Pleasure and pain

“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

Pleasure and pain could stand in for the other three pairs of worldly conditions. We generally find loss, disrepute and blame painful, and we find gain, fame and praise pleasurable. Add to this our experiences of physical or mental pleasure or pain, and we have a complete analysis of everything that comes at us from the world.

Our avoidance of physical pain and seeking of physical pleasure (or at least comfort) may be the most compelling internal force we have. Like virtually every living being, down to the smallest cell, we instinctively flee from too much of anything – too much heat, too much cold, too much brightness or darkness, bitter tastes, foul smells – any impingement on our desired zone of sensory experience. We are continually moving or adjusting position to find the most comfortable arrangement (for now). This is natural — however, it is worthwhile to investigate our relationship to this fact. How urgently do we panic at low levels of discomfort? There is something in human psychology that make us feel, as soon as there is distress, that it will never end. Most curious!

One of my teachers, Shinzen Young, used to say that suffering equals pain times resistance (or S=PxR). If we stub our toe or nick our face while shaving, there is a pain. Often there is also an aversive reaction to the pain, which multiplies what we experience as suffering. To reduce the resistance factor, we can investigate the pain while it is happening. How localized is it? What are the component sensations (heat, pressure, etc.)? Is there fear in the mind? If we look closely and directly at our experience, we can see that it is not one thing, and that it moves and changes constantly. By dealing in this way with physical pain when it comes up, we can minimize our suffering and at the same time, increase our understanding of human experience.

And what about pleasure? There are pleasures that become painful, like eating too much ice cream, and there are pleasures that we can savor until they pass on. Sexual pleasure can be in either category, depending on the surrounding circumstances. If there is love and understanding between participants, the follow-on effects are likely to be sweet rather than bitter. Getting something we’ve wanted for a long time can sometimes be followed by a feeling of emptiness. The pleasurable feeling that comes from freely giving and sharing has no down-side. While we are thinking of others, we are relieved of our own insatiable cravings.

Give a thought to your relationship to pleasure and pain. How much of your seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is conscious? How would you rate your own sensitivity to pleasure and pain? What are the activities or events that bring you the most pleasure and the most pain? There’s no right answer here, just an invitation to look.

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