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Re-Vitalise Retreats September 2009 – Holy Island Retreat, UK. Meditations and talks.

Pain and Pleasure
This was the first of a series of talks and covered the Buddhist concept of Dukka. Our lives, in the west, are relatively easy compared with other regions of the world. Our climate is temperate, we have mineral wealth and plenty of food. I think that a direct result of this general wealth is an abundant supply of what I shall call ‘sensual pleasure’ Sensual, here refers simply to all the possible pleasures of the senses. When you start to drill down through the senses and look at sensual pleasure, it becomes apparent just how ‘abundant’ these pleasures are here in the west. Certainly our wealth makes them available. To gauge the level of sensual pleasure available to us, just apply a little mindfulness to the study of advertising for a while. Every aspect of our senses is entertained by just a five minute TV break. We see adverts for food, clothing , cars, perfumes, audio equipment, sport and recreation. It really is fascinating to see how your five senses plus the desires and craving present in your mind, are tantalised by a 5 minute advert break. So we really do have more than we need, here in the west. Even those of us on more moderate salaries can afford to purchase way way more than we actually need. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Actually, I believe it is just fine to enjoy the fruits of our labours, to purchase these things and enjoy them. I do not believe in some austere form of Buddhism where we must shut ourselves away in a cave and live off roots. After all, the Buddhist 8-fold path talks about right-effort. But there is a single fact of life that points to the fact that despite all of this wealth and all of this ‘sensual satisfaction, something isn’t quite working. Here in the west we have the highest rates of mental illness than anywhere in the world. Now, we have to take figures with a pinch of salt. In the 3rd world, I would think that measuring levels of mental illness in the general population is difficult at best. However, we cannot argue that mental illness is extremely high in our population. A 2004 cross-Europe study found that approximately one in four people reported meeting mental-illness assessment criteria at some point in their life for at least one of the disorders assessed, which included mood disorders (13.9%), anxiety disorders (13.6%) or alcohol disorder (5.2%). Approximately one in ten met criteria within a 12-month period. Women and younger people of either gender showed more cases of disorder. That is exceptional high! 1 in 10 of us suffers with some form of mental illness during a 12 month period. When we have all this stuff!! To me it almost feels like the cruellest of drugs. The more sensual satisfaction available to us, the more we crave and the more we suffer (dukka). Before I go further I should explain what suffering means in the Buddhist perspective. Actually, Dukka doesn’t translate into the kind of experience we normally associate with suffering. Normally we would think of acute pain, lack of food or water or extreme poverty. Dukka translates as a general feeling of ‘unsatisfactoriness’. So it is more like a grumbling feeling of discontent, going on under the surface all the time. I think this hits the nail on the head. For me, suffering doesn’t come from physical pain. That may sound very surprising. However, once you become aware of dukka in your life, you begin to see the distinction. And you do have to ‘feel’ it. Not just understand it at an academic level. I’ve had a tumour in my hip joint and a kidney stone so far in my life. Both of which were excruciatingly painful. The tumour went on for some years so I have experienced long periods of intense pain. As for the kidney stone, well they do say that this is more intense than labour pain. I don’t know how you’d measure it but it was an ‘all consuming’ experience for me. Both these episodes taught me a great deal about pain. What still surprises me is that I don’t feel that I ‘suffered’. Although there was intense pain, mentally, they didn’t touch me. Yes, the pain made me tired and weary but it feels to me that the pain actually took me further away from the things that cause dukka to arise in my life. Things that

cause suffering in the mental sense and change me mentally in some way. You could say that these periods of intense p[ain gave me a sense of perspective on life and helped reveal to me that grumbling ‘dukka’ under the surface. In Buddhism, we understand that dukka is primarily caused by our grasping desire to have our senses constantly satisfied. This is the nature of us. We are constantly looking for ways to satisfy our senses and that need to satisfy is massive. We buy a brand new car and within weeks we are looking other cars. We have a beautiful meal, we eat way too much and we then feel uncomfortable. We reach for indigestion tablets to make our stomachs comfortable again. Then we do the same again! There are many many examples of this kind of behaviour that we all follow to a greater or lesser extent. There are some more subtle forms too. Our desire to be loved, appreciated, praised and the suffering that arises when we don’t get what we want. Again, this all sounds like we should be able to live without these things. We should be able to do without the dinner party, the fast car or the loving partner. I am NOT suggesting this at all. Interestingly, what I’ve found with dukka and the way to deal with it is to understand that it’s OK to suffer. Clearly, once we’ve discovered what dukka is, we have a desire to be free of it. But that desire seems to be more gentle than the usual mad cravings that we experience in our lives. The acknowledgement of dukka and its nature brings with it a gentle understanding and compassion more akin to an aspiration and a hard goal. So now we understand the problem. But what is the solution? Well actually, the first step is seeing the problem for what it is. This is the small first step to escaping dukka. Next we begin to understand what fuels dukka. The answer to that is simple. Our thoughts. If we become mindful of the way we react when we see images presented to us, we become aware of the thoughts that arise, the emotions that spin out of them, the actions that appear next and the habits that form in us as a result. Given enough time, these habits harden into character and then we are trapped in a cycle of dukka. By watching our thoughts, we break the cycle, easing the emotions that arise, not undertaking the actions that come out and so avoiding these habit forming behaviours. Over time, we change our character. So watching and weeding out our thoughts slowly eases our suffering. Because those unconscious desires that lead to it become conscious and visible. We can then make an actual choice about how we react to them. They no longer control us. We control them. We can’t just shut down our thoughts of course. The thoughts will still be there. (At least for a while, until we change our mental habits) We simply choose not to be driven and guided by them. We make a choice. The thoughts that are left, once we ignore the ones that are driven by craving and desire (which are of course inward facing) are all our outward facing thoughts. Thoughts which drive empathy, compassion, generosity. These are skilful thoughts and they develop skilful habits if we persist in encouraging them. Buddha said :The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character So watch the thought and its ways with care; and let it spring out of love born out of concern for all beings. This talk was followed on the island by a silent “mindfulness of breathing” meditation. If practised this meditation develops general mindfulness and concentration which helps to put into practise the challenge set out in this talk. Andy Spragg