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Part III – Chapter 23

Practice non-attachment.

As previously implied, suffering is a negative personal response to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch sensations, or feelings or emotions of any sort, that have been, are now or are anticipated to be experienced (for whatever reason) as painful or as loss of pleasure. It is an attitudinal or volitional response of the soul to certain actual or potential information inputs – a response of rejection, of wishing or trying to avoid or get rid of certain psychologically unpalatable objects.

It should be noted that there is a positive equivalent of this response – it is enjoyment. This attitude or will, to sense or mental impressions perceived as positive (i.e. pleasant or as loss of pain), consists in wishing or trying to grab or cling on to certain objects. Enjoyment is not to be confused with pleasure. Enjoyment is to pleasure (and negation of pain) as suffering is to pain (and negation of pleasure).

Suffering and enjoyment are thus two sides of the same coin – which we can (like the Buddhists) call attachment[1]. These are not phenomena, but spiritual reactions to phenomena, note well. That is, whereas pleasure and pain are parts of the realm of body and mind, enjoyment and suffering are direct expressions of the soul.

In the case of suffering, we “draw pain” from pain or insufficiency of pleasure – we are sad, depressed, etc. in view of experiencing negative phenomena. In the case of enjoyment, we “draw pleasure” from pleasure or reduction of pain – we are joyful, euphoric, etc. in view of experiencing positive phenomena. This is said primarily of current pain or pleasure of any sort, but it also applies to remembered or anticipated pains or pleasures.

Suffering is adding pain on to pain (or to insufficiency of pleasure) – it compounds and prolongs pain by reinforcing our susceptibility. For example, say a motorist rudely drives into the parking place I got to first; there is a first reaction of pain at the experience of such an uncouth person, as well as at the loss of the parking place and at the prospect of having to seek another; but if I allow anger to rise in me – this is the extra pain of suffering.

Similarly, enjoyment is getting pleasure from the fact of increasing pleasure (or of decreasing pain). For example, say the said rude motorist feels pleasure at having gotten the parking place first; if he starts congratulating himself and boasting about it to his passenger – that’s the extra pleasure of enjoyment.

Detachment or asceticism, or (less pejoratively put) non-attachment, consists in becoming aware of the distinction between the attachment of self to pleasures or pains, and the primary pleasant or painful objects, events, sensations, mental impressions, ideas, etc. Once one develops this awareness, one becomes able to abstain from “drawing” pleasure from pleasure, and pain from pain, i.e. able to cease emphasizing pleasant or painful feelings with enjoyment or suffering. Such emphasis (i.e. attachment) is, in the last analysis, an unnecessary compounding of the problem posed by pleasure and pain.

Pain is known to all as a negative influence on the will – although, if we ignore or overcome this influence, we turn the pain into an instrument of improved will. Similarly, people must realize, pleasure can be a negative influence, if we attach to it – i.e. it is equally wise to detach from pleasure as from pain. The two poles must be treated in the same way, for one cannot become independent of the one while remaining dependent on the other.

To succeed in detaching from pain, one must also detach from pleasure. One cannot be a hedonist and hope to avoid suffering pain or displeasure. The moment one allows oneself to enjoy (i.e. cling to) pleasure, one sets oneself up for the suffering of pain (i.e. trying to head it off or push it away or run from it). The two imply the same addiction of spirit, the same spiritual affliction. One has to give up on enjoyment of pleasure or diminished pain to become truly free.

It is of course easier to give up suffering than to give up enjoyment. But one has to understand that both these habits build up the ego (or more precisely, the self-identification with the body-mind complex). If the ego is sustained by enjoyment, it will continue to feed suffering. Such habits cannot of course be stopped overnight: but, gently does it, they can be weeded out over time.

Thus, when experiencing pleasures, do not linger on them and try to maximize them, as we are all wont to do, but instead look upon them meditatively. This will enable you to also find liberation from pains – i.e. to contemplate them calmly, without fearing them or trying to minimize them.

The causes of or reasons for the pleasures or pains are interesting to know, but ultimately rather irrelevant. Meditators do not pass too much time looking into their life story for the particular sources of their psychological problems; Freudian-style psychoanalysis is itself a form of attachment and self-confusion with phenomena. Meditation is concerned proactively with remedying and preventing the root causes of problems, just as a mechanic fixes a car without needing to know how it crashed.

Underlying both suffering and enjoyment is some sort of radical discontent. Suffering expresses this condition by self-pity; enjoyment expresses it by trying to give oneself a boost. The opposite of both these reactions is the attitude of contentment. This is not the opposite of suffering only, note well, but the antithesis of both suffering and enjoyment[2]. It is freedom of the spirit from passing material and mental phenomena of whatever polarity, freedom from the ups and downs of random emotions.

Non-attachment does not mean feigned or forced detachment (the latter is a pejorative connotation of the term detachment, but not its only sense). Non-attachment is not emotional paralysis, in the way of someone who has built up rigid defenses against emotions. It consists in being cool and collected, not frozen or repressed. It is “being zen” (as people say nowadays in French), i.e. not getting overly excited over virtually nothing. If one meditates sufficiently and well, non-attachment comes naturally.

It has to be stressed, so there is no misunderstanding: recommending ‘non-enjoyment’ (in the sense above defined) does not mean being against pleasure. To be impassive is not to be apathetic. Naturally, pleasure is preferable to pain or even to non-feeling.

If one experiences a pleasure (or is relieved of a pain), so well and good – there is no intrinsic harm in that. There is no reason to in principle reject pleasure as such when it happens to occur; nor even to avoid pleasure if one sees it coming – indeed, to do so would constitute another form of attachment. On the other hand, one should not try to make an existing pleasure last or increase; nor, a fortiori, should one pursue pleasure for its own sake or pass one’s time dreaming of it when one lacks it. Such hedonist behavior is bound to result in unhappiness (sadness, resentment, conflicts, weakness, etc.) – it is not worth it.

Note however that, because of the polarities involved, our position relative to suffering is not entirely symmetrical to the one just formulated with regard to enjoyment. Our advice to avoid suffering does not logically imply a fatalistic acceptance of pain as such. In the case of pain, if one can avoid it (before the fact) or get rid of it (after the fact), one should of course do so, if there are no more pressing considerations to the contrary.

One should do so – because pain is an obstruction to consciousness and volition, as is most evident in tragic situations (like certain diseases, or like torture). The problem of suffering arises only when pain becomes one’s overriding focus, i.e. when any amount of pain (real or imagined) is unbearable. Oversensitivity to pain is spiritually unhealthy.

It is natural to protect and cure our soul’s body-mind appendages from harm, and even to look after their wellbeing. The issue here is only to what extent such concerns and pursuits are biologically valuable, and at what point they become harmful in themselves. The limit is attained when our more materialist concerns and pursuits begin to hinder or damage our ultimately more important spiritual values.

Thus, the posture advocated here is: neither exacerbated hedonism nor extreme asceticism, but moderation and wisdom.

[1] This is, of course, but one facet of the connotation of ‘attachment’, which includes all affections and appetites – likes and dislikes, desires and aversions, hopes and fears, etc. See my work Volition and Allied Causal Concepts, chapter 10.

[2] Most translations of Buddhist texts imply the opposite of suffering to be happiness; but this is inaccurate. The term contentment is more appropriate here, and this is the contrary not only of suffering but also of enjoyment, as just explained. Note well that contentment is not an emotion, something the soul passively feels, but an attitude, an actively chosen posture of the soul’s will. The term happiness is perhaps best reserved for the ultimate bliss of enlightenment, for no one can be said to be truly happy who has not permanently reached such realization.

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