Buddhism & the hedonic treadmill


9 mins & 2 videos

Happy New Year! Here’s a bit of New Year’s encouragement to either learn meditation or keep meditating in 2019 … The world might just become a better place.

hamster eating cheeseFirst a question: What do you reckon happens when we try to make ourselves happy all the time through external means, via the places, enjoyments, or bodies of samsara?

We’ve been trying it long enough, we should know. Basically, Buddha observed (and we can too) that there is no permanent gain in happiness. We have spikes of excitement followed by spikes of despondency, but we don’t get overall happier.

For example, we get a flat white at Starbucks – yum, little spike for however many slurps there are in a cup of coffee. Then we need a bathroom but there isn’t one to be found – hmm, little jag in the opposite direction. Or we get a promotion at work – exciting! Until it sinks in that we have to work harder – darn! Or we get a bigger house – cool! But now we have to clean more shelves – boring.

We can dream about a job or a partner for months, fantasizing about how happy we’ll be, only to be disappointed when the happiness boost lasts approximately five weeks or five minutes (and too often followed by searing heartache).

Essentially, no amount of money, technology, sex, romance, friendship, muscle, prestige, music, or travel will ever make us permanently happy. We will always need more or different. We cannot fulfill all our desires, and a lot of them simply cancel each other out, as mentioned in this article.

hedonistic treadmillThis is a helpful chart, especially if you can visualize that happiness flatline going on long enough to see how it also goes around in circles, bit like a hamster wheel — not ending up somewhere different, our life not really having gone anywhere by the end of it all, just turning into death. And then rebirth — starting up all over, accumulating stuff and losing it all again, ad infinitum.

Plus, as is the nature of treadmills, IMHO, it’s all exhausting and really quite boring.

If our energy and effort have all gone into things outside our mind, we will end up the poorer because nothing physical lasts — we can’t take a smidgeon of that stuff with us. All that goes with us past death is our subtle mental continuum, which is like a storehouse for all the karma we have created in this and previous lives. Some of it good of course, but much of it stemming from selfish desires and leading us who knows where, but probably nowhere we want to be.

Forever chasing froth?

At my first time at the seaside, I remember being mesmerized by the glistening froth on the ocean  — so much so that I fetched my bucket to take some of it home. I don’t know how old I was, 15?! No, seriously, I wasn’t that old, but I was idiotic. My parents watched me doing this and, though they may have gently pointed out that the froth may not look quite so good later, I ignored them as usual and carried on scooping up the sparkling rainbow bubbles.

Even by the time I got to the car, it was grey, flat, and lifeless. I was disappointed, I think I may even have cried. But worldly enjoyments are all moreorless like that. The excitement disappears, and we’re left with the greying aftermath. Plus whatever karma we created. And, like my wiser parents, the Buddhas have been trying to tell us this but we won’t listen, or only half-heartedly anyway, because this fleeting insubstantial froth is still so enticing to our childish minds. Bucket and spade

In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

Of all worldly possessions the most precious is said to be the legendary wish granting jewel… that has the power to grant wishes.

Only caveat is that this jewel can fulfill wishes for superficial, fleeting happiness, aka “contaminated happiness”; not the pure happiness that comes from a pure mind. But even if we ever come to possess everything we ever wanted externally, which of course is impossible while we still have the itch of attachment, pure and lasting happiness still eludes us. We still feel moreorless itchy and dissatisfied. Furthermore this jewel only has “the power to grant wishes in one life – it cannot protect its owner in his or her future lives.”

So, as it says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

hamster on happiness lineThe only thing never deceive us is the attainment of full enlightenment.  It is only by attaining enlightenment that we can fulfill our deepest wish for pure and lasting happiness, for nothing in this impure world has the power to fulfill this wish. Only when we become a fully enlightened Buddha will we experience the profound and lasting peace that comes from a permanent cessation of all delusions and their imprints. We will be free from all faults and mental obscurations, and will possess all the qualities needed to help all living beings directly. We will then be an object of refuge for all living beings.

Maybe we’re thinking this sounds a bit far-fetched – I don’t even like my neighbor, and here it’s being suggested that I can become an all-loving Buddha?!

But try closing your eyes and imagining all this for a moment, being profoundly peaceful, an object of refuge, and so on….

Can you?

Yes?

If so, that is significant. If you really couldn’t become a Buddha, you wouldn’t be able to imagine becoming one. And vice versa.  Everything starts with our thoughts, our correct imagination.

