Our daily motivations are guided by pleasure, pain and fear: Seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and driven by fear. Fear itself plays a key role in all we do: Fear of loss, fear of what tomorrow brings (anxiety), fear of not keeping up with expectations, fear of not being loved, etc. It’s such a vital driver in all we do that it demands a separate discussion which will be my next writing. For now, let’s focus on the relationship between pleasure and pain.
Pleasure and pain are opposite sides of the same coin. What gives you pleasure today may give you pain tomorrow. It’s hard to believe they are intertwined but pain is the shadow of pleasure. The obvious example is relationships, where the same person that made you happy today may make you miserable tomorrow. How can the same thing or person that caused you pleasure cause you an equal if not greater amount of pain?
The pursuit of pleasure creates an expectation, a desire, a craving. It can range from small things like smoking a cigarette or having a coffee to going on vacation or buying a sports car. That, in itself, is not the problem if you are present in the moment. If you can truly sip your coffee and fully enjoy the experience without your mind stepping in, then that is pure pleasure. But when thought enters and says I must have it again, I must repeat this experience, I must feel this way again sipping this coffee feeling fully relaxed. The expectation has set in and now you have a baseline of pleasure. Two hours later, you have another coffee but the experience this time is not the same: You feel agitated, it’s noisy around you, the coffee is not as hot or strong, you cannot seem to relax, somebody is smoking next to you, etc. What happened? What was a blissful experience two hours ago is now causing you pain. You are so agitated you don’t even finish your coffee and walk away.
The difference between the two coffee experiences externally were probably minimal, if not inconsequential. So why did the first create such pleasure and the second cause pain. The continuity of the two experiences created an expectation, where your mind now stepped in to compare and judge. After the pure bliss of your first coffee, your mind stepped in and said I must repeat that experience. You subconsciously elevated that expectation. So when you sipped your second coffee, you were comparing and judging based on your first experience. It did not meet expectations based on the first experience and therefore caused you pain and disappointment. In other words, by seeking pleasure you caused pain. If you had simply enjoyed the second cup of coffee with no expectation, no previous experience to compare or judge it against with a bias, it would have been far more pleasurable.
Transpose this example to any endeavor where you are seeking pleasure. Are you transferring a previous experience expecting the same and then getting disappointed? Think about a wonderful restaurant you just discovered. When you go back the second time and you don’t get the same table with the lovely view, a grumpy waiter, the food is too cold or they messed up your order, the pleasure from before rapidly turns into pain. Our minds, and therefore thought, seeks continuity and then compares and judges the experience. So much so, that it exacerbates your displeasure by making all these comparisons. Everything was perfect on your first visit to this restaurant but now you become critical and judgmental as you compare that experience to your next visit.
You can broaden out the examples to all areas of your life where you’re seeking pleasure: A vacation, sex, the gym, the beach, going to the movies, even a friend. I’m certainly guilty of this on my annual trips to Italy. My first travels there were so magical that I created an expectation. My last trip there was anything but magical. Of course, every trip will be unique in many ways, but I realized I was comparing and judging so much to my previous trips that I was not enjoying my current experience. All these judgments flooded my mind: The gelato tasted better last time, too many tourists, the streets seemed dirtier, my fav pizza place shut down, etc. The irony is that if my last trip to Italy was actually my FIRST, it would have been magical. But I had compared and judged it with so many biases based on previous experiences that it caused me pain.
So how can we rid of ourselves of this pleasure-seeking mode that ultimately often causes us pain? By staying present in the moment without judgment. Be mindful with what Buddhists call the Beginner’s Mind. This means bringing a spirit of curiosity without getting caught up in preconceived notions. You approach things with inquiry and an open mind, rather than stubbornly adhering to old patterns and opinions. This allows you to see everything with a fresh attitude. We are all guilty of this. I imagine you live in a nice neighborhood but, after spending much time there, you start to take the beauty for granted. You drive the same tree-lined streets and pass all the lovely homes and you get bored with it. But then you go off for vacation for a couple weeks and upon returning you see everything with fresh eyes and once again love where you live. What happened? The neighborhood is exactly the same but you returned to it with Beginner’s Mind, seeing it all again for the first time. Now, imagine if you could do that in all your daily life, viewing all experiences with a fresh attitude. Every time you go to the beach, the gym, see a friend, can you bring a spirit of fresh curiosity by staying mindful without comparison and judgment? Can you just be and accept what is? If so, you no longer have the unrealistic expectation of seeking pleasure and therefore won’t experience its shadow of pain.