Showing posts with label Desire. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Desire. Show all posts

31 May 2013

Pornography, Desire, and Buddhism

Pornography is much in the news in the UK at the moment as various authorities try to figure out how to respond to the problem of exposing young children to graphic sexual images. When I was a youngster porn was relatively hard to get access to, and relatively benign - pictures of naked or semi-naked women. Today the internet delivers all kinds of sexual imagery to our screens, some of it involving violence. But the other thing that happened recently that made me want to try to write something about it, was a naive post in a Buddhist forum asking if porn was "OK for Buddhists".

I can only write about this from a heterosexual man's point of view. No doubt there are things to say from other points of view and I don't mean to exclude or downplay those other points of view. But it's easier for me to write if I'm able to tap into my own experience. If you have a different view then feel free to add to the picture in a comment. 

The first thing to say is that pornography is an industry. It has long roots. William Blake complains about sexually explicit engravings on sale in London in the early 1800s. Being an industry, the primary purpose of pornography is to make money. And it is reportedly a very successful way of making money. This fact alone ought to give us pause for thought. 

I've written about pleasure before - see particularly The Science of Pleasure. In many ways sexual pleasure is no different from other forms of pleasure. On the other hand we all know it's much more loaded. Sex involves other people (real or imaginary) and thus it partakes of relationship dynamics. Some will characterise relationship dynamics purely in terms of power, but I'm wary of this post-modern analysis. Certainly issues of power and status come into play in relationships, but relating is about more than this as well. 

Being like other pleasures, sex has a similar dynamic. Sensual stimulation produces a response which involves many bodily systems. We experience appetite, anticipation and arousal, seeking out, engaging, and satiation. All of these stages produce particular kinds of pleasure. However if we seek pleasure as an end in itself, if we short circuit the process, then we find we get diminishing returns. If for example we over-ride a lack of appetite and just have sex for pleasure, we will, generally speaking, enjoy it less. If we do this frequently and habitually, we will get diminishing returns. Similarly if we ignore signs of satiation and go back for more. As with eating, there are many motivations for having sex: procreation, intimacy, pleasure, loneliness, seeking favours, financial gain, etc. Stimulated we become sexually aroused. The problems, if there are problems, relate to seeking out stimulus in order to experience the pleasure of orgasm. 

The naive post I referred to above spoke about having a high sex-drive and using porn to self-stimulate in order to facilitate masturbation. I believe this person has fallen into a false view. Firstly the purpose of viewing pornography is to stimulate sexual desire. It may or may not be present to start with, but my guess is that with most men it's often absent. So this person who regularly views pornography claims to have a high-sex drive. My response is to wonder how much sex drive he might have if he stopped chronically stimulating himself with pornography. I asked are you masturbating in response to sexual arousal, and porn is just an adjunct to that process; or are you using pornography to stimulate arousal in order to masturbate and achieve orgasm. My hunch is that he views pornography with a view to achieving orgasm when he is not in fact sexually aroused to begin with. And this I think is neurotic or potentially harmful. 

Responding to bodily appetites is not a problem. We breath, eat, and have sex, all other things being equal, because we are responding to natural urges. I've argued on several occasions, however, that we no longer live in the natural surroundings to which our genes are accustomed. We're furnished with drives optimised for scarcity, but live in abundance (at least in the developed world). Thus the characteristic health problems of our societies are not communicable diseases on the whole, but problems brought on by over indulging in salt, fat and sugar, along with problems caused by synthetic chemicals. And also problems associated with not coping with our environment - stress related anxiety, depression, and other neuroses. Our main problem in the developed world, in other words, is lifestyle. The main thing we could do something about is our lifestyle. And yet our societies are characterised by the pursuit of increasingly empty and unsatisfying lifestyles. 

