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A Decent Education
May 18, 2005
If our education system were really designed for people, the core curriculum would teach how to live, how to die—how to deal with the big issues in life: pain, aging, illness, death, separation—because those are the things that plague people. The skills for dealing with them are the most important skills people can develop in life.
But one of the problems with our society is that everything is geared toward the economy. Laws are struck down because they’re not good for the economy—at least for this quarter’s profit margin. Educational systems are designed to fit us each into our slot in the economy. The skills we learn center on how to function economically. Then when we get too old to function, they put us out to pasture, and we’re pretty much left to our own devices. And many of the skills we learned in order to be good members of the economy—good producers, good consumers—are actually bad for us as we get older. This producing and consuming self we have is an especially big problem.
So as we come here to meditate—which is practice in learning how to live and how to die—this producing and consuming self is one of the big issues we have to face down. What does it consume? Feelings of pleasure and feelings of pain. It tries to produce more and more pleasure but often ends up producing more and more pain. When you look at your sense of who you are, it comes down to these two things: the producer and the consumer. These are the habits you have to observe. When you meditate, the first thing you learn is how to produce pleasure in the present moment—not for the sake of the pleasure in and of itself, but to use it as a strategy. Often we regard pleasure as an end in and of itself, but the Buddha says, No. You use pleasure and pain—both of them—as means to a higher end.
How do you use pleasure? Focus on the breath right now and see how it feels. Then experiment with the breath to see how the way you breathe can produce either pleasure or pain. It may be subtle—the difference between the two—but it’s there. We’ve learned to desensitize ourselves to this aspect of our awareness, so it’s going to take a while to re‐sensitize ourselves, to begin seeing the patterns. This is why we practice. Keep coming back to the breath, coming back to the breath. Try to get more sensitive to this area of your awareness, more skilled at learning how to maximize the potential for pleasure right here and now, simply by the way you breathe—not only producing pleasure but also maintaining it.
After all, feelings of pleasure and rapture are part of the path. They’re tucked in the noble eightfold path under Right Concentration. And as part of the path, they have to be developed and maintained. As the Buddha said, this pleasure is blameless.
It’s also useful because you can use it to examine any pain that may be in other parts of the body. When you sit here it’s sometimes difficult to get the whole body saturated in pleasure. There may be parts that you can’t make pleasurable so, as Ajaan Lee says, don’t lie down there. It’s like knowing that there are rotten floorboards in your house. If you try to lie down on the rotten part of the floor, you’re going to fall through to the basement. So lie down where the boards are sound.
As the pleasure you’re relying on gets more and more solid, you’ve got a good vantage point for looking at pain. And hopefully by now the meditation has taught you to be inquisitive: You’ve been learning about the breath, about the parts of the body that you can adjust to your liking, so how about these other parts that you can’t adjust as you like? What’s going on there? Is the problem related to the breath energy? That’s one way you can deal with it. Think of breathing through the pain. See what that does. Or you can notice how you label the pain. There may be a mental image to go along with it. Try dropping the image or changing the image, and see what’s left.
In other words, develop an inquisitive attitude toward pain. Put yourself in a position where you don’t feel threatened by pain so that you can probe the pain and ask questions, watch and observe and learn about it. Get so that pain holds no mysteries for you, holds no fear, because you understand not only the sensation of pain but also how the mind can latch onto it and create problems around it.
Then you learn to abstain from those ways of latching on. It’s like knowing that when you stick your finger into a flame it’s going to burn, so you stop sticking your fingers into flames. As you learn to abstain from unskillful ways of thinking about pain, you learn more and more about the mind, more and more about ways of not getting yourself involved in suffering. You start out with little tiny pains, little tiny disturbances, but once you’ve figured them out you get more interested: “How about the bigger ones?”
This is one of the most important parts of the practice: this willingness to rise to a challenge, this courage that’s not overwhelmed by things. You’ve seen people who suffer in their lives and all they can think about is, “This isn’t going right, that isn’t going right, people don’t sympathize with me.” They do nothing but pile more suffering onto the original suffering. When they see a difficult challenge, they just faint. They whine and complain. But that’s not the Buddha’s way. His way is to give you the skills, the tools you need, and then to encourage you, to fire your imagination to rise to these challenges.
Your tools are the meditation instructions. Your encouragement comes from the examples set by the Buddha’s life, the stories of the noble disciples. They show how, when you find yourself in a difficult situation, you can rise above it using your wits, your grit, the resources you’ve got.
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