do with “the whole point of the thing.” According to the Buddha himself, the whole point of the thing is to find the causes of human suffering and eliminate them–and, though I have no first-hand experience with the complete elimination of suffering, I’m guessing it would feel pretty good.”

He’s absolutely right that the Buddha taught meditation as a way of eliminating suffering from our lives. If we meditate, then we will suffer less and experience more happiness. The goal of Buddhist practice, however, isn’t really happiness — it’s something more like peace. We naturally think of happiness as being the opposite of suffering, but that’s not really the case. Happiness is made more likely by meditation practice, but happiness will inevitably tend to come and go. The state of enlightenment would seem to be a kind of equanimity that allows this coming and going without getting worked up about happiness’s arrival or departure. I suspect that’s what Wright’s commenter had in mind.

And yet it has to be said that meditation will, on the whole, make you happier.

Furthermore, happiness is a goal in meditation, or at least part of the goal. The traditional description of Buddhist meditation states includes a series of experiences of pleasure and joy that can be rather intense. Again, ultimately, we pass through these pleasurable and joyful states and emerge into a state of cool equanimity that’s much more satisfying on a deep level than any experience of pleasure or happiness we can have. And yet, pleasure and happiness are part of the meditative path.

So meditation ought, in our lives and during our meditation practice itself, to make us happier. This of course isn’t linear or mechanical. Our lives are complex and there are many factors affecting our sense of well-being. So there will be ups and downs. But if your meditation practice is not, on the whole, helping you to be happier, then there’s something wrong.

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When things get too much, change the channel

Sometimes a person just can’t find any stillness anywhere. Maybe you have epilepsy or chronic pain, or are wildly worried about a child or other loved one, or have been rejected in love or had the bottom fall out financially. In other words, as a wise therapist, Betsy Sansby, put it, like there’s a nest of bees in your chest.

Sometimes the inner practices fail you – or at least aren’t matched to the pickle you’re in. You’ve let be, let go, and let in. You sat to meditate and it was like sitting on the stove. You tried to be here now and find the lessons – and wanted to whack the person who told you to do this. You still feel awful, overwhelmed, angry, afraid, inadequate, or depressed. Now what?

Sometimes it helps to change the channel, to take some kind of action. Watch TV, eat a cupcake, ask for a hug, get out of the house, something (not harmful) to shake things up, distract yourself, tune out, burn off steam, etc.

At some point you still have to engage the mind directly and do what you can with your situation. But there is certainly a place for respite or pleasure in its own right, plus these help refuel you for challenges.

Plus, changing channels has the built-in benefit of taking initiative on your own behalf. This helps counter the natural but harmful sense of helplessness that comes from tough times, and it supports the feeling that you and your needs truly matter.

How?

For starters, give yourself permission to change the channel. Sometimes people get stuck in a situation, relationship, or feeling and think it’s more noble, awake, open, mindful, accepting, or therapeutic to stay with it, even if it hurts like crazy and isn’t getting any better. Sure, let’s not err on the side of suppressing feelings or running from the first hint of discomfort. But let’s also not err on the side of running laps around a track in hell.

Then do something. It doesn’t need to be ambitious. Usually the simpler, the better.

Try physical pleasure – which helps calm down the stress machinery of your brain. Run water over your hands. Roll your head around your neck. Smell an orange. Look at a flower.

Treat your body well. Eat some protein. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Do vigorous exercise if you can. Remember your vitamins.

Broaden your perspective. Look out the window. Consider your situation from a bird’s-eye view, a more impersonal angle. Consider how someone (real or imagined) who deeply loves you would look at it. Think about it amidst seven billion other humans, or in the sweep of history. (Of course, not to diminish, dismiss, or shame your own pain.)

Entertain yourself. See a movie, listen to music, go watch a show. Look at Red Bull stunts, concert videos, amazing pong shots, or rock climbing on YouTube (alright, some of my faves) or whatever you like.

Set something in order; exercise control somewhere. When I feel depressed, I make my bed. Keep it simple: fold one pair of dish towels, separate the big forks from the little ones, straighten one shelf of books.

Connect with others (as long as you don’t feel overwhelmed by it). Call a friend. Pet your pet. Sit in a coffee shop full of strangers and enjoy the bustle.

Go somewhere that feeds your heart. Maybe sit under a tree, or by a stream, lake, or sea. Perhaps a church or temple. Or a park with children playing, a museum, or a garden.

Every life is hard sometimes, and some lives are terribly hard all of the time. Do what you need to do. It’s OK to change the channel.

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Reflections on pleasure, beauty and blessings

We live in a culture where the pursuit of pleasure is alive and flourishing.  We work hard and we seek relief and escape that we find in many different ways, many pleasurable ways.

For some, pleasure is defined as freedom from work, unstructured time, travel, leisure activities, not following a proscribed plan, or leaving responsibilities behind.

