The Pendulum of Pleasure and Suffering

The Pendulum of Pleasure and Suffering

By Desmond Yeoh SC

Ceramic Products Manufacturer in Malaysia

Ceramic Products

All of our actions and decisions are driven by our feelings. We are always chasing after some form of sense pleasure; sight, smell, tactile, mental or emotional stimuli; and running away from things that bring us displeasure. Without feelings, few of us would struggle for anything at all.

In the book, ‘The Handbook for Mankind’, Buddhadassa taught, “Feeling, whether of pleasure of displeasure, is truly a site of suffering. Spiritually speaking, these feelings of pleasure and displeasure may be considered as synonymous with suffering, because they give rise to nothing but mental torment. Pleasure renders the mind buoyant; displeasure deflates it. Gain and loss, happiness and sorrow, amount in effect to mental restlessness or instability; they set the mind spinning”.

Seeing even pleasurable feelings as a source of suffering is not easy. It would almost be an impossible task to try to convince anyone of this fact. But if we look deeply, we can see that chasing after sense pleasures plunks us on a pendulum that swings back to suffering at a later stage. Take for example the consumption of alcohol. We may feel high for a while but we suffer from a hangover the next day, causing us to be in a bad mood the entire day. The pleasurable feeling may last for a couple of hours but we lose an entire day after that. If we continue to chase after it, we will have to toil to earn enough money to sustain the habit.

Another example is the desire to feel proud. Pride is one of the pleasurable mental sensations that we run after without looking at the negative aftereffects. Our exertions to achieve things that make us proud are clearly a form of suffering. While we agonise to obtain the goal, we may worry endlessly of not achieving it and that too is suffering. After we have realized our goal, we may be praised and we may feel elated for a while. But when the pendulum swings back, we begin to worry about losing our position and continue to push ourselves even more to feed our pride.

One may argue that going after our goals can benefit society as a whole and if everyone does not care, then the world economy will stagnate. This is a different matter. I am not talking about the external world but our inner world; our attitude towards the material world.  We can work without attachment to pleasurable feelings. By doing so, we would be free from fear and be able to perform our activities more effectively because our concentration power would be sharper.

So, we see that when we chase after sense pleasures, including mental and emotional pleasures, there is a pendulum effect. The other observation we could make is that when the pendulum swings back, it goes up higher on the side of suffering. To illustrate this point:-  When ten persons say good things about us, we will be on cloud nine; but if there is just one person saying bad things about us, our mind will be entirely focused on that one negative person. A single person, saying unpleasant things, can nullify all the marvellous stuff the other ten persons are saying. We will feel angry and victimised. It is similar to the example of a black dot on a white sheet of paper; our mind will be focused on the black dot and be oblivious of the white parts.

We are not only driven by the desire for sense-pleasures, but we are also tossed around by the desire to avoid displeasure; in other words, the fear of unpleasant feelings. One who says that he no longer desires anything, may still be imprisoned by the fear of misfortune. This too is a form of desire and that is why the Buddha taught that our desires trap us in the cycle of birth and death.

We cannot just decide to let go of our desires. This letting go is not a decision we make intellectually. Letting go is something that will arise in all of us naturally as we look at our experiences with wisdom. Whenever, we experience suffering, we can look back and identify the particular desire that was the true cause of that suffering; for example, if we lose a beautiful gem, we can contemplate and see that it was the desire for that gem that is the cause of our current suffering. Had we not desired that gem in the first place, we would not be tormented now. We could also observe the agony we feel and compare it to the initial joy that the gem brought us. It we are honest with ourselves, we may even see that the initial joy is miniscule compared the subsequent pain.

We can experience the joy of being free from desires when we meditate. It is difficult to be completely free from desires in our daily life but we can set aside some time to be alone, and be free from the need to do anything. We can say to ourselves, “For the next fifteen minutes, I desire nothing and I am fearless; I shall allow myself this moment of peace”. With this practice, we can gradually let go of our desires for sense pleasures and this will in turn reduce our desires to avoid displeasures. With practice, our consciousness will gradually rise until we reach enlightenment.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. chiaab
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 16:29:49

    Sir,it is not easy to stop the pendulum swing between the extreme which has brought about from the attachment to sense pleasure with the resultant negative effects.This is because the affected usually does not he is suffering, so changes cannot be made. pendulum will continue to swing at the axis of suffering in tandem with its karmic tendency. Your article can be the guiding light for those who requires help…


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