Most Buddhists-by-birth I have met, if they practice at all, focus on gaining merit to have a pleasant future life. Very few meditate, renounce the world, etc., in order to attain nirvana.
When speaking of attachments, desires, cravings, etc., people often seem to focus on positive things: love of/for pleasure, family, friends, a certain place, etc. However, attachments can also be negative. For example: an activist might hate corruption or injustice, a police officer might hate crime or criminals, a military officer might hate foreign aggressors, a terrorist might hate another religion or ethnic group, an abused person might want revenge, an abusive person might want to exploit others, a corporate boss might want to conquer every competitor, a politician might want dictatorial power, and so on. Of course, most people probably have a mixture of positive and negative attachments.
As I understand, in Buddhism, rebirth happens because of any attachment to this (or any) world, not only positive attachments. The Buddha also seems to have been attached to “the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of self-awakening” (AN 8.86), which are perhaps attachments leading to nirvana.
Numerous times throughout the Suttas, the Buddha says or suggests that peacefulness and renunciation are the most pure, stable forms of happiness and escape from suffering. But most Buddhists I meet seem more interested in less pure, more unstable, more craving-oriented forms of escaping suffering (e.g., pleasure, wealth, etc.). This seems to be the issue that separates serious Buddhists from not-so-serious.
Experiences of thoughts, feelings, and actions, even when pleasurable, usually require some energy, involve some stress, and arise in response to stressful situations: talking or playing music to fill socially awkward silences or to avoid unpleasant feelings; eating, sleeping, etc. to satiate biological needs or seek pleasure; working to make a living, pay for education, buy entertainments, etc.; feeling anxiety from social or natural pressures; feeling depression from hopelessness or weariness; and so on.
Though one can try to avoid or minimize stressful situations, one can also minimize stress by refusing to create more thoughts, feelings, or actions than necessary. For example, if one must, one can speak only softly and in an emotionally monotone way, drive or walk as slowly and calmly as possible, eat simple foods without seasoning, do other biological things in a routine way as little as necessary to stay healthy, and minimize expenses so that you can minimize how much you have to work. If one embraces them, peace and quiet can be perhaps the purest forms of happiness.
Developing virtues/merits for selfish reasons (e.g., for the karmic, physical, or social benefits) still contains a degree of unvirtuousness (i.e., a delusion of self). In my opinion, the point of being virtuous (and of Buddhism in general) is to completely cleanse this samsaric mind-body complex of whatever is obstructing it from becoming nirvanic, not to seek a nice future/rebirth in samsara.
Heaven might be so luxurious and pleasurable that beings there never think about nirvana or about making more merit, and, according to the seed-and-fruit concept from early Buddhism (i.e., that one instance of karma causes/conditions only one outcome), once the merit that is supporting a heavenly life runs out, one’s next rebirth may not be heavenly.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The body and brain are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and brain’s states are always changing, and seem to follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile (or maybe this apparent abiding itself subtly changes from moment to moment), 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.