Lisa C. was lately in town from Seattle, so we had dinner at Café Ethiopia, sharing three or four (well, four) tasty vegetarian dishes, two of which were the same mushroom dish, and then we went over to Howie’s for a spot of meditation. It was Lisa’s first time being there, and it was delightful to have her along. Howie said he was going to talk about the four foundations of mindfulness, but had to abort his mission after the first two, when time ran out. The first is mindfulness of the body, and the second is noticing whether a sense object is pleasant, unpleasant, or neither.
The third, which we didn’t get to that night, is mindfulness of the mind: noticing if some flavor of grasping, aversion or delusion is present, or if our minds are flitting from object to object or shrinking away from all objects. Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s style of practice is very involved with this third foundation of mindfulness, particularly noticing liking and disliking—if we want something to happen or keep happening, or if we want something to stop happening. Liking can solidify into craving, which often leads to strategizing about how we will get this thing that we believe will make us happy: a vacation, attention from a certain person, loss of X number of pounds, money, winning first prize, etc.
It may be a very small thing: when the water boils for my tea, I’ll be happy. Or huge and far away: after I finish my book and it’s on the New York Times bestseller list.
The means we choose to get the desired object can range from doing nothing whatsoever and hoping someone will read our minds to, on the other end of the spectrum, committing murder, and many other strategies in between. What is so interesting is that we rarely question our original idea that whatever it is will make us happy, mainly because we don’t even notice it as a thought. The thought occurs, and we believe it implicitly and set about actualizing it.
So being able to notice, “I’m having the thought that if Bob asked me out on a date, that would really make me happy” is incredibly useful, for at least two reasons. One is that if I’m noticing I’m having the thought, I can’t be one hundred percent caught in its thrall. The second is that, and here I think fondly of SUT once again, and also of Ezra Bayda, it eventually becomes obvious that the experience of wanting something consists of nothing more than—yep—a set of thoughts and some sort of visceral experience. Nothing more.
At this point, having done all this noticing, I’m free to inquire, “By the way, would this really make me happy?” It is fine to seek out and have pleasurable experiences, to enjoy amazing meals, wonderful trips, fun times with others, warm moments with those we love the most. There is nothing wrong with savoring the excellent things that come our way, but attempting to prolong any such pleasure is futile, and no matter how many agreeable experiences we manage to line up, we are all subject to what is called in Buddhism “the eight worldly winds” of praise and blame, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disrepute. Every last one of us sometimes doesn’t get what she wants and sometimes most definitely gets what she most definitely does not want.
More and more, it comes to mind: pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. (And, for that matter, displeasure doesn’t have to be the same thing as unhappiness.) I even reminded myself of this while asleep not long ago. In a dream, I was planning to have a certain agreeable experience, and told myself, “Yes, that will be very nice. But pleasure is not the same thing as happiness.”
As I understand it, Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s practice is to, at the least, notice some sense object as often as possible, and also to check frequently to see if we’re relaxed, and if not, to relax. Then, if possible, we can notice what we like and what we don’t. But if tuning in to the attitude of mind is not possible in a given moment for whatever reason, we can simply notice an easily recognized sense object: our feet on the floor, for instance. Doing that as many times per day as we can remember to will transform our lives.
Noticing thinking, in my opinion, eliminates approximately 95 percent of our problems, because it largely prevents excursions into the golden or miserable past, or into the annoying or frightening future. Relaxing the body and mind washes out the residue of past believed thoughts and makes it harder for new ones to take hold. Noticing liking and disliking has the miraculous and potent properties described above.
So if pleasure is not happiness, what is? More and more, it seems to me that simply being aware and awake in this very moment is. And that’s exactly what Howie was going to say, if he’d only had the time.