Meditation insights: suffering is intrinsically bound together with pleasure

A principle which I’ve been gradually been able to observe and internalize, thanks both to meditation and some other mind-hacking practices, is that suffering is never about the pain itself. There are conditions in which people report pain but do not mind it; pain is just an attention signal. Pain does not intrinsically cause suffering: what causes suffering is experiencing the pain, and desiring the relief that would come from the pain ceasing. One does not wish the pain to end, as such; one wishes to feel the pleasure that would come from the pain ending.

This may sound like a pure semantic distinction. It is not: it is a distinction with enormous practical value.

Some time back, Juha lent me his copy of The Mind Illuminated, a book on meditation. This is the best book on meditation that I have ever read. Among other practical instructions, it was the first time that a text really properly explained what the concrete goal of mindfulness practices are.

The goal (or at least a goal) of mindfulness is to train the mental processes responsible for maintaining your peripheral awareness – your background sense of everything that is going on around you, but which is not in the focus of your active attention – to observe not only your physical surroundings, but also the processes going on in your mind. By doing so, the mental processes responsible for habit formation start to get more information about what kinds of thought patterns produce pleasure and which kinds of thought patterns produce suffering. Over time this will start reshaping your mind, as patterns which only produce suffering will get dropped.

And part of the reason why this happens, is that you will start seeing thoughts with false promises of pleasure as what they are; rather than chasing promises of short-term pleasure, you will shift to sustainable thought patterns that produce long-term pleasure.

Suppose that you are meditating, and trying to maintain a focus on your breath. Over time this may start to feel boring. A pleasant-feeling thought will arise, tempting you to get distracted with its promise of relief from the boredom. But if you do get distracted sufficiently many times, and pay attention to how you feel afterwards, you will notice that this didn’t actually make you feel very good. Your concentration is in shambles and chasing random thoughts has just made you feel scatter-brained.

So the next time when that particular distraction arises, it may be slightly less tempting. And you begin to notice that it does feel good when you succeed at maintaining your concentration and ignoring the distractions. You had been suffering because your mind had been offering promises of pleasure which you felt you had to reject, but eventually you begin to internalize it’s not a choice of pleasure versus concentration at all. Concentration is only boring, or otherwise unpleasant, if you buy into the illusion of needing to chase the pleasant thought in order to feel good. If the false promise of pleasure stops tempting you, then the suffering of not having that pleasure goes away.

The tempting, pleasant thought is kind of like a marketer who first makes you feel inadequate about something, and then offers to sell you a product that will make you feel better. Your problem was never the lack of product; your problem was the person who made you think you can only feel good once you have his product.

Over time you learn to transfer this to your everyday life, paying attention to tempting thought-patterns that cause you suffering there. You experience different kinds of suffering, and feel that this could be fixed, if only you had X. Maybe you are procrastinating on something, and you get distracted by the idea of playing video games instead. Your mind tells you that if you just played video games, they would feel so good, and that pleasure would take away the pain of procrastination.

But if you do start to play the game, you may eventually notice that the promised pleasure never really manifested. Procrastination didn’t make you feel good, it just made you feel more miserable. And it’s one thing to know this on an intellectual level, in the way that most of us know intellectually that we’re going to regret procrastinating later; it’s quite another to actually internalize that belief in such a way that you recognize the temptation itself as harmful, and your mind begins learning to just ignore the temptation, until it never arises in the first place.

And the same principle applies more widely. Social anxiety, frustration over having to participate in an event you wouldn’t actually want to participate in, regrets over past mistakes: all are fundamentally about clinging to a thought which promises to offer pleasure, if only you (weren’t around these people/could skip the event/could change what had happened in the past). It is when you internalize that thinking about this isn’t actually going to deliver the pleasure and is actually causing you suffering, that reframe of the thought makes it easier to just automatically let go of it, with no need to struggle or expend willpower.


  1. How do you think this relates to core transformation? That seems to be another way of propagating the idea that ‘getting x won’t make you happy.’

    • Kaj Sotala

      The “some other mind-hacking practices” I mentioned in the beginning was a reference to CT. :) It’s definitely been another big thing that’s helped me internalize this.

  2. Kaj, along this vein, you might be interested in reading about fabrication and proliferation — in brief, the process by which the mind starts with something small and elaborates and obssessives over it. In my experience, direct investigation of proliferation has sort of short-circuited the suffering generating process.


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