Pleasure and Pain – is that all there is?

Over the summer, I was at my dad’s house and his good friend stopped by. He’s a very friendly and nice guy and one who enjoys philosophy and analyzing the zeitgeist of our current culture, whatever that may be at the time.

This day he says to me, “David, all there is is pleasure and pain”. This was meant to be an awe-inspiring and irrefutable insight. At the time I didn’t say too much about it. I haven’t  let it go. “There’s only pleasure and pain”… it seems to cover everything at first glance and explains humanity’s motivations – but if you look at it from a Buddhist perspective, it’s such a precise expression of that-which-keeps-us-stuck in Samsara.

If there is only pleasure and pain, the whole objective of life would be to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And, in truth, this is precisely what many people (and animals) are in the process of doing. This seeking and avoiding could also be called “clinging” or “attachment” and “aversion”. These are the very things the Buddha says lead to suffering. Isn’t it the very addiction to pleasurable sensations that leads us to our consumeristic culture? Isn’t it what drives us crazy as we constantly seek out newer, better, more satisfying experiences that never really satisfy us – but leave us in debt and frustration, in agitated states of desire, or addiction? Isn’t it the seeking that causes us to live in our minds, instead of being with what is actually happening? And isn’t it the fear of pain that causes us to constantly judge ourselves, avoid experience, hate one another, and grow more guarded and tight in our hearts and our minds, fearing loss, separation, loneliness and death?

If pleasure and pain don’t cover all of the options, then what does? Well, for starters, there is a quality called ‘equanimity’ that functions as an antidote to clinging and aversion. With equanimity, one can experience pain without the accompanying state of mental suffering. Similarly, one can experience pleasure without automatically clinging to that pleasure, thinking that it’s the only path to happiness. Developing equanimity allows the mind to stay steady as pain or pleasure arises, persists, and passes. A calm abiding becomes possible for one who develops equanimity. Where does calm, peaceful abiding fit on the scale of pleasure and pain?

The pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is also a solitary one. What if one’s pleasure comes at the price of someone else’s pain? If you can’t feel someone else’s pain, then should it factor into your equation? Wouldn’t the world be viewed as a zero sum game, with resources that bring pleasure being hoarded, while painful and unpleasant parts of life shoved onto the backs of the less fortunate? This approach sounds somewhat familiar. It is compassion that is the antidote to pleasure-and-pain’s solitary end game. Opening oneself to the pain of others, cultivating non-harming, well-wishing, and loving kindness is the path of an open heart – one that leads to the benefit of all and leads to a more freedom for those who practice it.

What’s to be said for renunciation by those who see only pleasure and pain in the world? It’s quite clear that the path of letting go – simplifying – finding happiness in the practices of mindfulness and concentration is quite the opposite of constantly seeking satisfaction through the acquisition of that-which-brings-pleasure.

The Buddha’s path has often been described as going “against the stream”. Most of the world seems to be spellbound by the illusion that “there’s only pleasure and pain” but a few have found the value of equanimity, compassion, and renunciation. Given the inevitability of death, the horrors of treating the world as a zero-sum game of accumulation, and the inherent lack of satisfaction from raw sense experience, perhaps it’s worthwhile exploring this path that goes against the stream to see where it leads.

Movement within stillness and stillness itself

Every teaching I come across these days seems to point to Awareness as the primary realization of spiritual practice — the unborn, aware, awake, “that which knows”. All beings have this aware quality. It precedes any sensation, any phenomenal activity. It’s supremely simple and closer, even, than our thoughts or our bodies.

“Rest in Natural Great Peace”, says Howie Cohn all the time, quoting Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. That natural great peace is the ‘knowing’ that lies beneath the thinking mind. Even thoughts are known. Thoughts are ripples in the stillness of awareness. Everything is, in a sense, ripples in that still awareness.

When the mind has a chance to settle down, there is an opportunity to rest in that still awareness. If the body and mind are restless, sleepy, angry, wanting, or doubting (experiencing the hinderances), then it’s not easy — perhaps not possible — to catch a glimpse of this stillness. As the mind settles, there is a greater and greater opportunity to discover, and even rest, in that stillness. With stillness of mind, one’s object of meditation, for instance the breath, becomes very tranquil but also very easy to stay with. Like a ripple in a still lake, it’s so easy to spot, so easy to rest one’s attention on. There’s not a lot of distraction around the breath to compete with it. It’s peaceful. It’s calming. The attention is collected, secluded. Desires to be doing anything else fall away. There’s sukkkha, or joy arising from concentration.

Finding the stillness of awareness can be a great aide to breathing practice in this way.

There is still more to explore, though. Becoming stabilized in awareness-in-itself is also possible. After discussing one pointedness, Phillip Moffett invited those at the concentration retreat to become aware of ‘knowing’… of ‘knowing knowing’ and finally ‘knowing knowing knowing’, where the awareness is turned back on itself and uses itself as it’s own object. I recall Alan Watts sort of denying the possibility of this with his “teeth cannot bite themselves” argument, but Phillip invited us to do just this and it was a unique and powerful experience. There have been echoes of it since the retreat and I see so many teachings pointing to it now. It takes practice to put yourself in a position to experience a calm abiding in only knowing, but Phillip pointed to it as a vast and interesting landscape. I think I only made it through to the lobby.. but I have faith that there’s much more to come.