Happiness Without A Hangover

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the Third Training on mindful sexual behavior.

For me, this Third Training has been transformative because it opened up a new way of understanding my habit energies and the way I brought suffering to myself and others. The training for me is about much more than sexual behavior.

The original Pali precept was kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I undertake the rule of training to refrain from wrong conduct in sexual pleasures.) The key words are “kamesu micchacara” Kamesu refers generically to sense pleasure and especially sexual pleasure. Micchacara means, “the wrong way.” In other words, the lay practitioner is not being asked to avoid sexual or sensual pleasure, rather he or she is advised not to obtain it in the wrong way.

What is the wrong way? At one level this is a simple behavioral admonition. In order to develop in their mindfulness practice and not be distracted, the Buddha advised his lay practitioners to conform to the norms of their society. They should engage in appropriate sexual relations without deceit or manipulation.

But there is a deeper, more subtle, wrong way, too. In many discourses the Buddha explained that the real danger with sensual pleasure is not the pleasure in and of itself, but how we relate to the pleasure. We are so easily drawn in and that quality of being drawn in, of being caught and dominated by the pleasure, he called upadana. The usual translation is attachment, but I find that isn’t strong enough. In modern English "attachment" has a number of positive meanings: loyalty, heart-connection, etc., that take us in a different direction. As I understand it, upadana is experienced as clinging, craving, desperateness, neediness, and addiction. Upadana is about imbuing the object of our craving with imaginary powers. We believe and hope that the object can satisfy our deep longings.

Rather than simply being a cookie, a movie, a lovely piece of artwork, a four-bedroom house, or a possible or actual partner, the object of our craving has become part of an inner drama. I need that in order to feel happy. I deserve it. I will be miserable without it. Often we move from interest and attraction to obsession. Sometimes we may be conscious of the depth of the underlying need, and often not. The craving moves us. And our life becomes a series of ups and downs — dissatisfaction leading to momentary pleasures leading to deep dissatisfaction. We wear ourselves out.

Is there an alternative? Pema Chodron has a nice phrase: "The joy of happiness without a hangover" It is "a happiness that’s completely devoid of clinging and craving." In the excerpt following this note, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about "the joy and happiness that arise from a peaceful mind."

The path of mindfulness practice is to become more aware of our clinging and craving, to not be dominated by them. Then we can move through the world more gracefully, open to the joys and sorrows of our very human and very sensual lives.

Does this way of thinking resonate with you?

I hope you can share your reflections with us this Thursday (or with a friend).


Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Real Joy and Happiness
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Thundering Silence: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake.

On many occasions, the Buddha taught that joy and happiness are nourishing to us, while indulging in sense pleasures can cause us suffering. What is the difference? Let us first discuss what is meant by the joy and happiness of a mindful and peaceful person.

Many people think that to undergo spiritual discipline is to practice asceticism and austerities. But to others, the practice of the Dharma does not exclude the enjoyment of the fresh air, the setting sun, a glass of cool water, and so on. Enjoying things in moderation does not bring us suffering or tie us with the bonds of attachment. Once we recognize that all of these things are impermanent, we have no problem enjoying them. In fact, real peace and joy are only possible when we see clearly into the nature of impermanence.

The Buddha often revealed himself as someone who was able to appreciate these kinds of simple joys. When Mahanama, the King of Kapilavastu, offered the Sangha a delicious lunch, the Buddha knew it was a good meal and expressed appreciation for it. When he was standing with Ananda on a hill overlooking an expanse of golden rice fields, the Buddha told Ananda how beautiful he found the scene. And when they climbed Vulture Peak together or visited Vaisali, the Buddha asked Ananda, “Vulture Peak is beautiful, is it not, Ananda?” “Isn’t Vaisali beautiful, Ananda?” Details like these are found in the texts and show us that the Buddha never repudiated the joy and happiness of a peaceful mind or said that joy and happiness are obstacles to the practice. Wholesome feelings of joy and happiness can nourish the well-being of our body and mind and help us go far on the path of practice. Siddhartha gave up the practice of self-mortification after he remembered the joy he had experienced while meditating under a rose-apple tree as a young boy. We all need joy and happiness. We only have to be aware that all things are impermanent and subject to change, including the cool breeze, the setting sun, Vulture Peak, and Vaisali.

But the Buddha did speak of the five sense pleasures (money, sex, fame, overeating, and sleeping too much) as obstacles to the practice. If we get a reasonable amount of sleep every night, that cannot harm our practice. In fact, deep and refreshing sleep will help our practice. But if we spend a large part of each day sleeping, that is an obstacle. Joy and happiness, in this case, have become an indulgence in a sense pleasure. In the same way, a simple, well-prepared, nourishing meal, eaten slowly and mindfully so that we remain in deep contact with the food, is not an obstacle to the practice. But an obsession with food, spending much of our time seeking special foods, is an obstacle to the practice. Again, this is to turn the joy and happiness of a peaceful mind into an indulgence. The same is true of the remaining three sense pleasures—if we are caught or obsessed by them, they will present obstacles on our path of practice.