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.

 

And we have lift off!

6 mins read + video

But even if we do understand the beginninglessness and endlessness of samsara’s sufferings, sort of, we are still like barnacles stuck to the bottom of a boat due to our attachment to samsaric pleasures. For it’s not so obvious to us how they’re deceptive. They make life bearable, surely – what’s wrong with a beer?! And what about the passion of romance? Or the R &R of a vacation? flight

Carrying on from this article.

Nothing, on one level, unless they are keeping us from spiritual progress (which, thanks to attachment, they often are.) We have been going after the places, enjoyments, and bodies of samsara for millennia X millennia, and just where has this gotten us?

The main problem with worldly pleasures is that they are “contaminated” by ignorance, ie, they appear falsely to exist from their own side and we assent to that appearance. Someone or something appears attractive due to our karma, and instead of just enjoying moth flying into flamethe mere appearance we must be like moths flying right into the flame by believing they are inherently attractive and then exaggerating their attractions until we simply cannot do without them.

Not having non-attachment is like a prisoner being attached to prison food and entertainment. Sure, the billiards are fun, and we enjoy the raisins on our gruel as a treat; but we’re still trapped in prison. Plus it is only a matter of time before we are dispatched back to the dungeons.

This mental asylum

Actually, I have been thinking recently that we are not just in a prison but more like a mental asylum, more like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We are all rendered insane by our delusions — hallucinations are the order of the day.

We have been here since beginningless time. But perhaps we are ready to leave. And there is a Buddha emanation posing as a doctor who knows this and is encouraging us – “There is a whole world for you out there, free from insanity and any form of suffering!”

To begin with, we may be a bit like, “I don’t want to leave! I know it here. I like it here. Plus, I have a thing for that person in the corner over there – yeah, I know she drools and is cranky and is getting sicker and older like the rest of us, but still, she’s cute … And anyway, I like Bingo night. And how those meds make me feel nice and high and dopey. And the way the sun sometimes dapples its way through the murky glass of the windows.”

The doctor may continue to encourage us, “Not only can you help yourself, but you can help everyone else in here. Have you noticed how already some of them showing some interest in you because you seem a bit more free, kind, and insightful? If you get out, you’ll be able to get your friends out too, like we are doing. Everyone has the potential to break free. However mad they are, they never lose the potential to wake up.”

We might say, “But I can’t get out! I’m too stuck and ordinary! I belong here.”one flew over the cuckoos nest

And the doctor would reply, “That’s not true. We know different. You don’t belong here. No one does. Trust us.”

And we should.

What’s the alternative? What happens if we just stay in here?

We need to think that through.

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

As explained in this article, samsaric enjoyments are deceptive because they do not make us happy — we are just scratching itches. But even all that scratching is not working because pursuing worldly pleasures actually seems to cause most of our annoyances, disappointments, and heartaches:

Most of the problems we experience come from our seeking satisfaction in the pleasures of samsara when no real satisfaction can be derived from them. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

Attachment weighs us down — like a bird with stones tied to its legs. Even if we sort of know we are in prison, we are still too attached to the billiards or other inmates to bother making a serious attempt at escape. So we have no lift off. We can’t fly in the sky.

birdAttachment distracts us from love and equanimity. We have some of this, it feels so good when we do; but then someone we think is gorgeous comes along and it’s like, “Sorry caged shelter cats or elderly aunts or countless other living beings, no more attention from me, I’m a bit preoccupied … I’ll get back to you later.” Months or years later we remember them … so what was that about?! Attachment is fundamentally small-minded and selfish.

Also, without renunciation we are attached to the status quo – we are only wishing others freedom from the temporary sufferings of this life at most, not of samsara, because we are attached to things being basically the way they are, just sort of better. And we are not even wishing ourselves to be free from samsara, so we cannot extend that radical compassion to others.

Because attachment is so deceptive, we (me) need to be honest about its workings in our own life — asking ourselves, “Is this true?”

Thinking about the shortfalls of changing suffering helps us develop renunciation, the wish for freedom. As Geshe Kelsang says:

We need to reduce our attachment to worldly pleasures by realizing that they are deceptive and cannot give real satisfaction. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Attachment vs anger

It is more obvious perhaps that anger has nothing to recommend it and causes us suffering because it gives rise to unpleasant feelings whereas attachment can give rise to pleasant feelings (qv, the suffering of change.) Perhaps this is one reason why anger is said to be easier to wash out of the mind – it is likened to dirt in cloth as opposed to the oil of attachment soaked into cloth.

