Let us talk about what goes wrong (a lot) when one tries to practice mindfulness or concentration with a desire for pleasant feelings.
First, we have to understand the nature of attachment to pleasant feelings, this desire that has defined our existence for as long as we can remember. From the moment we are born, we cry out for milk. Most of us then continue to do the exact same thing until the moment we die. Our life passes as a series of pursuits and escapes, namely the pursuit of pleasant feelings of every kind, and attempted escapes from disagreeable feelings of every kind in the world.
Where is the world?
Everything that we run after, as well as the pursuit of it, originates at the same place: in this body and mind, with its six sense-doors. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind – these are our whole world, nowhere else. This is where whatever is agreeable and disagreeable arises. This is where suffering arises, and this is where the end of suffering is to be found.
But mostly, we don’t look for the end of suffering in the right place.
We know absolutely nothing beyond the six sense-doors; no pleasure beyond the six sense doors, and no escape from the suffering that arises in the six sense doors, beyond going and seeking for more pleasant objects for our senses. The very idea of having no more six sense-doors is more than strange for most people – it’s a terrifying idea. When we identify with six sense-doors, we think we possess six sense-doors, we are six sense-doors, and so, not to have them anymore is our idea of death.
It’s only natural, then, that even when it comes to practicing the Buddha’s teaching, practicing mindfulness and concentration, we still end up running round in the same circle as always. Our meditation continues the same pursuit of pleasant feelings, and the attempted escape from disagreeable feelings.
An example of this is the emphasis on jhanas in most Theravada schools. Theravada teachers speak quite a lot about jhanas, many people are very interested in attaining jhanas, and there is much debate on what the jhanas actually are and how to reach them. Everybody agrees, though, that the jhanas are described as states of bliss and ease in meditation. We don’t have to go far to figure our why they are appealing, why people should be so interested in them. Who isn’t interested in sitting on one’s meditation cushion and feeling bliss, calm, joyful and at ease? It sounds like the perfect drug without any side effects! If the jhanas were described as states involving discomfort, difficulty and hardship, leading one nonetheless (hypothetically speaking) towards the end of suffering, would people be quite so interested to attain them?
It is perfectly normal to search for feelings of joy and happiness; we all do this throughout our entire lives. But is this the practice of Dhamma? It is true that concentration, even wrong concentration, or other forms of joyful practice such as sending thoughts of love to the whole world, can make us feel very happy. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. However, if we put all our attention on this, if this defines our practice, then the trouble is that, instead of digging into ourselves to remove the defilements that have been with us for such a long, long time, we just cover them up.
The practice of joyful meditation does not remove defilements or attachments. (The Buddha states this explicitly, see MN 8). On the contrary, if we practice while wishing to have the calm, blissful feeling of concentration, already this is defilement in us, the desire for pleasant feelings driving us. But we don’t see this kilesa in ourselves, we think we are working correctly, and precisely this is the danger of it. When we practice in this way, the kilesa can easily become hidden, pushed down underneath all this pleasant joyful feeling, so that we don’t notice them.
It’s as if we have a cooking pot that has a lot of burned food stuck at the bottom, and instead of cleaning it, we fill it up to the brim with honey. When you look into the pot, now all you see is honey, smelling and tasting so sweet. Yet the burned stuff is still there, and sooner or later we will come up against it. It is the same with wrong concentration, or any practice of joy that is not born directly of removing kilesa. It is possible to remain in a state of intense joy for a long time, such that one comes to believe that there can be nothing wrong at all! Yet, when the situation changes – when we suddenly find ourselves in danger, for example – now fear arises in the same way it does for everyone, and we are a slave to that fear, we become that fear, in just the same way. We are not master of the six sense doors.
There are many meditations and practices by means of which one can experience feelings of calm, happiness and peace: Bhakti yoga and several forms of Hindu meditation will all quite readily give this result if one dedicates enough energy to them. The Buddha’s teaching is for a different purpose, and it is ‘deep, difficult to fathom, to be understood by the wise;’ as it is repeated several times throughout the suttas. Prince Siddattha knew this, when he left his life and went forth as an ascetic. He knew that goodness was not enough, and it was not enough to attain peaceful states of mind. If we want to talk of jhana, not long after his renunciation he had already attained to the formless states that are higher states of jhana than we usually hear talked of nowadays, under the tuition of his first teachers, Alara and Udaka.
