Our American culture is prison of sorts, which we are born into. Within this cultural prison, we are deprived of natural foods and have an addiction to non-food substances, which poison us and make us sick, physically and mentally. Our society likewise deprives us physically, mentally, emotionally and socially of other of life’s essentials.
Mentally, the sacred wisdom of our ancestors and spiritual traditions has been replaced by sensational, profit driven TV, media and public education. Walking, running, riding, lifting and carrying have been all but eliminated and with them our strength, endurance and flexibility. Communicating honestly and listening compassionately are as unstudied and unappreciated as are vegetables to a junk food junkie.
Trained into Addiction
Within our cultural prison we are trained early on in innumerable habits and addictive behaviors. To name a few: overeating, being sedentary, a mental diet of television and media, and relating selfishly. These habits are destructive to our bodily health, peace of mind and loving relationships. What remains is illness, anxiety and conflict. This describes the state of suffering of most in our culture. We have simply come to accept that a life imprisoned by ruinous habits is normal. It is not however natural.
While it may seem that we are bound by a variety of different habits and addictions, they all boil down to one: desiring the pleasurable and fearing or hating the painful. The resentment or anger we experience from conflict with our spouse SEEMS different from the suffering of hunger, which seems different from the suffering of fatigue, or the mental emotional suffering of a critical internal dialogue. However, whether a particular experience is physical, or mental/emotional, they all feel either painful or pleasurable, desirable or undesirable.
The Prison of Pleasure
The central issue regarding habits and addictions then becomes “What is our relationship to pleasure and pain, to what we like and dislike?” What strategy, if any, do we use to free ourselves from repeating behaviors that end in regret? This question is ancient. The Katha Upanishad, a 5000-year old Hindu scripture speaks of two strategies for relating to pleasure and pain.
“The good is one thing; the pleasant is another.
These two, differing in their ends, both prompt to action.
The foolish, driven by fleshy desires and aversions
prefer the pleasant to the good.”
The foolish strategy is really no strategy at all. It is precisely a lack of thought and a lack of caring that keep us imprisoned in our habits. We mindlessly and heartlessly pursue pleasure and flee from pain, oblivious to the consequences. We make choices based solely on what would feel the most pleasant or least painful in the moment. This unexamined way of living leads us to overeat, be sedentary… you name it. We all behave foolishly until we have been properly educated.
The Upanishad also speaks of a second, wise strategy:
“Both the good and the pleasant present themselves to men.
The wise, having examined both, distinguish the one from the other.
The wise prefer the good to the pleasant;
Happy are they that choose the good;
They that choose the pleasant miss the goal.”
“To examine both” means to employ both our intelligence and kindness to discern if an action is really good for us, or merely pleasurable. As one teacher says, “Pain is a call for attention and the penalty of carelessness. Intelligent and compassionate action is the only remedy.”
The Power of Discomfort
Some degree of daily pain or discomfort in our lives is both necessary and inescapable. If we do not daily face our own demons of hunger and cravings and instead submit to them the cravings grow stronger and return the next day asking for even more. If we try to avoid the pain of fatigue, stiffness and muscular pain these demons gradually inhabit our bodies until we live with them every hour of every day. Likewise we must daily intelligently care for our minds and relationships or we experience increasing amounts of chronic angst and conflict.
I encourage my students to schedule regular times of self-reflection during which they deliberately bring their intelligence and compassion to bear on the actions they wish improve.
Self-reflection may reveal that we are so afraid of facing our habits of eating or exercise that we can’t even think about changing them, let alone actually taking action. We must be kind. We use our intelligence to search for some way that we can begin to face this monster, to be present with what we fear so enormously. Gradually and with certainty the daily exercise of our kindness and intelligence grows from the realm of thought and desire until it begins to actually manifest in our actions. We start treating ourselves and others more kindly and intelligently. Our habits actually begin to transform. We find there actually IS a path to freedom from the cultural prison into which we were born.
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