It’s only the hallucinations of our self-grasping ignorance that make us buy into being fixed, small, and limited. As I started to explain a bit here, we can change our programming fast by dropping into the clear light mind at our heart, dissolving away the self we ordinarily see, and then identifying with our boundless potential.hamster on swing

The first step: getting over ourselves

We now have the big picture. And according to the presentation in Eight Steps, once we’ve decided that enlightenment sounds interesting to us, and is something we might want and are capable of experiencing, we then go back to the beginning, to the first step, which is cherishing others.

Slowly but surely we overcome our bias and partiality to broaden and deepen our love — and what happens is that instead of experiencing that same old flatline happiness, with those pointless peaks and troughs, our happiness increases as the weeks, months, and years go by, and our delusions, sadness, and depression begin to melt away.

happy hamsterThis mind of cherishing others will take us in an ever upward trajectory — the happiness line ascending up and up infinitely until it disappears into space. With enlightenment, we have off the charts happiness and mental freedom.

“Quite remarkable”

I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but this video talks about an experiment showing that the brainwaves of the “highest level meditators” are really different.

The main thing apparently is the gamma waves – we have these for a very short period when, for example, we solve a problem, or bite into an apple, or imagine biting into an apple (or drink a flat white). But “what was stunning” in people who have meditated a lot is that their “gamma waves are very strong all the time, a lasting trait, just their everyday state even when they are not meditating.” And apparently “science has never seen it before.”

Another remarkable discovery is that “when they meditate on compassion, their gamma jumps 700 or 800 percent, and this also never been seen by science.” The psychologist concludes that these meditators have “a state of being that is not like our ordinary state — sometimes it’s called liberation or enlightenment or awake or whatever the word may be. They feel spacious wide open.” And while he says we don’t know what this is exactly, we do know “it is quite remarkable”.

I would just like to add that we start to experience these kinds of joyful effects as soon as we start meditating regularly, especially if we do so skillfully in the context of identifying with our potential – these effects don’t just suddenly pop up overnight. Hence the ever-ascending line of the graph.

We have a taste

The deep joy or bliss we already experience inside us from time to time, when the clouds of delusions clear, gives us a taste of what it is like to be enlightened and experience deep profound bliss day and night, feeling connected to all living beings, blessing their minds. That seems compelling to me.  No longer to have to be all wrapped up in a small fixed boring me.

As Geshe Kelsang says, it’s up to us:

We are faced with a choice: either we can continue to squander our life in pursuing worldly enjoyments that give no real satisfaction and disappear when we die, or we can dedicate our life to realizing our full spiritual potential.

This is our choice: no one else can make this choice for us.

Unplugging the hedonic treadmill in 2019

hamster treadmillJust to conclude, I’m going to point out to those of you who are relatively new to Buddhism that unplugging the hedonic treadmill and dedicating our lives to realizing our full spiritual potential does not mean that we stop drinking flat whites, enjoying time with family and friends, watching movies, or getting promotions at work. It means that we understand where real happiness comes from and bring that understanding into whatever we’re doing each day.

We don’t abandon anything outside our mind, only our selfish attachment and other delusions for therein lie our actual problems. There’s a great saying in the Kadampa tradition:

Remain natural while changing your aspiration.

Using this life, or even just this year, to seek enlightenment doesn’t mean we have to go all strange. We can carry on doing pretty much the same things on the outside (unless we are a butcher or something). We transform our daily life into the spiritual path, and in this way experience greater and greater happiness as time goes on. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

If we make the effort to practice Buddha’s teachings we will definitely attain enlightenment.

Definitely.

We don’t need to abandon our family, friends, or enjoyments, and retire to a mountain cave.

(Tempting as that may be from time to time … )

All we need to do is change the object of cherishing.

We could try this out in 2019 and see what happens. I don’t see what we’ve got to lose? And if it doesn’t work, we can get back on the treadmill in 2020.

Over to you. Comments are welcome.

 

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 37 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to our everyday lives, and vice versa. I try to make it accessible to everyone who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

7 thoughts on “Buddhism & the hedonic treadmill”

  1. Thank you so simple and profound and great to share with both experienced and new meditators alike. These teachings are priceless for those of us can’t attend as many live teachings as we would like to. A great inspiration to us all following the festive holidays! 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼❤️❤️❤️❤️

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  2. I’m thankful for your insight and clear expression. I’ve benefitted from it for a while now and am overdue to let you know how grateful I am.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You say: “All to often followed by searing heartache.” That didn’t happen to me until 37 years later when she died from rapid onset lung cancer. We both quit smoking in 1984. I wouldn’t give up any of this pain in exchange for not ever knowing her. It is only a cloud in the sky by comparison, even if it doesn’t diminish for another 55 weeks or twice that, she was worth all of it. om ah hung benza guru péma siddhi hung

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