Continued notes on Vedana, or feeling-tone, from talk at Wat Yannawa Sept. 2008
How much do you have to give up to be on the Path and a practising Buddhist meditator? This is always a sticky issue as no one wants to give up their pleasures. Everyone finds justifications for getting what they want – often employing the “Middle Excuse” – the Buddha advocated a middle way between harsh asceticism and indulgence in sense pleasure, and this is cunningly used by many to justify getting what they want.
While it is true that there are some people who can live in the world and not be caught up in it, you have to be honest with yourself. Vedana, liking and disliking, is the hook and bait that gets you embroiled in the world around and distracts from the balance required for meditation and spiritual practise. If you find things invading your mind as you work, walk around and go about daily life, if the things that happen to you and the things people say hook into your mind, if there are pleasures you can’t live without – then you need to practise some renunciation and distance yourself from the world around you. Like a child needs protection from the world by its parents, so you have to give yourself chance to grow. Like it or not this often means giving up some of the lovely distractions in which you indulge.
The Buddha had a nice metaphor for this. Imagine a thoroughbred horse and a farm horse. The former, hearing its master approach with the days food, thinks to itself “I wonder what skills my master will train me in today. I wonder what lessons I must learn today.” The farm horse hears its master coming and thinks to itself “FODDER FODDER” (fodder is food for horses).
Are you like the thoroughbred or the racehorse when it comes to sense pleasures? The more you can distance yourself from the pleasure/pain driven stimulus-response mechanism that is the nature of pleasure seeking animals, the more you can operate on the wisdom principle.
Though it sounds very Freudian this idea of using the rational ego to guide oneself rather than the pleasure seeking id, it was nonetheless outlined by the Buddha 2500 years ago. He described Kamachanda – Sense Desire, and contrasted with Dhammachanda– wholesome desire based on Dhamma. Yes, there is desire in Buddhism and not all desire causes suffering despite what many people teach. We might call desire based on Dhamma as aspiration. Without aspiration there would be no effort made.
With the classic Buddhist practise of Mindfulness of Feelings, you stand back from liking and disliking and train yourself not to follow either of them. Gaining a distance and perspective, you can hopefully operate on the wisdom principle according to what is helpful and holy, rather than simply using all your energy to continually feed yourself sense pleasures.
Reading about giving things up frightens many people. They think that without getting what they want, without the sense pleasures, live would be dry and pointless. Yet those who do the practise, say it is worthwhile. They point to a peace that lies beyond both positive and negative states of mind. And besides, you will still have pleasure. It will be lighter, and without grasping. It is not mixed in with needing, but more a simple enjoyment of what is, without attachment. When the nice thing is there, great, when it is not there, great also. The important point is that the mind is freed from constraints. The likes and dislikes, which are not usually that important when looked at with the wisdom principle, do not invade the mind, or distract the thinking.