Pleasure can be seen as an escape from:

  • our responsibilities (recreating rather than working)
  • things that are “good” for us (eating chocolate rather than a salad) or
  • things that benefit us (taking a day off from exercising).

We many see exercise or meditation in this way, activities that we “should” do.

For many years I struggled in my meditation practice. I struggled because I believed that meditation should be a way to free my mind of thoughts and I should enter a state of bliss. My meditations were not like that.

Rather than a quiet mind, my sitting meditations consisted of list-making, obsessive thinking and attempting to follow a structure, like counting breaths, letting go of thoughts, and putting thoughts aside until the meditation was finished.

Those forms of meditation were not helpful for me. I felt frustrated and I felt as though I had failed to meditate correctly.

I started thinking about mindfulness and how to apply it in my daily life. As I practiced mindfulness off the cushion,  my intuition told me it was a form of meditation that suited me. I instinctively knew that I would benefit by practicing mindfulness, that I would learn about myself and become more aware, kinder, more honest and more generous to myself and others.

Then I read a comment about mindfulness that helped me to commit to this practice without feeling like I should do it but rather I want to do it. I read that mindfulness is pleasurable in itself, and I found it to be true.

Tasks previously considered mundane, repetitive or unimportant, when done mindfully, became pleasurable.  Sitting with a friend is pleasurable.  Driving to work early in the morning became pleasurable. Even sitting in meetings, when mindful, became pleasurable.

Mindfulness, being fully in the present moment, giving full attention to what I do is truly pleasurable. Mindlessness, running on automatic pilot, doing one thing and wishing to do something else or be somewhere else is the opposite of pleasurable.

Being a person who loves pleasure, and experiencing the pleasure of mindfulness made the practice something I wanted to commit to and has become a way of life for me. When I am mindful, I am living life fully, in the present moment and even during difficult times, I see beauty, blessings and wisdom that is always present.

When I am mindful, my mind is quiet and my heart is open and I find great pleasure in that. I wish the same for you.

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Pleasure and pain: the worldly winds

Vidyamala talks about the worldly winds of pleasure and pain as part of the Triratna Buddhist Community’s International Urban Retreat, where for one week (8 – 15 October, 2011) people around the world at Triratna centers intensify their practice while staying their your home situation. The Urban Retreat is about learning to make Buddhist practice real and effective in daily life.

You can see more Triratna videos at from Vimeo.com.

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When meditation seems impossible

My partner goes for a run and comes back looking despondent. ‘I struggled all the way round,’ he says. ‘It was as if I’d never run before.’ He has run several times a week for 3 years now.

‘I know how you feel,’ I say. I’m not thinking about running, though, but meditation. I’ve been meditating for some years now, but when I sit down sometimes it feels impossible. My head itches and the items on my ‘to-do’ list compete for attention. There are odd bodily sensations that could be illnesses in the making. And if all else fails, there’s my good old tinnitus.

Outside responsibilities of work, family and friends, I tend to navigate by feelings. I do things that feel good and avoid things that don’t. This modus operandi has its drawbacks. ‘When did you last use that windsurfing board?’ friends ask. Or ‘I haven’t heard your djembe recently.’ Then there’s my Arabic dance gear languishing at the back of the wardrobe.

With all these activities, pleasure and interest waned. And because these were my motives, there was no reason to carry on. But I’m not meditating for pleasure and interest. Or am I? When I started out, I had ideas of self-improvement. But now I’m told there’s no self to improve. Perhaps I’m trying to re-create an experience I once had, where the veil between me and the world – a veil I didn’t know was there – fell away for half a day.

Who knows? When I’m swamped with difficult feelings, I certainly don’t. And I’m not used to spiritual discipline. The only precedent in my experience is kneeling on the hard, polished floorboards of the school hall to recite the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed with straight faces because Miss Borman rapped you on the knuckles with a ruler in front of the rest of the class if she caught you smirking.

So, when the going gets tough, why don’t I just get up from the cushion and make myself a cup of tea? Well, sometimes I do. But what about those times I don’t? For inspiration, I ask my partner why he finishes his runs. He says it’s because he remembers what life as a couch potato was like.

I’m not blessed by a recollection of the quality of life before meditation. But I am blessed by the anxiety that sends its sinuous tentacles into each and every meditation, reminding me how unmanageable my life can get. So I sit on in fear. I sit on in the shadow of Miss Borman, who believed in our own good even if she had a funny way of showing it. I sit on in the hope that ‘this too will pass’ even though I don’t know it will. I sit on in the hope that the practice will do the ‘me’ I persist in believing in ‘good.’ I sit on to keep myself and the world company. I sit on out of habit and in doubt, feeling like an idiot. I sit on out of gratitude and joy. I sit on to find comfort at least in discipline. I sit on without knowing why. I sit on.

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