Pleasure and Pain

“Don’t run after pleasure and neglect the practice of meditation.  If you forget the goal of life and get caught in the pleasures of the world, you will come to envy those who put meditation first.”

(Buddha – Dhammapada, Chapter 16:1)

We all want highs.  We desire elevating our spirit.  We seek out pleasure as if that is the goal of life.  The flip-side is that no one desires pain.  We avoid it at all costs.  This happens on a cellular level.  Our cells are programed to take in nourishment, take in the good, and release toxins.  The cell membrane is that barrier between the inner and outer worlds which functions as a protection for that which is on the interior.  It guards the life force in the cells system.  Our whole body is comprised of trillions of cells all serving in this capacity.  Our whole being, as one system, then, is designed to be watchful of what it takes in and what it releases.

As we develop, move out of infancy into childhood, we become slightly more sophisticated.  As Zen teacher, Grace Schireson writes in, “Blowing in the Wind: Facing Challenges in Zen Practice,” rather than simply seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, we desire to accumulate pleasure and run from losses in pleasure.  Pleasure and pain morph into gain and loss.  The child begins using her/his executive function in the brain to make decisions and strategize on how to maximize pleasure.  Instead of passively experiencing pleasure and pain, the child will want to do things to continue pleasurable experiences, such as playing more with her toys.

As a child becomes a young adult, a third morphology takes place.  Praise becomes the face of pleasure, and blame becomes the face of pain.  Praise and blame become our motivating factors.  We seek out the praise of others, our teachers for example.  We like the feeling of being told how good we are.  Conversely, we shy away from blame – being told we should not do “X”.

Lastly, as we enter into old age, looking back at the legacy we’ve left behind, the predominant seeking and avoiding pattern transforms into fame and shame.  Will people remember us in a good light or a bad light?

These four pairs:  pleasure/pain, gain/loss, praise/blame, and fame/shame, profoundly motivate us even when we are conscious of their presence in us. 

Some questions we might consider:

  1.  How much pleasure, gain, praise, and fame are enough for me?
  2. What is the cost of seeking out or avoiding these four pairs – emotionally, economically, environmentally?

The Buddha hints at an alternative to these four pairs:  meditation.  Meditation is not just an alternative, but an antidote.  If we take the medicine of meditation – following our breath, stilling our mind, making the intention to be upright, finding the Buddha within our own heart, having faith in our own efforts, trusting that the universe has a plan for me – then we may begin to experience the benefits.

Buddha at Pure Land of Iowa (See upcoming retreats)

We also need to consider our physical, emotional, family, and work-lives.  We can ask the following questions:

  1. On the physical level, am I eating foods that harm me or maintain my health?  Am I getting enough fresh air and exercise?  Do I get enough sleep?
  • On the emotional level, do I have ways to deal with my anger and anxiety?  Can I trace back negative feelings to present events to my past – such as early childhood trauma?  Do I get enough social support, or do I find myself isolated from people?  How happy am I with life in general?
  • On a family level, how able am I to show my love and gratitude to the members of my family?  Do I give my children space to be themselves, or am I constantly expecting them to be more than they are?  Are my children, spouse, and parents my teachers on the path to Enlightenment, or are they roadblocks to my Enlightenment?
  • On a work-life level, do I love what I do?  Does it provide a service to others?  Does it harm the environment?  Do I come home from work generally feeling satisfied?

The responses to these questions are most probably mixed for most of us.  We need to pay attention, though, because all these levels will have an effect on our meditation.  To the degree that the external world is taken care of, to that degree will we experience the benefits of meditation.  If our external world is a mess, it will be difficult to sit still and in peace.  The Buddhist path asks us to consider our whole life – external and internal – not just meditation.

I recently came across this verse in the Katha Upanishad, that I believe sums up or perhaps completes what the Buddha said.  In this Upanishad, a young man is questioning the lord of death about what happens upon death.  Does one live on?  Does one cease to exist?

Yama, the lord of death responds,

The joy of the spirit ever abides,

But not what seems pleasant to the senses.

Both these, differing in their purpose, prompt

Us to action.  All is well for those who choose

The joy of the spirit, but they miss

The goal of life those who prefer the pleasant.

Perennial joy or passing pleasure?

This is the choice one is to make always.

Those who are wise recognize this, but not

The ignorant.  The first welcome what leads

To abiding joy, though painful at the time.

The latter run, goaded by their senses,

After what seems immediate pleasure.

We are all travelling the bumpy path to Enlightenment.  None of us are perfect.  In loving ourselves fully, warts and all, we enter the Universal Door to the Buddha Land.

Buddha Blessings!
The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


Subscribe to receive Dharma teachings and
Zen Fields updates to your in-box weekly!