It is always amazing to me how nuanced meditation is, and it gets more nuanced the deeper your meditation practice gets. That is why a) you have to keep at it, and b) it is very important, I think, to be fascinated by it. Item b) is the second factor of awakening. It is a curious thing (so to speak) because it is our own mind that is the object that we are examining, understanding, and trying to shape.
I went to a car dealership yesterday and had a typical car dealership type of experience, that is to say, horrible. These kinds of things happen all the time. But then it was very interesting to see what the mind did with that.
One of the keys to overcoming our defilements is to see the way in which the mind latches onto experience, especially bad ones. Our mind latches onto something negative. The obvious question is why? What does the mind get out of that?
The Buddha posed just this question. He called it “the allure.” What are we getting out of it?
One answer is that the allure is a) that we become a victim and b) that reinforces a solid sense of self. “I” am the victim. It’s “me” to whom this is happening. In the chain of dependent co-arising, this is “becoming.”
This is a deeply ingrained habit. “Habit” is a catch-all word for dependent co-arising. Dependent co-arising describes in detail how our habits and conditions dictate our actions of body, speech, and mind.
And it is not just that our mind sits back passively receiving input at the sense doors, and then reacts. Our minds are actively seeking out places to land. The six types of sense consciousness are constantly searching, searching, searching for landing spots. If there is no obvious place to land, it lands on itself. This is the constant inner chatter. It can always create an inner dialog and land on that.
We begin to break this process down by getting the mind still. When it is very still, we enter jhāna. But even during the day we can “gladden the mind,” the practice from the Anāpānāsati Sutta. We consciously uplift the mind. Smiling can help. You proactively smile, and that brightens the mind. Or, if you are skilled at generating a sense of well-being, you can uplift the mind and get some pīti to arise in the body as well. (Pīti is a pleasant tingling sensation in the body.)
The goal here is to replace this reactive, habitual seeking of sense entertainment on which the mind feeds with something more wholesome and skillful. The Pāli word for craving is tanha, and it also means “thirst.” Likewise the Pāli word for clinging is upādāna, which also means “sustenance.” The process has the implication of thirsting and then drinking, or feeding, or “satisfying” the thirst. But the “satisfaction” is dukkha. Sense pleasures are never completely satisfying. That would be like eating once and then never having to eat again. Our mind is never satisfied. So we keep feeding, feeding, feeding. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and mental objects like thoughts and emotions.
Jhāna is also conditioned, but it is a better way to calm and feed the mind. As Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says, you can’t just deprive the mind of anything on which to feed. You have to give it something better. That better thing is jhāna: calm, stillness, quiet, silence.
Once you can quiet the mind, you can see ever-more subtle ways in which the mind craves, clings, and becomes. This is the fundamental strategy for moving towards stream-entry and awakening.
Another quite different aspect to understanding the allure, which can also be seen simply as dukkha, is to see the allure and then also see the danger in the allure. That can lead to the third step in the Buddha’s analysis, which is to also see the escape:
“Now what, monks, is the allure of sensuality? These five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable via the ear… Aromas cognizable via the nose… Flavors cognizable via the tongue… Tactile sensations cognizable via the body — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Now whatever pleasure or joy arises in dependence on these five strands of sensuality, that is the allure of sensuality.”
– [MN 13]
It may seem odd to use the word “sensuality” for negative mind states, but sensuality simply means whatever comes in through the sense doors. This includes mind objects, which in this case is the mind obsessing on negative experiences.
So here we have two quite different and parallel strategies for dealing with bad experiences at a car dealership. On one hand, we can gladden the mind, replacing negative mind states with pleasant ones. We simply do an end run around them. If you are meditating and can get into jhāna, so much the better. By the time the sitting ends, the negative mind state will either not arise again or will be greatly weakened.
The other strategy is analytical. You start by asking the question, “What is the allure? What am I getting out of it?” Or more precisely, what is the mind getting out of it?
If you can see the allure, then you can ask yourself, what is the danger? This should be obvious. It is making you unhappy. But see that and see it deeply.
Step three is to ask yourself, what is the escape? How do I free myself from it? And yes, going to a different car dealership is a perfectly valid response.