The mind seems to naturally move toward pleasure and away from pain. As soon as there is discomfort, it looks for a way out: food, phone, fun, sex, work, sport, drugs, planning, etc. Anything to avoid discomfort. This may seem like a reasonable thing to do, but as soon as our desire is fulfilled, a new one crops up, and we are perpetually dissatisfied, perpetually seeking something outside the here and now.
The mind always finds that there is something missing, something wrong with our current conditions. It is a seeking and craving machine. If we listen to it, we spend our lives in a hamster wheel, running after pleasure and away from pain. Most of us are slaves to our minds, perpetually discontent, wanting something other than what we have, running away from ourselves. If we sit still for a few minutes, the background hum of discontent quickly convinces us to get up and check our mail, tidy up the room, or pay some urgent bills.
The problem with constantly seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort is that, instead of giving us the peace and happiness we are genuinely looking for, it reinforces discontent. It keeps us stuck in a dynamic that prevents us from finding what we are looking for. We look for it in the wrong place, and we think that if we haven’t found it yet, it’s only because we haven’t yet perfected our seeking skills. Happiness is just around the corner, and if we can tweak our strategy, then we will surely hit gold. We are all innocently guilty of this mistake.
Those who have found the peace we’re looking for say that it can be found in stopping the chase. This means noticing the mind’s natural inclination moment to moment, and saying no to it. It means not giving in to the mind’s request for immediate gratification or avoidance. It means being with discomfort when it shows up and not seeking after pleasure. It means running against the grain of what we have been doing all our lives.
The sages say this is where peace can be found, right in the heart of what we are perpetually either attaching to or rejecting. Right in this moment of deficiency and lack, there is actually perfection and completion. Reality is complete, but our minds manufacture a story of deficiency, which creates a desire to escape the here and now. The mind is a hypnotist that has us bound under a spell of discontent. We run around chasing things that our minds tell us will make us happy, and when we notice that it doesn’t work, that these things really don’t make us happy, we chase after something else instead of calling the mind’s bluff. We can wake up from this spell by noticing the mind’s antics and saying no to them.
On the other side of pleasure and pain, we are no longer like weathervanes, swayed by every passing gust of wind. We are no longer like puppets, controlled by strings pulled by external forces. Beyond the dictates of the mind, there is a peace that takes in reality with equanimity, despite personal likes and dislikes. The sage hears his mind’s attempts at controlling him, but he doesn’t listen. He knows that if he is aware of his mind, and if he can say no to it, it is because he is so much more than his mind, and he prefers the peace of his freedom to the agitation of slavery. He knows that following the mind’s penchants is a trap that leads out of peace and into bondage. So he just smiles at his mind with compassion, like we would at a child throwing a tantrum, which is exactly what the mind is. The sage is content with the here and now, because he knows this is reality as it is, here and now, and wishing it were otherwise only brings suffering.
But this runs so deeply against our natural instincts that we immediately object to the idea. “Give up my preferences?, says the mind. How dreary, how boring and life-denying… And this is condoning the unacceptable, accepting everything passively like a mindless idiot… I don’t want to become a lifeless, brainless drone… Give up pleasure-seeking? What’s wrong with a little pleasure anyway? Pleasure is good.” And so we miss the point, the wheel keeps turning, and we keep running.