Let the Pendulum Swing

Walk in nature and what do you see? You see one day a storm and another day a dead calm.

When the calm comes we say “ahhh isn’t this great weather” and we are thankful.

When the storm comes we say “ooooh isn’t this lousy weather” and then we are not thankful.

We like the idea of good weather. But what would happen to the world if there were no bad weather?

There would be overgrowth. The forests and oceans would become stagnant and filled with wasted debris. So, the storm is as important as the non storm day.

Nature grows at the border of storm and no storm. This is how it is meant to be and yet, some numb-scull came up with the idea that there could be peace.

Not one single mind, that exists, has existed or will exist has been able to maintain peace of mind for more than a few minutes. No time compared to real time.

Is it time for you to step beyond the thinking of the neophyte and consider the wisdom of mastery?

Our physical senses are bipolar and dualistic, they need some sort of imbalance to function, there must be some sort of differentiation. This is called emotion and it is the motivating drive of the neophyte to gain as much positive emotion, motivation and lose as much negative emotion as possible in their life. This is exactly a cat chasing its tail.

If we enter a relationship with hope for more pleasure than pain we will leave with more pain that pleasure. If you ask a newly wed if they are having maximum pleasure in their relationship right now, they will nod furiously because they are probably having multiple orgasms every night. If you say, “what is the pain associated with this?” they will look at you with anger and rage and say “how dare you.” But it, the pain, is there.

Maybe they are not maintaining friendships. Maybe their fitness and health isn’t holding up. Maybe a huge tumour is building in their skull. Maybe they are filled with fear of loss. Maybe a business opportunity flew out the window. Maybe their pleasure in orgasm is not as unique as before and they need more stimulation or even fantasy to create the same. Or, maybe their partner is getting bored with the whole thing and is fantasising about another person. Who knows what it is? A neophyte will argue that there is no downside/pain/loss.

If you are not a neophyte then the first thing is that you will know that there is a pain associated with a pleasure even if, like the example above, you can’t quite work out what it is.

It is the same in reverse. You might meet someone who is going through a terrible pain, like divorce or loss of a loved one. If you say “what’s the pleasure in this” they might very well feel justified in giving you a “Glasgow Kiss.”

But if you are not a neophyte – and therefore not under the spell of your emotions nor the world’s sensory expectations of more pleasure than pain or more ups than downs, you will know that there is a balance of pleasure and pain in their situation, even if, at first, you don’t know what it is.

In Chinese teachings there is a quote that suggests “time is a great healer.” This simply reveals that with time, you will see the balance in what is now a pleasure or a pain without balance.

Proverbs 21:17

Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11English Standard Version

The Vanity of Self-Indulgence

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.[a] 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure offerings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines,[b] the delight of the sons of man.

9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

1 Corinthians 10:13

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Buddha

All the delightful things of the world–sweet sounds, lovely forms, all the pleasant tastes and touches and thoughts–these are all agreed to bring happiness if they are not grasped and possessed.

But if you regard them merely as pleasures for your own use and satisfaction and do not see them as passing wonders, they will bring suffering.

Buddhism and Pain

The sutta called “The Arrow” further explores the Buddhist teachings on the best way to relate to our feelings. When we encounter something that leads to pain (or even just dissatisfaction) we tend to then start up a whole bunch of mental processes that lead to more suffering — often adding more pain than there was originally. We experience aversion to the dissatisfaction, and then indulge in blaming, and criticism, and generally whine. So it’s as if our response to being shot by an arrow is to shoot ourselves with another arrow.

And often when we experience something pleasurable, we tend to cling to the supposed source of pleasure. Of course, since all sources of pleasure are impermanent, we again end up causing ourselves more pain.

A wiser course of action is to avoid that second arrow by simply experiencing discomfort without reacting to it. We do this by being mindful — cultivating a patient, non-reactive, curious, and welcoming attitude towards anything in our experience that seems unpleasant.

We can also adopt this attitude towards anything that’s pleasurable. We call this attitude equanimity. Equanimity isn’t a state of non-feeling, it’s a state of freedom from habitual patterns of thought and emotion that lead to further pain. When we experience this freedom we become happier.

Bodhipaksa – Buddhist Teachings

Our usual responses to pleasure and pain

The next part of the sutta begins to tease out the difference in the kinds of suffering experienced by those who do not practice meditation and do not cultivate mindfulness:

The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.

Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.

So this is what we could call “reactivity,” where an initial experience of pain is met with mental anguish. Some commentators talk as if the first of the two arrows is necessarily physical pain, while the second is emotional pain, but it’s not always like that. In fact most of the time it’s not like that.

A good example is from a talk on mindfulness I heard the other night, where the speaker talked about seeing someone he knew on the other side of the street, waving, and getting no response. It’s always painful on a gut-feeling level when that happens, but how we respond to that initial pain is crucial, because this is where we turn pain into suffering. We can tell ourselves stories that the person ignored us, that they don’t like us, that no one likes us, that we’re unlovable, and so on, and so on. A simple pang of pain (arrow number one) gives rise to grief, lamentation, and distress (arrow number two).

“As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is resistant. Any resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure.

Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him.

He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling. As he does not discern the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling, then any ignorance-obsession with regard to that feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain obsesses him.

This is another “emotionally unintelligent” response we commonly have to pain: we try to escape pain through pursuing pleasure. We don’t recognize that the painful feeling is some thing that arises (“origination”) and passes away, and that it’s OK to simply allow it to do that. We experience “resistance” to the presence of the painful feeling. We don’t want it to be there. We think that there’s something “wrong” with us if there’s a painful feeling present.

