The Buddha’s teaching of the Eight-Fold Path is a prescription for freedom from suffering. The first step on the Eight-Fold Path is Right Understanding; the second step is Right Motivation. These two practices involve a radical shift from our everyday life perspective. This could be termed a paradigm shift. A paradigm is the framework by which we understand our sense of reality. A paradigm consists of the assumptions and premises that we unconsciously assume to be true as we live our life each day.
In a previous blog we discussed one aspect of the paradigm shift necessary to cultivate right understanding and right motivation; in this blog we introduce another aspect of that paradigm shift.
The deepest conditioning of all animal species—including humans—is to seek that which is pleasant and to avoid that which is painful. Both humans and animals are trained and conditioned via this principle. We automatically repeat behavior that produces pleasant sensations and we discontinue behavior that causes unpleasant sensations. Most everything we do is motivated by the desire to feel good (i.e. pleasant sensations) and avoid feeling bad (i.e. unpleasant sensation). With humans this applies as much (or more) to pleasant and unpleasant emotional feelings as it does to physical sensations.
Most humans have some ability to forego immediate gratification in anticipation of future pleasure; by letting go of an immediate gratification one may increase the duration or quality of some future gratification. We might even be willing to endure a fair amount of discomfort in anticipation of a pleasant payoff in the future. Going on a diet or training for an athletic event are examples of this. The current moment’s difficulty is tolerated because there is hope for future gratification. If that hope were to dissipate then the present difficulty would less likely be tolerated.
Hope often arises when we lack gratification in the present moment. Hope can seem to make our present experience more tolerable. The hope for a better tomorrow can sustain us through a difficult day.
To cultivate Right Understanding and Right Motivation it is necessary to see how deeply the drive for present and/or future gratification operates in the human psyche--and to not be seduced by it. Right Understanding/ Right Motivation is not about using our meditation practice to increase pleasure or to reduce pain. It is not a bargain or investment in which we “suffer now in hope for a better future.”
As we engage our mediation practices we may not always feel better; we often do, but sometimes we feel worse. We are deeply conditioned to believe that “If I feel good then I am doing it right!” and “If I feel bad then I am doing something wrong.” This is absolutely not true.
In discussions with my students I often hear them refer to a “good meditation” and when I ask them What made it “good” they will typically tell me that they experienced pleasant qualities in their body and mind. Conversely, when I hear about a “bad” meditation I will usually hear about their experience of pain and mental unrest.
Right Understanding/ Right Motivation is practicing for liberation from suffering and for realization of the Buddha nature. True liberation means being free of enslavement to pleasure or pain; it means becoming free of attachment to the ever-changing conditions of time/space reality. This requires a radical shift in understanding and in motivation,
The crucial question is not “Am I feeling good or bad?” but “What is my relationship to my present experience?” “Am I present to and clearly aware of each experience and am I meeting it with equanimity; am I non-resisting and non-reacting to each experience whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant? Am I able to suspend my perception that difficult or unpleasant experiences are bad and that pleasant ones are good? Am I able to experience unpleasantness without latching on to a hope for a “better future?”
The habit of hoping for a better future drives the ego to continuously strive for future gratification by playing out its conditioned strategies: “If I keep trying the same thing harder maybe I will eventually get what I want!” Rarely does this work…and even if it does, we discover that what we thought we wanted really doesn’t give us the happiness that we thought it world.
Freedom is found only in the present moment. At times it may be wise to prepare for the future, but even then we can find freedom only right here and right now. As we find freedom in the present moment we then gain the clarity and wisdom we need to make the choices that will best serve us in the future. The best way to prepare for the future is to live with awareness and equanimity in the present moment!