Water from a stone

With non-attachment itself we already feel peaceful, light, contented, and unburdened, and as a result can enjoy everything as a result. Trying to get true or lasting happiness, enjoyment, or bliss out of samsara is like trying to squeeze water from a stone – the harder we grasp, the more uncomfortable we become. Knowing this, we give up the squeezing, relax, and just enjoy the stone without attachment.

water from a stone

Better yet, know with wisdom that the stone is not really there to begin with, so what are we doing squeezing it?!

Renunciation is utterly unlike boredom. Then we have a stable basis for love and wisdom, which make us even more happy and fulfilled. And we also have a very good basis for transforming enjoyments with Tantra – learning how to have our cake and eat it. More on that important subject coming soon(ish), and have a look below in the comments for some very helpful conversation points from a reader.

Going round in circles?

This is an incredible spiritual path, an incredible journey. Without renunciation however, we’re not going anywhere. Imagine being in a boat trying to cross an ocean to dry land, to a transcendent destination. We row and we row and we row, but we get nowhere – just going round and round in circles. This is because attachment is an anchor wedging us firmly into the bedrock of samsara’s ocean, stopping us from traveling to liberation or enlightenment, let alone bringing anyone along with us.

Quick checklist

If you have strong attachment today, here is a checklist of things you could bring to mind: (1) Impermanence. This object and state of mind are going to go away, plus I might die today, so do I really want to spend my last day all hung up on it? (2) Emptiness — where is this attachment exactly? We can try pointing to it in our body, our mind, or anywhere else. It is nowhere to be found. (3) The faults of the mind of attachment as above, coming to enjoy the freedom and peace of non-attachment instead. (4) The faults of the worldly objects themselves, eg, the 32 impure substances, to rebalance the mind. (5) You’re not alone in suffering from attachment. (6) As mentioned, see the comments below for a Tantric approach to transforming attachment.

And if you need any further encouragement to meditate on renunciation, check out this other teaching by Gen Losang:

Over to you!

Related articles

Renunciation

How to lighten up

Itchy feet, itchy mind

 

 

 

Itchy feet, itchy mind

I was just thinking about Puerto Rico earlier, much of which, almost 7 months on, is still without power. I have good friends there who have built a beautiful retreat center in the rainforest, you can visit there if you like, it is so conducive to going deep in meditation. I was sort of planning to go back last Christmas but Hurricane Maria had other ideas.casa-kadam

Carrying on from this article on refuge.

Anyway, I was thinking that if you’re in Puerto Rico right now, you probably really want a shower. And if you got in the shower, and got all clean and fresh and cooled down, it’d feel just great, wouldn’t it? So it’d be great if everyone in Puerto Rico could have a shower; if they could have everything they need right now.

Indeed, it would be wonderful if everyone could have whatever they need, whenever they need it, especially shelter, food, and medicines. These are necessities for human beings’ basic survival, and worth striving for.

But are they enough? No, not if we want real or lasting happiness and freedom. For we can also recognize that if the Puerto Rican was to stay in that shower for more than about an hour, he would start suffering again.

While we’re in the shower it can feel fantastic, can’t it?, especially if we haven’t showered for a while. So we assume that a shower is an actual source of happiness. But if it was an actual source of happiness, then the longer we stayed in the shower the happier we’d become. After 3 hours in the shower, we’d be so blissed out it’d be crazy. But as it is, even the person in PR just can’t wait to get out of that shower. It becomes like a torture, doesn’t it?

shower

If someone just came along and locked you in the sauna because you’re loving it so much, it would not be long before you were hammering at the door, “Have mercy, let me out!” I rest my case.

What are true causes of happiness?

The great Indian Buddhist master called Aryadeva says in Treatise of Four Hundred Verses:

Although it can be seen that the increase of happiness is destroyed by its cause, it can never be seen that the increase of suffering is destroyed by its cause.

