Pursuing either positivity (enjoyment, pleasure, luxury, etc.) or negativity (anger, punishment, vengeance, etc.) causes struggle and stress. Both are very unstable. Neutrality (contentment, balance, selflessness, etc.) seems to be the least stressful, most stable path.

The pain is over there… the pain is not me

For managing pain (or pleasure or boredom), here is a mindfulness technique that has worked well for me. Hold whatever part of the body or mind is in pain at a distance, look at it, and calmly/dispassionately repeat the following to yourself: “the pain is over there… the pain is not me.”

This seems to work for a few reasons:

  1. Calm, clear-headed, detached, dispassionate, etc. mental observation discourages the mind from creating things. It is like placing a buffer of empty space between the constructive part of the mind and the problematic construct.
  2. Pain is a more unconscious, automatic sensation, whereas suffering is a more conscious, habituated perception or psychological labeling of experience. Perceptions (like suffering and joy) can be more easily consciously managed than can unconscious sensations (like pain and pleasure). For example, when babies get injured, they often look to their parents to see how they should respond to, or feel about, the pain from the injury — is it no big deal, or should they cry? Similarly, adults can learn to separate their reactions to pain from their experience of pain.
  3. The body and mind are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and mind’s states are always changing, and follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile, then they decay and condition/become something else. If one can just disassociate oneself from the problematic thing or person for long enough, that thing and/or oneself are guaranteed to change on their own eventually, and they might change enough that the current problem is no longer a problem. Alternatively, if action is better than inaction for some reason (e.g., if the pain is being caused by a poisoned knife stuck in one’s arm, which one should quickly remove), the mental clarity and detachment of this technique should help one to make a good decision and take immediate action.

Like most meditation techniques, the benefits of this technique include that it doesn’t involve taking any expensive, possibly dangerous drugs, or losing one’s mental clarity or self-control; the cons include that it takes persistent, conscious effort and practice.

Two kinds of happiness

I know of two types of happiness: contentment (calm, peace, clarity, balance, equanimity, neutrality, etc.) and joy (excitement, pleasure, arousal, intoxication, extremity, etc.). Most mainstream cultures seem to seek joy, however unstable, impermanent, or destructive it may be. Buddhism seems to seek a stable, permanent, harmless contentment.

Is life “good”?

Probably the biggest difference I see between Buddhism and the world’s other largest religions (i.e., Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) is whether or not they consider worldly life to be “good.”

The other big religions usually say that worldly life (i.e., mass production and consumption, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, cultivating attachments to people and things, developing a sense of self, etc.) is good, is connected to an eternal creator God and is itself spiritually meaningful, is worth spending all of one’s time and energy exploring and pursuing, etc.

However, Buddhism says that we are in an unfortunate state of existence (involving constant struggle and inevitable loss), that the physical details of this life are ultimately meaningless because they are very fleeting, that the only God-like beings one can see from here are trapped in impermanent lives like we are (they only live longer than we do), and that one should spend as much time as possible trying to permanently (i.e., without rebirth) escape from this prison. From a Buddhist perspective, perhaps the only things in life that are really good are people’s capacities to help themselves and others understand and undo their predicament.

My love, let’s go eat some dressed-up corpses, then get drug-addicted together

Food and sex are much less interesting, if you remove the dressed-up, very charged/evocative, taboo, and drug/addiction-like popular cultures that surround them. They are just bodily functions than can be pleasurable, painful, or neutral. The idea of “making love” through something that is addictive is rather twisted, as is decorating or heavily seasoning food, which usually involves dressing up dead plants or animals.

Pain is not the same as suffering

Pain is not the same as suffering; pleasure is not the same as joy; neither-pleasure-nor-pain is not the same as boredom. Pain and pleasure are physical sensations, which arise automatically from the body’s physical circumstances. But suffering, joy, boredom, and similar things are higher-cognitive states, which often are used to evaluate sensations — whether they are good, bad, neutral, desirable, aversive, etc. Higher-cognitive states like suffering, joy, boredom, etc. can exist in the mind without physical referents. For example, in the first level of jhana meditation, one sees the mind directly and usually feels overwhelming joy; in subsequent levels, the joy becomes more refined/subtle types of happiness and eventually equanimity — all while sitting in sensory deprivation-type environment. People become so accustomed to seeking pleasurable experiences and avoiding painful ones that the evaluative process is mostly unconscious habit. But one can unlearn that habit, and can live experiencing only a “subtle flow of sensations” (Pali: bhaṅgānupassanā ñāṇa), where one feels sensations but is not mentally/emotionally burdened by them.