Everyone who studies Buddhism is familiar with the story of how he studied under these two teachers, learned everything he could from them, attained to the same level as they had, and then decided to abandon it. But do we fully realise the significance of this decision, and how difficult it was to make it? Not only did he abandon his only teachers, their support and encouragement, along with the practice they had taught, together with the peaceful states to which it led – he changed to practicing the most disagreeable and extremely uncomfortable form of asceticism imaginable, torturing his body for six years.
Who will do such a thing? Who, among all those who interest themselves in meditation and jhana these days, would be willing to give this up for something even slightly less agreeable and more difficult? How many would be prepared to consider that perhaps it is not the right practice? It’s hard to put enough emphasis on how great was the wisdom of the Bodhisattha in acting as he did. If he had lacked clarity when it came to his aim, even to the slightest extent, he could never have done so, and we would never have had any teaching to follow. It was only because his aim was so entirely clear and fixed – nothing less than finishing with existence, finishing with birth and death, the complete ending of suffering – that he was able to see that his practice of concentration with Alara and Udaka was not enough.
We must understand: the point here is not that all pleasant feelings are to be shunned, nor that all practice of concentration is wrong. The point is that if, from the beginning, what we are searching for are pleasant feelings, if we are meditating with the desire to experience pleasant feelings, then everything will go wrong. It will go wrong from the beginning, because we will not be able to distinguish right concentration from wrong concentration, right meditation from wrong meditation. As soon as we feel happy, peaceful and calm in meditation, we assume that what we are doing is correct – what else were we looking for?
On the other hand, if the aim is truly the ending of all states of existence, then this is something that allows for no form of attachment whatsoever to remain. It was the lazar-force of this clarity that enabled the Bodhisattha to be able to see that he was still not free. Despite the huge pot of honey he had accumulated, as it were, still the bottom of the pot was not fully clean: the trace of kilesa still remained deep within him.
Kilesa will never, ever go away by themselves. They will stay with us for the rest of our lives as long as we do not remove them. If we practice in the wrong way, we can never remove them; and whatever practice we do should be directly removing them, otherwise it is automatically wrong. The practice to remove defilements and to be master of the six sense-doors, is the ‘satipatthana’ meditation that the Buddha taught (the question of what exactly that is and how to practice it correctly is a whole other subject, which we cover in other articles, see here and here).
Yet, even if we have the right teaching, we can never progress to reach the aim as long as we holding on to the attachment to good feelings born from these six sense doors. We can get only so far, before we fall back or are held back; like being a dog that is on a leash and who can run only so far before being stopped with a jolt. This desire and attachment makes any wisdom impossible, we cannot even go beyond the identification with the body, let alone the mind, when we are driven in this way and think in this way. When you are driven by sexual desire, for example, you are one with the sex-organ. It is the self in the sex-organ that wants this kind of gratification, born of sensation. When we are greedy for food and desire food, then we make one with the tongue and mouth in the same way, we can’t go beyond it. It is impossible to go beyond this steadily degrading organic matter as long as we continue to make self with it and to depend upon it.
So, we should be clear about what is our aim. Are we meditating truly in the pursuit of wisdom? Is our aim to end the suffering of existence, to be master of these six sense-doors, and to stop making more and more of them again and again? Or, do we wish to find happiness through the six sense doors; to have another kind of pleasant feeling? If pleasant feelings are what we are looking for, we can practice concentration, Bhakti yoga or any number of other kinds of blissful meditation – and it will be relatively easy. It is far, far easier to temporarily cover our defilements than it is to bring them to an end. Yet, even the highest of the highest pleasant feeling still turns to ashes. It is anicca – changing, inconstant, utterly undependable. As long as we want to enjoy pleasant feelings in any way, shape or form, as long as we make their enjoyment our objective and act accordingly, there can be no insight, no wisdom, and no true freedom.