This is only fair: If something is an actual cause of something, then it has to produce that effect every time. If someone hits us on the thumb with a hammer, we’re gonna say, “Ouch!” If they keep hitting us on the thumb with a hammer, that pain is only going to grow – it is not going to turn into happiness. This means that it is an actual cause of suffering.

However, when we increase the cause of any worldly happiness, instead of feeling better and better we instead start to feel pain (to experiment, try eating the whole can of Pringles or having sex for 24 hours straight).overreating

If we enjoy eating food, our pleasure may increase as we eat the first few mouthfuls, but if we continue to eat more and more, our pleasure will turn into pain. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

That’s what happens with food, isn’t it? The first few mouthfuls of that doughnut are always the best, aren’t they? And at some point we push away the box and say, “No! No more.” If we had to keep eating them, if we had to eat 10 doughnuts, our pleasure would decidedly morph into pain. We pull faces when we see people in those overeating competitions, it’s almost frightening. This means that eating doughnuts or hot dogs is not a real cause of happiness because if it was it could not cause suffering.

Which pleasures are overrated?

The point about worldly or external pleasures is that they are all changing sufferings, meaning that sooner or later they ALL turn into pain, every single one of them. Every single worldly pleasure, every “temporary refuge” if you like, turns into pain unless we stop in time. Try and think of one that doesn’t.

This is like Buddha’s challenge to us – find something outside the mind that is always going to make us happy, and that the more we have of it the happier we’re going to get. If you can think of that thing, you’re going to get very rich. No one has invented it yet. It can’t be invented because this is not where happiness or refuge come from. fleeting pleasure

I read a survey recently on “Which pleasures are overrated?” The replies included the usual suspects – partying, drugs, sports, food, drinking beer, etc. Respondents also mentioned kids, spouses, jobs, and traveling. And one or two wise folks replied, “any fleeting pleasures”. But the fact is that all external enjoyments are overrated.

My neighbor has been playing Candy Crush saga since we got on this flight. (So now I know who is playing that game!) Her nosy neighbor (me) sees that she has reached level 274! That’s got to be good, right?! She doesn’t seem that ecstatic though. No resting on laurels here. A glancing smile, perhaps, before she’s off again, chasing level 275.

The world is wounded

plastic in oceanThe great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says our mind is like an itchy wound. Worldly enjoyments only ever work when we need to scratch the itch. Doughnuts, for example, only work if we are hungry. They don’t work at all if we have just had a six-course Indian curry or have a cold and can’t taste anything. If we’re lonely, company feels fantastic, sometimes, and so on.

If we have a big itch, we want to scratch it — it feels great, scratching itches. But we all know what happens if we keep doing it — itches turn back into pain. Buddha is saying that these kinds of temporary refuges or changing sufferings are like scratching an itch – there is some temporary relief, and then it turns back to pain.

Sometimes more pain than we started with, in fact. The things that we turn to for solutions to our problems are also, ironically — or samsarically — the sources of our problems. Our problems come from our food, they come from our doctors, they come from the police, they come from our medicines, they come from our relationships, they come from our living quarters, etc. All the things we turn to for protection or refuge are just as capable of giving us problems.

Our whole planet is being polluted and the oceans turned into plastic by all of us trying to derive refuge from this, that, and the other, jostling to get as comfortable as we can while treading on other people’s needs and future in the process.

Therefore, although we are turning to these kinds of temporary refuges to get rid of our problems, to get comfortable, to get happy, at best they are only palliative, scratching an itch. And if we keep going, they give rise to further pains. And this is because we’re in samsara, whose very nature is suffering. scratching itch

In Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang also gives the very helpful example of sitting and standing:

If we sit in the same position for a long time, and then stand up, it will seem that standing is a cause of happiness, but …

… if we remain standing for a few hours, we’re desperate to sit down again. Then lie down. And then prop ourselves up. And then move around. The amount we have to move these bodies around in the average day just to keep them comfortable!! — sitting up and lying down and moving around over and over again, all day long, just one mini-relief after another, or mini happiness hits. Meaning that neither sitting nor standing are real causes of happiness because both of them are causes of changing suffering. And the same goes for all our worldly pleasures.

Thought experiment

Here is a thought experiment to help us see this. It might even save you loads of time and money!!!

