Notes on Talk 4 at Wat Yannawa, September 2008
The Hook and Bait
Or Why it is ok to Like Toast
The Pali term Vedana refers to liking and disliking – the pushing and pulling that goes on in the mind that disturbs peace and makes it hard to meditate. It also covers neutral feeling that is neither liking nor disliking, but since people spend very little time worrying about the neutral feelings in life, the focus remains on the liking and disliking, or favouring and opposing as it often described in the suttas. Vedana is always translated as feeling; which is a translation we are stuck with. Gil Fronsdal uses the term feeling-tone which might be a better translation.
The function of liking and disliking is one of attraction towards and repulsion from things you can experience through your senses. If you like a Rose, and dislike noisy loudspeakers you are experiencing Vedana, or Dearth Vedana as it is fondly known. Being aware of this attraction and repulsion is classic Buddhist teaching, as outlined in the Sati Patthana sutta, or Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta. One maintains self recollection (mindfulness) while feelings arise and pass away, and thereby gains insight into the process. Being able to stand back from this automated like-dislike response to the environment, you gain a sense of choice in that you can choose what will be of benefit to you, that will make you happy, rather than chasing after what you like.
Food is a good way to describe this. Humans instinctively like oils, fats, sugars and salts – things that were hard to find in the natural world. These days processed foods pack in these ingredients in unhealthy proportions, so if you only ate what you liked you would rapidly become unhealthy. You eat based on what is good for you not just what you like. Same goes for the mind and behaviour. Being mindful of favouring and opposing, you get a distance and space from it, and can base your mind and body behaviour on what is wise rather than what is pleasant.
Buddhism has terms for this – Kamachanda means sense-desire, and Dhammachanda means Aspiration (wholesome desire). Even though you often hear the teaching that desire causes suffering it needs to be taken in context. Here it is clear that there is wholesome desire, or aspiration, that is to be cultivated as opposed to raw sense desire which is to be restrained and understood.
As Dr Holly pointed out, this is very Freudian. Or maybe we should say in this context Freud is very Buddhist. He termed these principles as the id – the pleasure seeking principle of the mind, and the ego – the rational conscious part of the psyche that can delay gratification i.e follow what is sensible and healthy. Remember in Freudian psychology the ego is the rational conscious part of the mind that is to be developed. This is not the same as the ‘ego’ in the common understanding which refers to a sense of self-aggrandizement.
Here then, is classic Buddhism. A practise for gaining insight and instigating change. For the spiritual path you have to accept that you need to 1) change and 2) work. Otherwise you are paying lip service to the teaching, but not tasting it for yourself; venerating the key but not using it to open the door. You deliberately set out to maintain self-possession or self-awareness (mindfulness) while feelings come and go. During meditation you can pay attention to the quality of attraction towards sights, sounds, sensations, or thoughts that come to your attention. Training yourself to restrain the consciousness and allow the vedana to cease by itself is a tremendously empowering practise. The more you do it in meditation, the more a sense of control and balance you have in daily life as a result. People these days talk a lot about reducing stress, but are not so willing to give up their pleasures – it is this very pushing and pulling in the mind that is called stress. When vedana ceases, the mind can settle and dis-entangle itself. If you value excitement over peace and balance, then you are caught up in vedana.
Following blogs this week will continue to look at this theme.