Gain and loss

“Bhikkhus, these eight worldly conditions revolve around the world, and the world revolves around these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, disrepute and fame, blame and praise, and pleasure and pain.
– from AN 8:6, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The middle way that the Buddha talked about encourages us to see gain and loss as two sides of the same coin, and that collecting these coins is an endless loop of longing, satisfaction, frustration and anxiety. Seeing clearly that loss and gain are inseparable can point us towards a peace that is not dependent on our position in the world at a given moment.

When we get a raise or a bonus or a gift, we feel not only happy but (sort of) proud. We take these gains as affirmations of our worth. When we lose money or property we feel that we’ve been treated unfairly or we feel we’re stupid. If our new car gets scratched or banged, it stings. The Buddha is asking us to look a little more deeply into our desires and our responses to these situations.

Later in the sutta, the Buddha says (referring to an “uninstructed worldling”):
Gain obsesses his mind, and loss obsesses his mind… He is attracted to gain and repelled by loss.

This is the specific way in which we are tossed about by our (often subconscious) desires. Having had it pointed out to us, we can examine these phenomena in our own experience.

I often remember a friend telling me about watching her luxurious oceanside home going up in flames. There was the shock of recognition that all her valuable possessions and memories were burning, and then the aftershock of a voice in her heart that said, “You have everything you need.” Those words came from a deep understanding that gain and loss are temporary and that things and money are not ultimately ownable.

The gains and losses I feel most keenly are people. The worst pain I can remember was connected to the loss of a close friend, not by death, but by diverging needs (nobody’s fault). In two cases, the losses made lasting impressions and made me aware that I had been too dependent on the friendships, too identified as “friend of X”. As Ajahn Chah often said, understanding must arise in the location where the pain/suffering arises.

What are the gains and losses that affect you most? Is there any adjustment you can make to your attitude or assumptions that might mitigate your obsession?

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