Close your eyes and imagine you have already got everything you have ever wanted or worked for – enough money, career, relationship, house, vacation, well behaved kids, fast car, no body fat, equitable society. Whatever it is – you can imagine having all the material things and/or worldly pleasures you have ever wanted or worked for. Right now. Already. You did it! Congratulations!

(Impossible of course to get all our ducks in a row, let alone keep them there; but imagine it anyway.)

You have got everything you want! Are you happy? Finally … are you happy?!

donkey and carrotHmmm. Maybe for a few minutes. Until we want something else as well. Or until someone annoys us and our mind starts hurting again.

Has that preempted years, maybe lifetimes, of throwing time and money after dreams that can never come true?! I’m half-kidding. But half not.

Point is, we can still go to work, build a career, etc., of course, and we need to gather necessary conditions; but we need be under no illusion that these are actual or lasting sources of refuge or happiness. The pressure is off. The false expectations are dropped. We can relax. Maybe spend some of that money and time on making other people happy instead – just a side thought. Right now the global divide between rich and poor is getting so crazy and it is helping no one.

In our countless lives since beginningless time we have actually had everything. There is no tee-shirt large enough to list all the places, enjoyments, and bodies (our own and others) we have had. Nonetheless we have lost them all. Indeed we have forgotten them all. We have forgotten everybody and everything.

So what are we supposed to do?

teeshirtDoes this mean lasting refuge or happiness is impossible? Of course not. But Buddha’s point in explaining this second type of suffering, changing suffering, is that we need to stop selling ourselves short, just muddling through life trying to make it bearable; and instead discover actual comfort, satisfaction, joy, happiness, and deep bliss by seeking refuge in a different source. This will help us not just now but in all our future lives as well. With non-attachment to worldly pleasures, we will also discover a lot more energy and patience for helping others.

We are not starting from scratch, either, of course. We already have a taste of the potentially limitless joy inside us whenever we experience any contentment, love, faith, wisdom, and so on. When we have these states of mind going on inside, we can also enjoy everything going on outside, not least because we’re in a great mood. So it’s a question of what we want to emphasize.

Here concludes what I have to say on changing suffering, as part of a series on refuge. More on the third type of suffering, pervasive suffering, in a future article.

Related articles

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

Happiness depends on the mind 

Happiness is here right now

Get Up to Speed and Out the Door

6.5 mins read

Where on earth is there no suffering?world peace

From just a cursory look at CNN’s daily Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out the Door, which drops into my inbox each morning: The recent bombings of children in Syria, where “words are no longer sufficient to describe the horror, terror, and suffering.” The leader of the free world calling to congratulate a “dictator on winning a sham election.” The 17-year old who tried to murder his classmates, now numbingly routine. The vigil for those crushed under a Miami bridge. The abysmal life of pigs who are kept in cruel iron cages no bigger than their bodies. And the “good” news that some of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram have been released. (However, most have not; and what kind of shape are these girls in now?) And so on. These all help my renunciation and compassion – I like to call it Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara.

Manifest suffering

There are three types of suffering that we want to get rid of by being in refuge, which include all the sufferings endemic to samsara. The first is the suffering of manifest pain. We know this one all too well – it refers to any unpleasant bodily or mental feeling. Toothache, heartache, CNN’s five things, etc. This manifest pain is what we normally think of as suffering — we think suffering refers to when something hurts.

Carrying on from this article.

Manifest suffering is obviously horrible. It is the easiest-to-understand suffering. We don’t need to be taught about the suffering of manifest pain – we’re all well aware of what it is, how much we dislike it, and how we’d like to find refuge from it and help others do the same. We try hard day and night to get rid of our own manifest pain, and many people try hard day and night to help others get rid of theirs.

And it’s not just five things of course – there are countless painful reasons to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara. It’s not just me — everyone around me is experiencing some variety of discomfort at any given moment.CNN five things

A random example: As I was walking to my seat just now, on this evening flight to Chicago, I wondered in passing why a woman was hiding behind huge dark glasses.

Turns out she is in the seat in front of me, 25F, and I can hear her talking into her phone before take-off:

“Oh, honey I’m a wreck. I could pass as the twin of the Terminator. I can’t take these glasses off. And, honey, if you could see my arms and legs — I am covered with hives!”