And thus it is with sex. Where food is concerned "we" (meaning we in the developed world generally) have become obsessed with eating vast quantities of food, laden with ingredients that give us the most intense experience of eating: fat, sugar, salt, and chilli. We crave more and more intense experiences because we keep over-riding our appetites and eat for reasons other than staying alive. And it is making us sick. In the case of sex, for men in any case, we turn increasingly to porn. And to more extreme forms of porn. More or less any sexual act you can imagine is available as a video on the internet. These days you don't really even need to pay. But pay men do. And pay and pay. 

Because feminists have identified the pornography industry as a battleground we are probably all aware of the arguments against pornography from a feminist perspective. Porn objectivises and degrades women. Women are exploited by the porn industry. I've just been listening to a teacher on the radio describing the effects on relationships between teenage boys and girls at her school and how she thinks porn has degraded those relationships. This is understandable because teenage boys are consuming vast amounts of porn. By the time they come to relate to flesh and blood girls and boys as potential sexual partners their sexual appetites are so dull as to require extraordinary stimulation to feel anything. They are so used to over-riding their natural sexual urges that they probably wouldn't recognise sexual attraction if it bit them. Research has shown that daily porn use can result in impotence - in other words men can become unable to become sexually aroused with real sexual partners because they've inadvertently set their own arousal threshold so high by hyperstimulating themselves with pornography. This is probably an exaggeration. No doubt there is a range of behaviour and responses to the availability of internet porn. But still the impact of boys using porn is quite negative, both on themselves and their partners. Girls in particular are often rushed into more risky sexual behaviour than they are comfortable with because the boys can't respond to anything else. Girls get treated like objects. It's not helping with issues that they already are socialised into. With young gay men, the potential for a positive feedback loop is frightening to contemplate.

Why do men consume porn? As far as I can tell, it seems that men respond to images more than women. No doubt some women do like porn, but the vast majority of consumers are men. Looking at women's bodies is arousing for hetero men. I can't even describe it. I just respond. As I would respond to music. It's an aesthetic response as much as a sexual one. I find women beautiful and attractive. Not in an overpowering way, not in a way that I can't control, but certainly in an unconscious and unmediated way. And men can get sexually aroused looking at pictures. It's an interesting fact taken in isolation - the unmediated response to certain visual cues resulting in arousal (I'm sure it's been studied).

Getting aroused and coming is some of the most fun a man can have. So there's not much point in telling every one that porn is just bad when it's aimed at getting aroused and coming. It's like drugs. If someone tells me that drugs are totally bad, I know they haven't tried them. Drugs are fun. Especially when you're young and resilient. But they have a down side. And young people are less good at evaluating risk, or assessing long term consequences. I think honesty is important when criticising these things. Boys look at porn mainly out of curiosity and fascination with women. Men consume porn in order to become sexually aroused and have an orgasm. We do it for the fun of it; out of loneliness or boredom; out of habit; as a way of sublimating desire etc. Maybe we retain a measure of fascination with women. 

And so although women are degraded by porn, men are too. Men are targeted by porn makers precisely because we respond to the product and are willing to pay for it. Like other stimulants it's a profitable product because of diminishing returns the demand for it stays high. We soon stop responding to one image. If we want to be aroused we have to get a new one. This is because in looking at pictures we are to some extent over-riding our lack of arousal. If we use that artificially stimulated arousal to achieve orgasm we're actually worse off. The pursuit of pleasure is like an addiction in many ways, particularly in the way we build up tolerance. Men (collectively) spend a fortune on porn. The answer would be to just relax and experience whatever it is that we are experiencing. But for most adults there's an uncomfortable period of cold turkey that produces some terrible cravings to fill the gaps left by not pursuing pleasure. It's not simply sex, but all of the areas in which we are over-stimulated. 

