Sharon Salzberg has a formidable presence even when sitting. When I saw her, she was leading a daylong meditation retreat in Santa Monica.
The InsightLA event drew a standing-room only crowd at Crossroads Elementary School auditorium on that Saturday in 2010. I sat cross-legged on the floor just 15 feet from the stage. Sharon sat in a floral fabric covered arm-chair; a floor lamp to her right. She could have been sitting in your grandmother’s living room. She glanced at me and scanned the rest of the audience.
“All experiences are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral,” she said.
This Buddhist concept of Vedana refers to our feelings and emotions or our responses to internal and external stimuli. In other words, Vedana describes our human experience of life and all that entails. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
Let’s take a few sentences to consider, question, and even challenge this idea. Imagine three buckets in this PUNny (my attempt at humor) analysis: P is Pleasant; U is Unpleasant; N is Neutral or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. I’ll say a word, you put it in a bucket. Keep in mind, there are no right or wrong answers; your bucket depends on your experience. We’ll start out easy and go from there.
Getting up in the morning
A double scoop of chocolate chip ice cream on a cake cone
Getting ready for work
Walking to school
Your best friend
Your family members
I think that’s enough to give you, and me as I write this, the impression that PUNny is more complicated than it sounds.
Most of us don’t pay enough attention to our experiences to know what they are, when we have them, or how we feel about them until our emotions take us off the rails. And even then, we’re so dysregulated we can’t think clearly.
That’s one point. The other is we don’t always have the same feeling all the time. And sometimes, we have more than one feeling at the same time! Keep that in mind as we continue.
As an example, I sit at my desk hands on keyboard fumbling my way through this idea. My stomach, full of a vegan lunch, grows tight. Unpleasant.
I am thinking in a way that stimulates me. Pleasant. I am writing. Also pleasant. I watch the time so I’m not late for the meditation group I’m facilitating tonight. Neutral; neither pleasant nor unpleasant. All at the same time!
Your turn. What are you doing, thinking, feeling right now? Are those experiences pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?
You may have noticed from this brief exercise that the added element of time makes a huge difference. What’s happening now is more specific than a double scoop of chocolate chip ice cream on a cake cone in general. Right?
That first lick of ice cream is cold, sweet, creamy, most likely pleasant. The last crunch of the cone could be less so…ice cream all gone, boo hoo. Or the last bite could be more pleasant: ice cream gone yay…I was done with all that pleasantness.
Slow this scene down even more. Think of eating that ice cream cone in the presence of someone you like.
Ahhhhh. On a scale of 1-10, a 10 Pleasant.
Now imagine that while you are eating that ice cream cone your ice cream partner tells you he or she is dating someone else. Ah! Not pleasant any more.
When we add, in addition to time, the Buddhist concept of impermanence, we get closer to letting go, equanimity, and flow. How so?
Even if your ice cream partner said something like I love you or engaged in a stimulating conversation with you, and your response to this experience is a 10, the 10 won’t last. The 10 sensations of that first bite of ice cream becomes neutral and the mind loses interest, travels to another pleasant or even unpleasant place. See if you can pay attention to that the next time you’re eating ice cream.
How many bites does it take for your attention to go someplace other than the pleasant sensations of licking the ice cream?
Clinging and avoiding
The PUNny conversation continues with another Buddhist concept: suffering. The Buddha observed that clinging to pleasant, or wanting more pleasure in life; and avoiding unpleasant makes people unhappy. Initially, this sounds counter-intuitive. Of course we all want more pleasant experiences in life. And of course we all want to avoid unpleasant experiences in life. That’s not the problem. We get into trouble when we compulsively go after or compulsively avoid.
My thoughts always drift to alcohol, drugs, and other addictive substances and behaviors when I think in terms of clinging and avoiding. That first whatever it is, hit of cocaine, tablet of Vicodin, lick of ice cream, sip of Chilean Pinot Noir, bite of chocolate chip cookie, physical sensation of touch or sex, emotional promise of love, breath in meditation can be so pleasant you don’t want it to ever end. In fact, you might be so pleased, you want to enhance the feeling even more, you want the moment to be even more pleasant, a higher high, a deeper, richer sensation. This is where the chase begins. More. I want more.
Likewise and even simultaneously the chase of pleasant includes the avoidance or aversion to unpleasant. Life is difficult. Relationships are messy. We don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we don’t even get what we need.
Eventually, all good things pass. Infatuation, the high, enlightenment. All difficulties pass too. Disappointment, loss, loneliness, feeling lost.
In the practice of mindfulness and meditation, we develop the wisdom to accept impermanence and the equanimity to let life happen without clinging or avoiding. What’s PUNny about that? Nothing really. And everything, too.