2022-02-23 Satipaṭṭhāna (35) Wise about Pleasure and Pain
3:53PM Feb 23, 2022
There is an amazing quote from the Buddha. After he spent time doing ascetic practices, he went back to meditating in a way that he knew from earlier in his life, where he had experienced meditative joy. He said to himself, "There is no reason to be afraid of this kind of joy, this kind of pleasure."
The idea is that there are joys and pleasures we can experience, which we do not need to be afraid, or hesitant to feel. They actually are an important part of the practice. The Buddha went on to say about what he was discovering with the pleasure and the joy of meditation was: "This is the way to awakening – the way to freedom." So there is a path that opens up with pleasure, delight, and joy in practice.
To find that and use it wisely, is one of the tasks we are doing in meditation. Meditation is not supposed to be an endless series of grim pains. I have known people who have sat with a lot of physical pain in meditation, as I have, and benefited from doing so.
I have also known people who have sat with a lot of pain and discomfort in meditation and have not benefited from it. Or they benefited for a while, but then, it just became grueling – just going on and on. Some people will sit with unnecessary pain, because they think they are supposed to sit in a cross-legged meditation posture. After they move to a chair, they immediately feel so much better. Now, they are able to give themselves over to the present moment – rather than struggling with the pain of practice.
We do not want to only avoid pain and discomfort, and we do not want to only pursue pleasure and delight in the pleasant. Chances are we will stay close to our attachments. The idea is to become free. The idea is to engage in the world of pleasure and pain in a way that is freeing for us.
This requires some wisdom. How do I find my freedom? One of my favorite quotes is, "If you are only free when things are pleasant or comfortable, you are not really free." You need to become free when things are uncomfortable and when there is pain. It is not supposed to be stoic. We are not just putting up with pain, pain, pain. It is not supposed to be all difficult.
There is an art to opening up to pleasure. Part of that art is to really understand our relationship to pleasure and pain. Without using a spotlight or magnifying glass to study our reactivity, beliefs, and attitudes towards pleasure and pain, we probably will not find a wise way of being with pleasure and pain. Rather, we will just be driven by our lack of wisdom – our attachments or unhealthy beliefs that weigh us down.
Spend some time looking and seeing what you believe. Some people believe that life is only successful if there is pleasure. As soon as there is pain, or emotional or mental discomfort, it is a sign that somehow we've failed. We are not living up to the standard that a successful human being is wealthy, filled with joy and pleasure, and able to navigate life perfectly – like drifting on a cloud. If we cannot do that, then there must be something deeply wrong with who we are.
Believing something like that is just a delusion. Every human life will have its share of pains and pleasures. Both come with being human. Rather than believing it has to be one way – in the Dharma, we believe that we are practicing with whatever comes our way. We are finding a wise way through it – not trying to avoid it or to hold ourselves to some high standard of perfection.
Sometimes people who feel discomfort or pain will be angry at it, hostile to the pain or to themselves. Some people get restless. Some people get bored very quickly. Some people have a lot of ideas about who they are. They are trying to live up to their ideas, or to avoid them. They get triggered by the experiences of pleasure and pain: "I'm the victim. It is happening to me, all this discomfort." It is me, me, me. I am the one. It is all about me.
There is a way in which all the discomfort of life gets drawn into our identity – our idea of who we are, our history. It is not necessarily wrong. There are a lot of challenges in life. All the difficult things become a magnet to the concept of me as the victim – as the person experiencing it, the experiencer. This just makes things so much more difficult.
One of the exercises we do around pain is to feel it. You might try this right now. Close your eyes, and look around in your body for some place where there is some discomfort. Within reason, the more uncomfortable it is, the better for this exercise. Then in your mind tell yourself: "This is my pain. My pain is this way. My pain is in my knee. My pain is in my ankle. My pain." Just add the word "my." "I" am having pain. I am having pain.
Then take a deep breath and letting go. Be aware of the pain or discomfort and just call it "pain" or "discomfort" – without the "me" or the "I." Perhaps there is a difference between these two ways. It is not uncommon for people to start realizing that if they let discomfort just be discomfort, without the pronouns – without I, me, or mine as part of it – then some micro-muscles around the pain do not contract. Some of the micro-emotions do not contract and get tight. The "me, myself, and mine" brings along a lot of extra baggage. So, keep it simple – just pain, just pleasure.
When pain does arise, there are attitudes of being for or against it. There are intentions, agendas, and strategies we have. One of them is to get rid of the pain. If there is pleasure, some people do not feel safe with pleasure. There are reasons why some people feel distrustful of pleasure: "It is going to go away. I've been burned before." Or, "I'll get attached if there is too much pleasure."
What is the intention you have? What is your attitude or reaction to pleasure and pain? One of the remarkable things to learn is that it is possible to have equanimity towards pleasure and pain.
Turn towards it with mindfulness and look upon it just as you would look upon a bird. It's high up in the sky – that blue sky, just moving through the sky. It has a certain grace. You look up and you see that bird high in the sky. You do not take it to be "my" bird. [You don't say:] "The bird is not flapping its wings quite right. It's probably soaring differently. Someone needs to give it flying instructions. I am going to try to explain to it what it needs to do." We don't get involved in trying to fix it. We don't associate it with ourselves. It is just a bird flying in the sky. There is a lot of equanimity in just letting it be.
In the same way you would watch a bird fly through the sky – without appropriating it in any way, or needing to do anything about it – it is possible to have that kind of equanimity towards pleasure and pain. To learn that kind of equanimity is one of the very important parts of training in vipassana. It is not training to be stoic with all pain, and to be uninterested in all pleasure. There is an appropriate interest in both pleasure and pain. Some pains we learn from. We learn how to better take care of ourselves by paying attention to the pain and adjusting things.
But the pleasures of relaxation, of just being, or pleasures arising from meditation itself – are like someone who is saying: "Hey, come here. Come closer. This is the way. Follow me." There is a way in which meditative joy and pleasure is a support for practice. It is support for opening up, letting go, and relaxing more fully. Rather than holding on to the pleasure, the idea is to open to it, and feel it so that there is a settling and opening into the present moment – a deepening connection so that the mind gets quieter and stiller.
Becoming wise about pleasure and pain helps us. Wisdom about both is really helpful for meditation. Sooner or later in meditation, you will sit with pain. Sooner or later, you will sit with pleasure. For most of us, it is sooner rather than later.
This is part of the field of the Four Foundations for Awareness – to use the pleasure and pain of our experience as a support, as a foundation for learning to be aware. Pleasure and pain is not to be turned away from, or grabbed on to, but rather we are developing a heightened awareness of pleasure and pain – which is part of all experiences.
As we do this, we will start making a remarkable transition from the worldly dimension of pleasure and pain, to the spiritual dimension of it. We will talk in more detail about that tomorrow – what that means and how it works. Part of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is to make this distinction, and to be able to appreciate the difference between the two forms of pleasure and pain – the worldly pleasures and pain and the spiritual ones. So that is for tomorrow.
For today, I hope that you will try to discover more equanimity and spaciousness with pleasure and pain. You might try freeing yourselves from appropriating pleasures and pains as part of me, myself and mine – just pleasure, just pain. You are allowed to experience both and be at ease with both.
So, thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be with you in this way.