A further problem is that pornography exists in a context. Every other product we see has a female model attached to it. Women's products and services as much as men's (which I don't really understand). Advertising is ubiquitous and very often overtly sexual. Our films and television have joined in with the zeitgeist of displaying sex more openly. In the UK we have a great comedian, Reginald D Hunter, originally from South Georgia, USA. One of the things he says he likes about the UK is that "women dress like hookers on the weekend". Or in other words many young women are choosing to express themselves by dressing in sexually provocative clothing. This is portrayed as empowering for women, though I find it hard to imagine how being a hooker is empowering. I suspect is that it has more to do with creating desire in men, and the sense of power that comes with that, than expressing liberation in women. And men are much less responsive these days precisely because they use porn, so young women out to attract men have started to dress like porn stars and prostitutes. I find it quite disturbing. I'm an advocate of a gentle modesty - for men and women. I don't feel comfortable in a world where everything is sexualized. I have interests other than sex. When everything is sexualized it drowns out other aspects of human relationships (it's like pouring corn syrup on everything until you can't taste anything but sweet). 

I'm not convinced that having sex in public is quite the same thing as being more open about sex. It is certainly a good thing that we are more open about sex. After all sex is only natural and everyone does it, and my parents generation (and their parents) were woefully ignorant of sex and their bodies. But there's nothing natural about the sex in adverts, on TV, in the movies and in porn. What some people in the UK fear is that young people are growing up to think that the sex they see in the media is in some way natural. That left to their own devices people have sex like porn stars. 

I haven't mentioned Buddhism much because I'm wary of those people who proclaim "a Buddhist view on X". I don't think there is "a Buddhist view" on pornography. There are the views of Buddhists, and my views are certainly informed by 20 years of Buddhist practice and study. So this is more like the view of a Buddhist, than a Buddhist view. 

My approach to porn is informed by what I understand to be the nature of experience, especially with respect to the pursuit of pleasure. I don't get it so much now, but people often used to ask me "are Buddhists allowed to do X". My response was usually that Buddhism has no rules as such, it's just that we have to live with the consequences of our actions and as Buddhists we do try to pay attention to those consequences. I don't want to be preaching "porn is bad" because I think people just switch off to that kind of narrative, but porn has consequences. Personal consequences, and social consequences. I understand men's attraction to porn, and I've given some thought to the various issues involved. 

Obviously one Buddhist saying 'porn will screw you up' is not going to sink a multi-billion dollar multinational industry whose consumers are often addicted (more or less). Just as the tobacco industry continues to make profits in the developed world despite our certain and widely disseminated knowledge that smoking causes diseases of various kinds, including many which leave the smoker maimed or dead. 

What I will say, is that many of our personal and societal problems come down to lifestyle. They are not genetic or environmental per se, but down to choices we make. In theory we could all just choose to live a better way. But in practice there are constant forces trying to distract us from thinking clearly; trying to hyperstimulate our desires; and generally keeping us ignorant. It is so difficult to know what is best. We live in a cacophony of lifestyle advice, most of which is produced by sincere but equally confused people.

We are very much in the position of the Kālāmas who could not make out who was telling the truth about how to live. And the Buddha's advice might be summed up as "pay attention to what is happening". Interestingly one of my secular guru's Marshall McLuhan said just this: 
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. 
The question is do we have the courage let alone the willingness? And do we have compassion when we honestly answer "no"?


26 August 2011

The Science of Pleasure


MOST BUDDHISTS AND MANY NON-BUDDHISTS would not be surprised by statements along the lines that desire and craving are what cause us to suffer. The message is repeated throughout Buddhist literature, both canonical and commentarial. But what is it about desire and pleasure that is problematic? I want to approach this via an overview, culled from many different sources, of the neuro- and evolutionary biology of pleasure.

The feeling of pleasure is associated with activity in a surprisingly large number of areas of the brain with no one area alone that is responsible. This may be because pleasure itself is a complex phenomenon, and it is tied into so many other functions. But we know that pleasure is correlated with dopamine and a group of endogenous (made in the body) opioid compounds known as endorphins and encephalins.

