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Cutting the chains of suffering
Answer
3/15/14 10:44 AM
CUTTING THE CHAINS OF SUFFERING

Most of the talk I see in meditation circles is about either perceptual changes (such as seeing the 3 characteristics) or the slow cultivation of positive emotions (esp. metta) and skillful conduct. But I tend to see very little about actually cutting out the mind's habit of craving at the deepest level, and whether this is indeed sufficient for the eradication of (psychological, at least) suffering. For example, do all negative emotions have craving at their root? Is there anyone around who's really eradicated all craving?

I've had some experiences on a Goenka retreat that have led me to believe that indeed, craving is at the root of all psychological dukkha. And moreover, at the root of craving is pleasant feeling. Here is a set of practice instructions which have helped me so far that are based on this idea. I still have a lot more work to do personally, so this is a work in progress for me, but perhaps it will be of interest. Consider these instructions to be experimental.


Hypotheses:

(I) All psychological suffering is a result of craving, which is a mental or physical inclination to reproduce, intensify, or prolong some experience.

(II) Craving originates in pleasant feeling, especially the gratification that comes from certain types of mental activity, such as cognizing the sense of "I am".

(III) This pleasant feeling is dedectable via sensations on the body.

(IV) When the mind observes clearly, and with understanding, the process by which suffering originates from pleasant feeling, it drops its habit of craving this feeling, and suffering is diminished.

Some instructions:

(1) Develop concentration by non-judgementally observing the sensations of the breath at a particular place on the body, e.g., on the skin just below the nostrils and above the upper lip. Give rest to the mind, quiet extraneous mental activity, and simulataneously develop a capacity to observe a small window of subtle bodily sensations clearly and non-judgementally.

(2) Practice the body scan method. Systematically, piece-by-piece, observe sensations just as they are on the body. Begin with the top of the head, then proceed to the sides, back, forehead, the eyebrows, eyes, ears, etc., all the way down to the soles of the feet, then proceed upward again. Develop a capacity to nonjudgementally and clearly observe subtle sensations over the entire body, leaving no part untouched or unobserved.

(3) When (1) and (2) have been developed to a significant extent (e.g., several days of uninterrupted practice for each), turn one's attention to contemplation of the process of suffering. Identify any unpleasant or tiresome psychological process in the mind, such as the cognition "I am”, or judgements about others. Observe the unpleasant physical sensations associated with this (often quite obvious -- these may be the indicator of the psychological process in the first place). Then look for pleasant sensations (often very subtle) that occur at the root of this activity. ("Is it true that all craving originates from pleasant sensation? Is there anything truly pleasant about this activity?") Observe as clearly as possible the connection between these pleasant sensations and the unpleasant ones. Try to identify a step-by-step process by which pleasant sensations turn into craving and craving into suffering. When the mind sees this clearly, a shift will occur and suffering will be diminished.

A narrative or two can aid this investigation: e.g. "I want to feel happy, so I'm generating this sense of identity, and now I'm suffering." Look for this process occuring. Or, "I want to feel good, so I'm picking out that person's faults, and now I'm suffering." Etc. Whatever is relevant to you. "I want that, but I'm getting this other thing, so I'm pushing it away and now I'm suffering."

Comments:

(a) Be sure to identify the pleasant sensations which underly this activity, and the connection between these pleasant sensations and the unpleasant sensations of dukkha. The mind doesn't understand this connection; it doesn't realize it's making itself suffer. In other words, it's ignorant. Observe carefully, and when the understanding clicks in, the process will be dropped. This dropping is a long-term effect, not a short-term one.

(b) Pretty much all extraneous mental activity ("mind noise") causes unpleasant sensations and originates in pleasant feeling (or possibly, simple habit).

(c) The body scan activity seems to create a connection between the conscious mind and the unconscious one. Deep emotions can be uncovered and come to the surface here, releasing feelings of fear, anger, etc. It can be quite intense.

(d) This practice came about on a 10-day Goenka course for me. The 10-day course provides the perfect setup for this investigation. It's also in line with Goenka's discourses (in that suffering is said to be caused by craving for pleasant sensations on the body), although they never instruct you in step (3) above. If you're willing, you can go on one of these courses and try step (3) on day 8 or 9.

(e) Personally, my mind is significantly quieter, my obsessive sense of self is diminished, and my anxiety has been much attenuated through this practice. However, I've found it works best on retreat, when lots of time is given to steps (1) and (2), and shortly after retreat.

(f) The connection between craving and pleasant sensations on the body is something I didn't believe until I investigated it on retreat and these shifts started occuring. It's a powerful idea. Look to the body.

Disclaimers/Warnings:

A. I've only done this on retreat once, but it was such a useful experience that I thought I'd share here.

B. I certainly have more work to do myself. I'm not even particularly skilled at concentration.

Cheers,
Chris