She is doing her best, as many of us are:

“Anyway, I love you. See you soon.”

But whatever improvements we are able to make in our own and others’ lives, that is not the end of the story. There are two other types of suffering in samsara, which underpin and cause this manifest pain; and we need more wisdom to identify these. If we don’t identify changing suffering and pervasive suffering, we cannot bring an end to all suffering. We will have to carry on experiencing both physical and mental pain endlessly, however much and often we try to patch it up.

Changing suffering

The second type of suffering is called “changing suffering”. In the big yellow book called Joyful Path of Good Fortune — which contains all of Buddha’s teachings if you get a chance to read it, sort of like the Buddhist bible — there’s a section on how the three sufferings of samsara pervade our experience, including our worldly pleasures:

For samsaric beings, every experience of happiness or pleasure that arises from samsara’s enjoyments is called changing suffering.

beer drinking

This experience of pleasure is called “changing” suffering (or “suffering of change”) because it’s a kind of changeover or switchover point between manifest pain and more manifest pain. It is those brief feelings of relief.

Now, a few weeks later, I am on the tube from Heathrow to North London, my journey colliding with the morning commute. And the expression on many people’s faces, or rather the studied lack of expression, brings to my mind the word “heaviness”. People seem weighed down. One bloke ten years younger than me I reckon, but with heavy creases in his brow, speaks into his phone, “Hey, mate, just got in, you alright?” A pause, then, louder, “What? he did what? That’s just what I told him not to do! Idiot.” He stared dejectedly at the ground. “Look, mate, let’s meet up in about an hour. I need a pint.”

People’s lives are difficult everywhere. And over the course of a lifetime, many people are struggling to muddle through their lives without things going too badly wrong, catching excitement, release, and pints of beer wherever we can.

Changing suffering is pleasant feelings. It feels like a kind of happiness. Buddha called it changing suffering not because it feels like suffering, but because it is not real happiness, it is just relief. This experience is contaminated by delusions and ignorance, and actually has the nature of suffering. Geshe Kelsang also calls it “artificial happiness”.

We may sense that things are not quite right even when they are going well, but we need to know exactly why this is in order to fix it. And we need not fear that this knowledge will depress us further, for it is this knowledge that in fact will finally set us free.

In Joyful Path it says:

We need to meditate repeatedly on this point because it’s not obvious to us that our worldly pleasures are worldly suffering. We can gain a better understanding by considering the following analogy. If we have a very painful illness and our doctor prescribes painkillers we take these and for a while we stop feeling the pain. At that time we actually experience a feeling that is merely the reduction of pain, but because the strong painful feeling has gone we feel happy and experience pleasure. This pleasant feeling is changing suffering.

Selling ourselves short

I’ll just point out that Buddha is not saying don’t go to the doctor or take painkillers. This is subtle, trying to understand what Buddha is saying here. It’s not that we don’t enjoy or take care of things, but that we understand what’s going on. Then we don’t sell ourselves short.

sell yourself short

Because, extraordinarily enough, every person on that tube goes unfathomably deep. Everyone I saw racing along the pavements in the unusual spring snow-freeze and darting in and out of the crazy London traffic goes unfathomably deep. We are seeing a tiny fraction of who people are — a fleeting appearance, their body of this life, of this day, just a reflection or imputation of thought. Their real body and mind are indestructible and full of the potential for lasting mental freedom and bliss. As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom:

Each and every living being has their own body and mind, which are their subtle body and mind. These are called the “continuously residing body and mind,” and are his or her Buddha nature, the lineage of a future Buddha. Because they have this, when living beings meets Buddhadharma they will all finally attain the state of an enlightened Buddha.

However, at the moment impure appearances seem so real to us that we are perpetually overpowered and sucked into the daily drama of samsara. Most people of course don’t even know what they have inside them, nor the future that could be. We have been through countless lives already without finding this out.

(Not only are we selling ourselves short by not knowing who we really are and of what we are capable, we are also not even enjoying life’s pleasures a fraction as much as we could be. When we know about changing suffering and the dangers of its usual corollary, attachment, we have the impetus to transform these enjoyments into the spiritual path and make super speedy spiritual progress! But this can be the subject of other articles, such as this one.)

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