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.

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