Hedonic treadmill

The issue of pain, distress, lamentation, grief and despair has intrigued me for quite a while now. I’d like to make an attempt to investigate it through the lenses of Buddhism and the abolitionist project, respectively. An attempt to illustrate and clarify my own point of view by contrasting it with another.

An ancient way to learn is to teach. Or to talk about it and get a new perspective on things. Different people see things differently. Stupid thing to say as we all know it. But as we forget time and again it may be a useful reminder – if not for you, then it is for me. Beachcomber reminds me:

“Very often, while expressing our problems, we find the answers for ourselves, hand-in-hand with the problem.”

The idea to contrast my viewpoint with another came up when I read David Pearce’s website. Actually, it comes up every single time I come across some new information, some new data or perspective. These days it almost seems as if everything and everyone I encounter contributes to a deeper understanding … of myself.

D.P. hedweb: “If one is a scientifically enlightened Buddhist, then the abolitionist project follows too. Buddhists, uniquely among the world’s religions, focus on the primacy of suffering in the living world. Buddhists may think that the Noble Eightfold Path offers a surer route to Nirvana than genetic engineering; but it’s hard for a Buddhist to argue in principle against biotech if it works. Buddhists focus on relieving suffering via the extinction of desire; yet it’s worth noting this extinction is technically optional, and might arguably lead to a stagnant society. Instead it’s possible both to abolish suffering and continue to have all manner of desires.”

Dear friend, what is YOUR take on this?

I’ve heard of a saying once: ‘Pain is necessary. Suffering is optional.’ In the website articles I have read, David Pearce uses both terms synonymously. As far as I can see, he does not distinguish between these two.

In my point of view, the abolitionist project does not follow in the wake of being a Buddhist, be it a scientifically engaged one or not. From my standpoint, being a buddhist (with a small ‘b’) entails a project, indeed, and that is the project of understanding. Of withstanding the urge to get rid of unpleasant sensations and to withstand the urge to crave for and cling to pleasant sensations. To instill the mind with an understanding of their ephemeral nature. To deal with everything that comes up and to try my best to develop equanimity in the face of it. To recognise its nature. To realise the power of the mind.

Pain arises because it serves as a signal that something is changing. For most, it is a signal that something is WRONG, something to get rid of, the sooner the better. Suffering, on the other hand, is a signal that someone is craving and clinging for the body or mind or person or thing or world to be different than it actually is. Well, let’s say it can be a signal for that… if wisdom is there. Otherwise it’ll just go unnoticed or misunderstood. And the more you wanna get rid of it, the more you get entangled in it. Energy flows where attention goes, and all that.

Same same with so-called unwanted character traits.

D.P. hedweb: “And what about the alleged character-building function of suffering? “That which does not crush me makes me stronger”, said Nietzsche. This worry seems misplaced. Other things being equal, enhancing hedonic tone strengthens motivation – it makes us psychologically more robust. By contrast, prolonged low mood leads to a syndrome of learned helplessness and behavioural despair.”

The way I see it, what has brought me suffering was also that which brought insight in the long run. It made me stronger because by exploring the pain I felt I was able to meet it in a different way further along the road. It made me learn about pain. What ,makes me stronger’ is how I am able to deal with pain. In Buddhism, a term is coined to designate a level of spiritual evolution: The Lion’s Roar. It refers to the confidence one develops, a conviction that no matter what is going to happen in the future one will be able to deal with it.

D.P. hedweb: “I’ve focused here on genetically enhancing hedonic tone. Yet mastery of the biology of emotion means that we’ll be able, for instance, to enlarge our capacity for empathy, functionally amplifying mirror neurons and engineering a sustained increase in oxytocin-release to promote trust and sociability.”

If we are to become super-intelligent beings, does it entail that we are also to become hyper-empathic beings? According to David Pearce there is a “Principle of Weak Benevolence” that hesitates to accept this correlation. How can I effectively learn to enhance my ability to empathise with other sentient beings if it weren’t for my having experienced pain myself? I mean, how can I learn to become an ethical human being if not in an experimental and experiential way of life that includes ALL kinds of feelings and blocks out none of the perceptional skills (enabled by the sense-doors) which we are given and which we train throughout our lives?

D.P. hedweb: “Well, let’s say I find myself in agony because my hand is on a hot stove. That agony is intrinsically motivating, even if my conviction that I ought to withdraw my hand doesn’t follow the formal canons of logical inference. (…) If it’s wrong for me to be in agony, then it is wrong for anyone, anywhere.”

If there was no pain how could I learn to act skilfully regarding pain? Isn’t life worth living just because of the perfect balance of pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering? How could we endure life without joy? How could we learn without the right amount of pain? Why put a label on agony and make a dire situation worse by calling it ‘wrong’? I think it is neither right nor wrong. It is part of life. And the aim to abolish it entirely is a form of agony in itself. Why? Because it is rooted in a deep-seated aversion against the experience of (physical) pain and (mental) distress. As long as one is stuck in the aversion against pain – and the majority of this planet’s populace is – it is impossible to find an efficient, let alone a noble and dignified, strategy to deal with it. It is what Ajahn Brahm calls ‘Kind-ful-ness’… meaning kindness & mindfulness.

In my humble opinion, the Noble Eightfold Path is a safer route, indeed. Because it goes to the core of the matter by going to the core of the mind. Behavioural patterns are observed instead of reacted to. No, there is no masochism involved in mind training. What is involved, though, is a realistic understanding of how life works. Pain is pain. Pleasure is pleasure. If you want to discard one and grab the other you end in yet another level of pain,dissatisfaction and frustration, i.e. manifestations of dukkha, i.e. a characteristic of samsara, i.e. the circle of life and death.

It is because of the mass of sublime and crude, hidden and overt suffering in this world that Buddhists wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.

May all beings be free from suffering – and learn to deal with pain.
May all beings be free from suffering – and learn to deal with pleasure.


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