Dopamine, again, is involved in all kinds of brain and gut activity, but it is particularly correlated with such activities as determining the desirability of an object or stimulus; with anticipation and enjoyment of rewards, with alertness or arousal, and motivation. Although clearly involved in these functions dopamine is also implicated in the experience of pain and fear as well. It seems that the same physical mechanisms may be involved in both cases. Research has found that those with more hunger for stimulation, including drug addicts, have higher dopamine levels than those with less. Dopamine levels rise in anticipation of a reward.

The opioid compounds are associated with feelings of pleasure, satiation and well being. Exogenous opioids (those not produced by the body) include the various chemicals found in the juice of the opium poppy: heroin, morphine, codeine; and there are also synthetic opioids like methadone, and pethidine. Opioids are involved in the pain response, so exogenous and synthetic opioids find use an painkillers, with morphine being the strongest known pain relief drug. Most people will know that activities like sex, vigorous exercise, and even singing in groups, stimulate the production of endogenous opioids and these are thought to account for the feelings of well being engendered by these activities. Incidentally, this is probably why chanting together in groups usually leaves us with a feeling of well being, and can be ecstatic.

There are certain features of the physical side of these systems—the chemicals, synapses, receptors etc—that are salient to a discussion of the problems of pleasure. Consider heroin (I was going to write "Take heroin", but realised this might be read as an imperative!). I recently enjoyed Keith Richard's memoir, where amongst other things he describes the process of becoming addicted to heroin and getting off it. Most people find that over time they have to increase the dose this drug to get the same effect. Humans beings build up a tolerance to heroin. What happens at the level of the neuron is that a cell reaches a threshold of excitation through incoming signals coming in via it's dendrites, and discharges through it's axon - thereby exciting the dendrites of other neurons. Reaching this potential always takes a little time, and after the discharge it takes time to recharge. What happens in the synapse is that as the signal reaches the end of the fibre special organelles release neurotransmitter chemical into the gap of the synapse. These travel across the gap and bind with receptor organelles on the dendrite of the receiving neuron. The synapse also has organelles for mopping up stray molecules, and this helps to reboot the synapse ready for the next signal.

In the every day business of the neuron it seldom exceeds its operating tolerances, and has plenty of time to recharge, and to mop up after every discharge. But with intense or repeated stimulation the neuron cannot keep up. And as the individual neurons cannot keep up, the system its forms a part of cannot keep up. So for instance if we flood our blood stream with heroin which binds to all the receptors for endorphins, we get a rush of pleasure. But if we keep doing this the feedback mechanisms which moderate the production of endorphin shut down, because they assume they are not needed. This renders the heroin addict incapable of feeling pleasure or well being without their drug. And when you go cold turkey, as Keef gives heart rending testament to, you go through a period of 72 hours of hell as the body takes this long to restart endorphin production for itself. The acute lack of endorphin leads leads to vomiting, incontinence, shaking, sweating, and global bodily pain.

Of course our brain chemistry is usually operating on more subtle levels than the heroin addict. Isn't it? Not necessarily. Consider that the pleasure we feel is related to endogenous opioids. Living as we do we are exposed to a lot of intense stimulation: refined sugars and fats are not unlike heroin in terms of the neurochemistry: a huge dose of sugar and/or fat overloads our ability to deal with the stimulus and can crash the system. Repeated doses make it difficult for user to experience pleasure when eating ordinary food.

A little fact I picked up recent from the Science Blog, is that men who use pornography on a daily basis often develop erectile dysfunction. The problem appears to be related to overloading the pleasure response - the anticipation of orgasm, the intense stimulation of pornography create a situation where lesser stimuli do not lead to arousal (which is also mediated by dopamine). Following the links on this I discovered that researchers have found that having sex more often with a partner leads to losing interest in them more quickly. This usually leads either to moving on or infidelity, since the new partner freshly excites arousal (for a time); or it leads to interest in more and more intense, not to say extreme, forms of stimulation. Users of pornography often find themselves trapped in the same kind of cycle as the heroin addict - it takes more and more to get the effect you seek, and lesser pleasures lose their savour.

