Seek Pleasure and Avoid Suffering: The Mind’s Trap
There are several important concepts that I feel compelled to mention in order for you to understand how and why the mind seeks emotional pleasure and avoids painful feelings.
First and foremost is the concept that the mind records all of our experiences. In doing this it also analyzes through comparison of past experiences and/or learned values and beliefs, what experiences or situations felt good or bad or what our culture taught the mind is desirable or undesirable. In order to know what is pleasurable the mind must have an opposite experience to compare….what is not pleasurable. The mind lives in a world of duality.
Next is the concept that the mind always produces thoughts about the past or future. The mind has no thoughts about the present moment (view my post on The Present Moment is Unthinkable). The mind decides what was pleasurable in the past and the mind projects and anticipates that the same experience can or cannot be pleasurable in the future. The mind is not capable of knowing “truth” and makes assumptions given the data it holds in memory. It gives you its best guess.
In addition we should recognize that the mind does a better job in technical functioning areas rather than in the emotional functioning arena. The mind’s memories can consistently help the body to find its way home but the mind lacks the ability to provide us with consistent feelings of happiness or satisfaction. In a simplistic sense, the primitive mind is always seeking ways to protect the organism from danger and keep it alive and reproducing, while the more evolved portions of the mind work tirelessly to try and keep us satisfied, happy and provide us with a feeling that we belong.
Lastly, I offer the truth that we are not the body or the mind but beyond both. When I use the words “us, I, me, you or mine” in my writing I do this for convenience and common “human” communication. There is no separate me, self or us and if you perceive this to be true, this whole conversation about the mind and its pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain comes into the light.
Utilizing these basic concepts we can now discuss how the mind gets trapped in its thinking. The mind and its motives are based on the principles of pleasure and fear of suffering. First let’s look at pleasure.
The mind seeks pleasure in a plethora of ways. We strive to feel self-important and successful according to the values and beliefs taught to us or to the values and beliefs we hold sacred. We look back on our actions and evaluate how well we performed. We are concerned about how much we have accomplished and we want to feel proud about our economic position in society and the type of important position or function we perform.
In addition we anticipate a feeling of pleasure in the future from our projection that our successes will continue to be satisfactory as life progresses. It is not important if these things we think in the past or future are acceptable to society, but they must be in some way acceptable to the mind operating in your body.
It should also be mentioned that we seek physical pleasure in the form of sexual satisfaction, we care about how the body appears to others and compares to the standards of our given culture and we gain pleasure through satisfactory physical exertion and accomplishment. When the mind feels pleasure our actions are evaluated by our minds and others as; happy, optimistic, positive, light and jubilant.
I can go on about pleasure but I believe at this point your mind will agree that we seek pleasure in numerous ways and this is the mind’s main emotional goal.
Suffering, which is the opposite side of the pleasure principle, is something that our minds are determined to limit and if possible, avoid. I use the word suffering instead of pain because pain is something that the body experiences. Suffering is caused by the minds analysis of circumstances and cultural values and beliefs not achieved. The mind then refuses to accept what is actually happening at the present moment. Emotional suffering can include the feeling of loneliness, loss, inability to obtain what the mind sees as pleasurable and so much more.
The mind is afraid of what it does not know and even sometimes what it does know. It dreads the unknown future and all that it might hold. It also fears the known facts of life such as the belief that no one can live forever and life is not permanent. Since the mind’s thoughts prompt our actions, suffering in the mind is displayed by the body and our demeanor exudes unhappiness, sadness, low or dark energy and verbal admissions of hopelessness.
Now it is the time to discuss the trap that is caused by the seeking of pleasure. Having experienced pleasure, our minds want this feeling to continue. The mind wants the future to hold the same satisfaction that it evaluated in the past. Because the mind cannot assure that the future will hold anything pleasurable it begins to experience fear.
The emotional feeling of fear is not something that just happens to the mind but rather it is always an anticipation (a thought of the mind) of something bad happening in the future that it does not see as pleasurable. This feeling of fear is prompted by the memory of things learned or experienced and can include past losses, traumatic experiences, physical injury, inability to know what will happen in the future and of course the anticipation of death and its accompanying suffering and annihilation of the self.
To further explain the trap we can look at how the mind attaches to things that are pleasurable. This attachment can be to the continuation of the self, money, family members, friends, a career, a belief or value or anything tangible or psychological that it holds to be important. The mind wants to hold onto these pleasurable attachments and keep them flowing but at the same time fears their loss or lack of continuation. So, with pleasure and attachment comes its opposite, suffering.
To simplify these concepts consider this…. thoughts produced by the mind, which is an analysis and response of memory involving both emotional and physical events, are recorded by your brain cells. The mind holds these memories and wants to re-experience what feels pleasurable and avoid what it knows or doesn’t know about the suffering possible in the future. The underlying trap is that the mind cannot give you assurance of continuation or continuity of pleasure and this causes the mind to feel fear. Fear in turn, causes suffering.
So why is this important to recognize? The answers to this question centers around the activity of awareness. By being aware of how the mind seeks pleasure and avoids suffering we can better understand the choices we are making and why the mind is driving us to take certain actions.
The more you recognize the functioning of the mind in this area, the more your mind will cease to automatically drive you in these directions. There will be a natural pause in your thoughts and this can give the mind an opportunity to reconsider the action it is prompting you to take. It will begin to question itself.
In essence, bringing awareness to this seeking and avoiding will educate your mind that it does not need to drive you with its old learned criteria of what is pleasurable and what is not. In addition, eventually the mind can learn that its seeking of pleasure is geared to alleviate a feeling it has of emotional emptiness. As an example, you open the refrigerator multiple times an evening not because you are really hungry but because you are feeling and seeking an emotional need for comfort.
Going back to the beginning of this post and reviewing the concepts that I presented might now give you some additional context and understanding about your mind’s need to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. Here are a few things that I suggest you can do to gain awareness:
- Watch your behavior closely and learn what the mind is seeking and avoiding
- Don’t judge the mind’s choices but rather take note of how it drives your actions
- Take note of the specific areas that the mind is consistently seeking. Question why the mind is prompting you to take these actions
- Observe others to learn what they seek and avoid
- Choose one behavior you have that is “pleasure seeking” and explore how this eventually causes you to suffer
When you become aware you are seeking pleasure or avoiding doing something that causes you a level of suffering, immediately stop and notice what thoughts arise. This interruption will stop the pattern and give you an opportunity to evaluate your actions. In the beginning, the mind will fight this and if your awareness is sharp and you are persistent, you will see how the mind continues to move your actions in the direction toward the fulfillment of that pleasure.
Ultimately with a successful understanding and awareness of the mind’s abilities and limitations coupled with a non-verbal recognition that the mind or the body is not who you are, your true Self will come into the light! And that light is beyond pleasure, pain and suffering.
Also published on Medium.