Monday June 12, 2006
Once, when I started out practising meditation, I had the idea that this practice should lead to some kind of continual happiness, a freedom from mental discontent. But as time has gone past, it has become increasingly apparent to me that this view is mistaken. It isn’t just that I myself have been somehow inept in my practice of the dharma, for when I look at my fellow practitioners, none of them seem to be free of mental discontent either. It’s tempting to ask: what’s gone wrong? Is this whole Buddhist malarkey a hoax?
I don’t think so, because I think that the idea of the complete elimination of discontent is little more than a romantic myth. The various human practices we engage in can radically diminish our mental discontents, but I do not think that they can eradicate them. It is the same as with bodily discontents. If we drink a bottle of vodka between seven and ten o’ clock in the evening, we can be fairly sure that we will experience bodily discontent the following morning. Cutting out the vodka will cut out that particular kind of discontent. But this is not to say that we can be entirely free of bodily discontents by altering our habits. So with mental discontents: we can do things to minimise them – mental discontents arise out of a mass of conditions, some of which we can alter – but we cannot get rid of them altogether.
It seems to me that it is not the discontent itself that is the problem so much as the response to the discontent: a move from what might be called the affective realm to the ethical realm. There is in this something of what in cybernetics they call a feedback loop and in Buddhism they call samsara: I am experiencing mental discontent (affective state); I respond with ill-will (ethical response); which leads to further mental discontent (affective state). And round and round we go, folks! Yuk! I always used to throw up on fairground rides… Stop the wheel! I want to get off!
I suspect that separating the discontent from the response is helpful, because it frees us from feeling that we should be without this discontent, and it simply allows us to respond to the fact that there is discontent there in our experience, whilst also permitting us to acknowledge that discontent is not the entire story either and that there are also the experiences of ease and pleasure, even alongside the worst of discontents. The four efforts for cultivating a positive mind give a pragmatic outline of the things that need to be done – and they all focus upon the ethical response to discontent rather than the affective experience of discontent itself:
- Not to let an unwholesome-unskilful thought arise, which has not yet arisen ( Guarding )
- Not to let an unwholesome-unskilful thought continue, which has already arisen ( Abandonment )
- To make a wholesome-skilful thought arise, which has not yet arisen ( Development )
- To make a wholesome-skilful thought continue, which has already arisen ( Sustaining )
I should come clean and confess that the reason I’m reflecting upon this at all is because I have been feeling decidedly discontented recently. This discontent – with its many causes and conditions, both seen and unseen – has resolved into that most unpleasant of miasmic curses, a bad mood, which has lingered about me for several days. But a bad mood is an unpleasant thing, and this afternoon I became bored of snarling to myself. So I went outside into the glorious sunshine, taking my meditation cushions with me, installed myself in a nook by the shed where I would be in the least danger of alarming the neighbours, and sat down to meditate. Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat – who since the sun came out a week ago has been ambling round in a state of near-bliss, purring happily – came and curled up beside me and fell asleep (not much evidence of discontent there, the lucky sod…).
Whilst I sat and meditated in the afternoon sun, I began to notice that this supposed “bad mood” was itself something changing, fleeting, in constant flux, ebbing and flowing, and that it had both active – ethical, if you like – and passive – dimensions. What made up the bad mood was not just the discontent, but the multitude of actively unskilful responses to it. But I also noticed that when I relinquished my hold upon this state of mind, it appeared to be only a tiny part of the astonishing experience, of sitting there quietly in the afternoon sun on an ordinary afternoon somewhere to the west of Birmingham.
I’m not saying that after I got up from my cushions everything was sweetness and light. I will not pretend that my discontent has vanished away. It hasn’t. But as I look at Bodhicattva who is lying beside me as I write this, blissed out and half-asleep, at least I can now do so without envy or resentment…
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