Suffering exists because we cause it to exist. Remember that sensations are inevitable. Pain is a part of life, but suffering is optional. How do we cause suffering? The Buddha recognized that we do this in two ways: we cling to things that we find pleasant, and we run away from things that are unpleasant. These two reactions are called attachment and aversion. We have seen these before; they are the third and fourth klesha of lassical Yoga, raga and dvesa.
The Issue at Hand by Gil Fronsdal explains that there are four kinds of clinging we subject ourselves to. The first is a clinging to a particular spiritual practice or routine – thinking that if we just follow the rules, that will suffice, and we will be happy. Unfortunately, we do not have to look very far to see the damage caused by intolerant and strongly held religious or spiritual practices. The second form of clinging is grasping certain views. These are all the opinions we hold, and the stories we apply to ourselves. We can be so strongly attached to a particular self-view that, if it is damaged or lost, we are also lost. There are many examples of men strongly attached to their self-view of being successful businessmen and family providers. When a personal financial crisis arises, such as a crash in the stock market, this self-image is destroyed, and these men become so lost that their only solution is suicide. The third form of clinging is the grasping to the sense of self; this is a form of asmita (ego), which was described in Classical Yoga. Everything that occurs in the world is interpreted in terms of how it affects or doesn’t affect me (the ego or small self).
The final clinging is the first one the Buddha actually mentioned. Fronsdal lists it last because it is the one people least understand, and are the most afraid of giving up. It is the clinging to pleasurable sensations. The Buddha did not say that pleasure was bad; he made no moral judgment about pleasure or pain. What he warns against is the clinging to pleasure. Just as there will be times in life when pain is present, there will be times in life when pleasure is present. Enjoy those moments, but when they go, let them go. Learn to enjoy the moments as they arise, and leave them in the past once they are gone.
Aversion is the flip side of the clinging to pleasure. It is natural for animals to seek that which feels good, and avoid that which feels bad. Natural, but not necessarily the best strategy if your goal is true happiness. The pleasure of this moment may not lead to sustained pleasure in the future. We must rely upon a deeper intelligence to guide us. Is the pleasure of that extra dessert really going to make you truly happy – especially when you succumb to that temptation every night, and eventually develop diabetes and heart problems? These are small short-term pleasures that cause us a great deal of delayed pain.
There are small short-term pains as well, which, when we avoid them, create long-term suffering. Is the putting off of the meeting with your boss over an uncomfortable issue really going to make you happier in the long run? If we only follow our animal nature when presented with pleasure or pain, then we are giving up real happiness.
When pain is present, as Stephen Levine eloquently explains, it is only present in the moment. These moments change. Once the moment is gone, let this moment be gone. Don’t worry about when the pain will return. Don’t allow your mind to relive the past episodes of uncomfortable sensation. Learn to live in this moment.