Sentient life is a pain machine. Natural selection guarantees that those species and individuals with the most aggressive survival drive are the ones that will thrive. Pain comes about when survival is threatened, even in the most indirect way. So once again it is those creatures with the greatest sensitivity and most adequate responses to pain that will be favored in the gladiatorial contest called survival of the fittest.
All pain originates from the desire to exist, and since the existence of any individual creature is predicated on the suffering and death of other creatures (i.e. eating them), so the scene is set for suffering on a massive scale. Whether this is just a local insanity unique to planet Earth isn’t clear.
Life and evolution are driven by pain, desire and lack. Pleasure is usually nothing more than the satisfaction of a desire – for food, sex, warmth, friendship, offspring – and so on. The more intelligent a species is, the more sensitive it is to pain, and the more it experiences the desire to avoid pain. When we consider humanity, we find a species so fine tuned to pain that is has become the most successful species on the planet. We have developed a unique set of capabilities that allows us to exploit other creatures and respond adequately to many sources of pain – disease, injury, hostile environments, and predators. But a price is paid. Our highly developed intelligence can form concepts and play around with them. This seems to be a capability unique to man. It means we can anticipate events and plan for them. We do not operate as the animals do, simply responding to events as they happen. However, our ability to plan and anticipate doe not limit itself to mundane matters. We are also cognizant of the fact we will die, that everyone we love will die, and that old age and sickness await us. So, while we can eliminate many sources of physical pain, we are subject to psychological pain through our ability to reflect on the past and anticipate the future.
Man would appear to be the most productive pain machine nature has created. Our ability to anticipate the future means we worry, become anxious, imagine adverse events that may never materialize, and above all we foresee our own annihilation. We tend to deal with this undesirable side effect of our intelligence through denial. Hence the widespread use of alcohol and other drugs to bring about an escape from our over-active minds. Slightly more subtle methods of denial include consumerism, endless entertainment, social media and preoccupations with sex, eating and various forms of ambition.
We’ve already seen that pain is always associated with diminished survival prospects. Poor health, poverty, social isolation, hunger, lack of shelter, and numerous other conditions are all associated with diminished prospects, and hence cause pain. However, many causes of pain are subtler. When someone gets a promotion at work, a promotion we might have expected, so we will feel diminished because someone else has been enhanced. The survival game is a competitive game, and the good fortune of others will be a threat. Animals behave in the same way, and dogs for example will keenly watch if one is being more favored by their master than another.
Life on Earth is wholly concerned with survival, with diminished survival prospects causing pain, and enhanced survival prospects causing pleasure. Nature has no interest in the individual, only in the creation of increasingly aggressive and intelligent species that survive more adequately, and continuation of the species – hence the tyranny of the sex drive.
The leading question in all of this is how do we exist in a way that is satisfactory, with minimum pain, and maximum power to shape life as we want it? Life will still extract its pound of flesh, but we don’t have to be passive responders in the same way the animals are. Neither do we have to be a slave to our own mind, with its ability to identify with external events and magnify them and indulge in painful imagination.
The four pillars of practice outlined here provide a foundation:
This is simply the act of sitting for twenty minutes or so and moving the attention around the body. We need to do this because the emotions are in the body, and sensing and eating our emotions is a very effective way of dealing with them. So this is the first step. Here are the details:
This is a morning meditation taken from the Zen and Gurdjieff traditions.
Sit comfortably with a straight back. A chair is fine, or cross-legged if comfortable. Any discomfort is exactly the opposite of what we want here. If sitting on a chair make sure the feet are firmly placed on the ground and palms of hands are placed on top of the thighs.
Relax your body, and particularly the shoulders. A few deep breaths (with long controlled outbreath) will help. The head should be ‘balanced’ on the shoulders so there is no effort in maintaining its position.
We will circulate the attention around the body. Start with the left foot, sensing it. This is easier than other parts of the body because there is some feeling from the pressure on the floor. Then move the attention to the lower left leg (the shin and calf), and then the thigh. The attention should be focused for around 10 seconds at least for each part of the body. Repeat with the right leg.
The full cycle looks something like this
Left foot, left lower leg, left thigh
Right foot, right lower leg, right thigh.
Left hand, left lower arm, left upper arm
Right hand, right lower arm, right upper arm
Face – lips, cheeks, eyes, forehead
This should take a minimum of 5 minutes, but ideally it should be timed to take 20 minutes. This can be achieved by extending the time taken on each part of the body and/or going through the cycle several times.
The attention will wander during this exercise. Simply bring the attention back to the part of the body that was being sensed.
Self-observation is simply the act of observing our thoughts, emotions and bodily state at any moment. All human endeavors start with observation, and if a person is to learn anything about themselves they need to observe. This is a very subtle process and should not involve judgement or the desire to change things. Just imagine you are an aerial photographer viewing the landscape below in an impartial and detached way. While this sounds simple it is very difficult in practice. The tendency to judge and change things is programmed into us. Do not be impatient, this takes years to master.
The best way to learn about self-observation is to buy the book by Red Hawk.
Eating the emotions is something that cannot be attempted for some time. Not until a person is sensitive to their emotional state and can observe that state in a largely detached manner, can any attempt be made to eat the emotions. But I’ve included it as a reference for those who acquire those skills.
The basic process is that of focusing attention on the emotions within the body and sensing them as intensely as possible. Like everything else an emotion has only so much energy, and rather than waste the energy and let it dominate us, we dominate it through the use of attention. Typically, the emotion will dissipate in the same way as a storm does.
If you have some sort of inner dialogue going on within your head, or you have your own internal movie, then you are in imagination. Snapping out of imagination is easy enough, but a person has to have noticed they are lost in imagination. How this happens is quite a mystery. How does a person lost in their own inner world of day dreams suddenly realize they are in imagination? It is quite similar to someone who is dreaming knowing they are dreaming.
In any case much of what we imagine is painful in nature. Typically, it involves money worries, relationship problems, thoughts about our own mortality, chewing over previous experiences and so on.
In parallel with practice we need to increase our understanding of how life works and how it is likely to affect us. There are many sources of wisdom including western philosophers and eastern traditions. Understanding strengthens our commitment to various practices, because they are understood in terms of their purpose and efficacy.
Obviously, there is much more that can be said, but hopefully this is a useful outline.