Liking and not-liking

Today we take a closer look at liking and not-liking, those immediate feelings that haunt our every thought, whether at a conscious or subconscious level. These mental phenomena are the expression, in our bodies and minds, of the first two hindrances: sense-desire and ill-will.

From (book) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:

Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.

According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.

The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.

…the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction.

…People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.

Once again, wisdom is offered from an unanticipated source. As macro-historian Harari says: we “ascribe immense importance to what [we] feel”. Give the truth of that statement a moment to sink in. How aware are we of the stream of feelings of liking and not-liking that push and pull us throughout the day? What is our relationship to them? Are they entirely in control or can we sometimes see that they are passing phenomena?

We can develop the skill needed to look at the inner workings of our minds from a less personal (identified) perspective, but it takes practice. We need daily reminders to turn our attention inward, away from the insistent seductions of the outer world. Next time, I’ll offer a couple of ideas about how to establish such a practice. Meanwhile, if you have practices that are working for you, please share them.

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Filed under Causes and results, Hindrances, Mindfulness

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