And so we want to replace the painful feeling with a pleasant one. And we think that the way to do this is to “delight in sensual pleasure.” We want to have a pleasant experience. If we go back to the example of a friend not having acknowledged our wave of the street, we move from thinking “Nobody like me” to thinking “I wish that I was like my friend — everybody likes him/her.” We assume that if we were liked then this would be a source of pleasure. Now this is where things can get really tricky, because if there’s no prospect of a pleasant experience then that in itself becomes painful, and then we react to that too!

Or we may simply try to create a pleasant experience. We might try being rude to someone else, on the assumption that since (we think) someone has been rude to us and (presumably) taken pleasure in it, then if we’re unpleasant to someone else then we may get pleasure from that. Or we may go shopping or have a drink, or try to lose ourselves in watching television.

Sometimes these things to work to distract us from our unpleasant feelings and the cascade of reactive thoughts and emotions that they unleash, but of course they don’t help us to get rid of the underlying tendency to reactivity, which will simply manifest again the next time we have an unpleasant experience. And of course those pleasant feelings too will pass away. Sometimes that too can be a source of disappointment and therefore of a kind of pain. And so the cycle goes on.

Identifying with experience (Buddhisms)

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person joined with birth, aging, and death; with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering and stress.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the passage. The two paragraphs quoted above explain the dynamics of reactivity — how an initial painful feeling (usually mental rather than physical) leads to a cascade of painful responses — but here the Buddha is pointing to the underlying problem, which is our relation to our feelings.

How we relate to our feelings is crucial. The fundamental problem with the spiritually-untrained mind is that it identifies with its experience. We have a painful, pleasant, or neutral feeling, and we fail to recognize that it’s simply a phenomenon arising in the space of consciousness and that it is not inherently a part of us.

Instead, we assume on some almost instinctual level that our feelings are indeed a part of us, and that they say something about who we are in our essence. So when we experience pain (the friend not acknowledging us) we quickly move to the assumption that there is therefore something wrong with us (nobody likes me).

It’s hard to put into words exactly what this means and how it works. In essence it’s something we have to experience by practicing mindfulness. When we meditate we start to see how often we identify with the contents of our consciousness — the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that pass through us. And we start to stand back from those thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and to have a less “joined” relationship with them.

No longer attached to them, and no longer identifying with them, we start to see them as simply experiences that are passing through. And this is enormously liberating.

FOOTBALLER Harry Taylor – Geelong

T.W. Sherrin’s ball is 730 millimetres in circumference and 300 millimetres long. It’s as unique as a unicorn and one of the defining pieces of our great game. 

The life of a Sherrin would be a rollercoaster ride. From the figurative highs of being kicked through the big sticks in front of thousands of fans, to the lows of being battered and bruised from hitting fences and fists alike. 

In last Thursday night’s rollercoaster, the Cats played in a game where the Sherrin travelled mostly in one direction and spent a lot of time in the hands of the men in red and white.

The fine lines of football are an intriguing thing. We were soundly beaten by a terrific team. Be off slightly and you can be badly exposed, even to the tune of 110 points. 

You learn from victory, but you learn much more from defeat – about yourself as well as your team.

My yoga instructor spoke recently about our aversion to pain and traction to pleasure. His words reminded me of the value in balance. To not over-celebrate victory, nor drown too deep in loss. Review, learn, then move on to the next challenge that lies ahead. It was very relevant advice after last Thursday night. 

Yoga has taught me a lot of things, including how to appreciate times of intensity. As my hamstrings stretch to their limit I learn about intensity and how to try to breathe through it.

It is a short exposure that I try to use to help prepare for the backs-to-the-wall situation. How will we handle the intensity of a final? How much further can we push ourselves late in a game to get our team over the line? I shake and struggle with my hamstrings on stretch for a very short time, but that time provides rewards that are more than just physical. 

I have also come to appreciate the quieter times in my world.

Albert Einstein said: “The solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Rafael Nadal says he enjoys fishing, more specifically “the peace and quiet of being at sea”. Quiet times help the body rest and prepare for intensity. 

My “sea” is my car on the drive to the ground on match day. I metaphorically cast a line on these trips and enjoy the calm of my mind. Colours seem brightest and clarity is best. The intensity of the battle ahead looms large, but I am able to just breathe and relax, as if waiting for something to grab on to my line and wrestle my thoughts back from the horizon. 

That something will be the MCG this Friday night. Suddenly “fishing” will be distant thought, and what we need to do to play our best comes front of mind. 

Another of those times is the intimate moments spent with your teammates after singing the team song.

The body aches and the physical toll of battle on many is clear to see, but there is a feeling of satisfaction that is shared among men you have just chased, tackled and bled with. Before reality strikes and recovery must start for the next challenge, this time is one I cherish. 

The feeling of satisfaction post victory is heightened when you reflect on the preparation that came before the final siren on game day.

Acknowledging achievement is vital in order to instil confidence and reinforce positive behaviours. But how much acknowledgement is healthy? How many pats on the back are too many? The balance is hard to find but a necessity for sustained success. 

On the other side of the coin are the feelings that accompany defeat. How much venom should words contain after a loss? How much finger-pointing is too much? Again, balance is key. 

The arc of the emotional pendulum that swings between victory and defeat should be constant. Over-feel fulfilment or linger on friction? If victory is over-celebrated and defeat is met with too much misery, the swings of the pendulum reach extremes. The good times are amazing but the bad times can be unbearable.

A Sherrin’s life is one of great highs and lows. A footballer’s existence can be similarly tumultuous and short-lived. To give yourself the best chance to prosper, isn’t it better just to keep the pendulum swinging?