So what have we learned? It seems that seeking out pleasurable experiences produces diminishing returns, and the pleasure response has a natural level beyond which it cannot respond. The pursuit of pleasure is self defeating. This should be no surprise to anyone that has opened a packet of [insert name of favourite comfort food] and just kept eating. But if it is no surprise then how come we can't stop? More or less everyone I know indulges in some kind of pleasure seeking behaviour which has no other goal than to experience pleasure, be it the stimulant effects of caffeine, the 'rush' (and crash) of sugar, or the excitement of driving fast. Even the bliss of meditation can be addictive. Why is it that we do these things in the full knowledge that we'd be better off if we didn't?

I argued before that these urges are biological, evolutionary adaptations. It seems that these systems are not entirely or easily under our direct conscious control. Dieting is hard because confronted by high calorie food we naturally desire it (elevated dopamine) and we get so much pleasure from eating it that it seems a little puritanical to deprive ourselves. But it's even more difficult if we've spent a lifetime training our bodies to expect to get that pleasure, and habituating it to higher levels of stimulation. The sense of anticipation (again dopamine) overwhelms our conscious decision to lay off the chocolate biscuits (or whatever); and since we no longer feel truly satiated without the intensity of refined sugar and fat, then we don't feel satisfied till we've had it. Our pleasure response is tuned so high that we simply don't enjoy anything less.

Of course for most of us this is not a runaway process - we don't gradually build up our sugar intake over time, or have sex increasingly often. But for some it is. In the days before medical ethics committees a man had a wire implanted in his brain that stimulated pleasure. He ended up self-stimulating to such an extent that he lost interest in all other activities including eating! He would have died if the experimenters did not disconnect him, and complained when they did. It is also possible that the mystery of falling fertility rates in the Western World is simply due to the increasing availability, intensity and use of pornography depleting the reserves of sperm (it takes more than a day to replenish them). Look also at the way the media has changed in the last 50 years with increasing use of anger, violence, and sex to 'spice shows up'. We think of this as related to more liberal attitudes, but what if the driver is that we have slowly become less able to respond to more subtle forms of entertainment? It does seem that even if we as individuals manage to find some kind of equilibrium, that over generations the ability to indulge our desires is causing us to be fatter and to seek more and more extreme forms of stimulation and entertainment. Pushing the envelope can lead to experiencing new pleasures - just as someone bored with a partner can find a new person exciting (for a time). But once we start pushing the envelope, the returns diminish, and we feel the need to keep pushing. We are probably moving along the axis in the wrong direction and should be thinking in terms of less extreme forms of stimulation, indulged in less often, in order to maximise pleasure and satisfaction.

So the picture that is emerging from neuroscience and evolutionary biology is one which leads us towards conclusions that are not new. Find pleasure in what you are doing, don't do things only for pleasure. Moderation is a virtue, and abstinence does make the heart grow fonder. Spacing out intense stimulation - whether food, sex, TV, movies, drugs, or whatever - gives the body time to reset and allows us to feel pleasure more easily, more naturally. Cutting down on strong stimulation allows us to appreciate more subtle experiences.

Satisfying natural urges is probably not a bad thing, but we need to recall that we have not lived in 'natural' circumstances for something like 10,000 years (since the dawn of agriculture and civilisation). People often cite the middle way as justification for their indulgence, and I like to remind them of what the early Buddhists considered the middle way in terms of lifestyle: no family, no job, one meal a day, no possessions, no sex, several hours of meditation etc. So, what is natural? In fact most of us could do with drastically reigning in our desires and impulses and the language of early Buddhist ethics begins to seem highly relevant again. The Buddha reportedly said:
nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññāṃ ekadhammaṃ pi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ adantaṃ, aguttaṃ, arakkhitaṃ asaṃvutaṃ, mahatp anatthāya saṃvattatīti yathayidaṃ, bhikkave, citta.

