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Our Worst Habit
Our worst bad habit is seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. This behavior is so entrenched that we unquestioningly accept it as the sure path to happiness. However, a life spent pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain leads, not to happiness, but to suffering, anxiety and dysfunction.
Here’s how this happens. Whenever the senses encounter information, dukkha (anxiety) arises, whether the encounter is “real”, as in the ear making contact with a sound, or “imagined” as in the mind fabricating a thought of a “perceived injustice,” to use Bodhidharma’s phrase. Anxiety arises not from the contact itself, but from the way we process sensory information.
At the moment of contact, we add something extra to the encounter, something which occludes information and makes it misleading. That’s where the trouble begins. At the moment of contact, we assign a positive or negative feeling-- in effect, an extra layer of information-- to sensory input, and it is from there, from that layer of feeling, from that moment of choosing good, bad, positive, negative, that our suffering, our dukkha, begins. *
Anxiety, which is another word for dukkha, arises when the brain’s alarm system malfunctions, causing it to overestimate danger or signal danger where there is none. That is, when we misperceive conditions, the result is dukkha.
Psychologically, to use British Buddhist scholar Frances Story’s definition in Suffering: dukkha is the omnipresent sense of “disturbance, irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, dread, anguish, anxiety; vulnerability, injury, inability, inferiority; sickness, aging, decay of body and faculties, senility; pain/pleasure; excitement/boredom; deprivation/excess; desire/frustration, suppression; longing/aimlessness; hope/hopelessness; effort, activity, striving/repression; loss, want, insufficiency/satiety; love/lovelessness, friendlessness; dislike, aversion/attraction; parenthood/childlessness; submission/rebellion; [and] decision/indecisiveness, vacillation, uncertainty.”
Wow! That’s just the psychological aspect of dukkha. There is more. Dukkha is also physical. We are always on edge as a result of our pleasure-seeking. Our bodies accumulate tension, creating a whole new layer of suffering, which includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, changes in the peripheral nervous system, sweating, body jolts, fatigue, nervous or excessive energy, palpitations, cooling of the skin, tightness in the chest, stiffness, soreness, spasms, jitteriness, tremors, muscle twitches, neuro-muscular pain, sweating, soreness, and even vomiting. Ugh. Horrible.
Clearly, stress is dangerous. It doesn’t just make us miserable. It makes us very sick, even sick unto death. Fortunately, we have options. We can greet every situation, not with stress, but much more effectively and efficiently, with simple awareness. When we see conditions clearly, there is no dukkha. But, we can only see conditions clearly when we find our refuge in the middle path, the path that avoids the pitfall of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
We have observed, over and over again in our lives, that the more we get, the more we want, and that this makes us perpetually dissatisfied, yet we remedy our dissatisfaction by means of the very thing that caused it. In fact, the sum total of our lives is this bad habit in action and the result is that we are never at ease, never satisfied, and never fully present in the moment. That is why we say, “When we stop seeking, the struggle is ended.” That is why we must break this habit.
My practice suggests that until we see how deeply ingrained this habitual behavior is, until we see how it dominates our every choice, until we understand the nature of dukkha, we will not be able to make a deep commitment to this next stage of our spiritual development and end suffering for good.
To end dukkha, we need to see our worst bad habit in everything we say, do or think, so that we can develop the new and crucial habit of using everything, every moment, all of our experiences, to improve our spiritual lot. And that, precisely, is our practice. In every moment, we are training in transformation. We are training to use the experience of this moment to improve our spiritual lot in the next moment.
* This is the first two of the five skandhas (or five aggregates).