I do not see any other single thing, monks, which left untamed, unguarded, unprotected, unrestrained, leads to so much misfortune: i.e. the mind [citta].
And though this kind of thinking is deeply unfashionable these days, in light of the research I've been exploring it starts to make a new kind of sense. Guarding the gates of the senses seems more important than ever.


18 June 2010

The Pscyhological Wasteland

waste land
A couple of years ago senior member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Subhuti, studied the Cetokhila Sutta [1] and was talking about it with other senior order members. Although I did not have the chance to study the text at the time I was intrigued by what I heard, and I have now done my own translation. This translation is also a condensation because there is a huge amount of redundancy and repetition in the Pāli - what I have done is communicate the same message, in the same order, but in succinct English.

There are other translations of this text and in this case I needed to rely on that by Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi to understand parts of it. [2] There are other internet translations, though I think they struggle to communicate the message of the text because they are caught up in the Pāli syntax. 

The Cetokhila Sutta

Thus have I heard. One time the blessed one was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s park outside Sāvatthī. There the blessed at one addressed the monks.

There are five psychological wastelands unrenounced, five emotional bindings not cut that make it impossible to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

The five psychological wastelands are: doubting [kaṅkhati] and hesitating [vicikicchati] with respect to, and lack of faith and assurance in the teacher, the doctrine, the spiritual community, and the training; and taking offence, being angry, resentful and sulky towards one's companions in the spiritual life. In the psychological wastelands one's mind is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

The five emotional bindings are uncut passion, desire, love, longing, fever, and thirst for: sensuous pleasure, the body, and form; eating as much as one likes and being given to the pleasures of sleeping, lying about, and laziness; and living the spiritual life aspiring to heaven thinking: 'by this morality, this austerity, this spiritual practice I will become a god or go to heaven.' With these emotional bindings left uncut one's heart is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

For those who renounce the five psychological wastelands, and cut the five emotional bindings it is possible for them to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

This samādhi of intention [chanda] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of vitality [vīriya] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of mind [citta] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of investigation [vīmaṃsā] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. Enthusiasm [ussoḷhi] is the fifth basis for success.

With these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough [abhinibbida], capable of fully understanding [sambodha], capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union [anuttarassa yogakkhemassa adhigama].

Just as a bird with eight or ten or twelve eggs perfectly sitting on them, incubating them, and brooding them need not wish: "may my chicks, with beak and claw, safely break through their eggshell", because the chicks are well-equipped with beak and claw to pierce their eggshell and break through. So with these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough, capable of fully understanding, capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union.

This is what the blessed one said. The monks were pleased and rejoiced in his words.

This is almost like two suttas mashed together, which appears to go off on a tangent by introducing the samādhi accompanied by effort, though perhaps it made sense to the compilers of the Canon. In my comments, therefore, I want to focus on the part about the psychological wasteland and the emotional binds. Firstly some of the main terms.

Cetokhila: a khila is a patch of barren or fallow land. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi opt to render it 'wilderness'. I thought wasteland was a better fit because the metaphor is not of being lost in a wilderness, but of a place where growth is not possible. Ceto, and cetaso, are more or less the same as citta. Citta can be 'mind' generally; 'mind' as specifically the consciousness that arises in dependence on contact between sense organ and sense object; and it is also a synonym of 'heart' (hadaya) as the seat of the emotions. We usually get landed with either 'heart' or 'mind' because the two are distinct in English. My thought is that psychological covers both emotions and thoughts.

Cetsaso-vinibandha: the word vinibandha means 'bondage'. The plural 'bondages' sounded a little too 'Buddhist Hybrid English' to me, and not natural. Bindings seemed to fit. Here I have chosen 'emotional' to render cetaso because the items included under this heading are more clearly emotional. Although 'heart' is a well worn poetic cliché for emotion, I wanted to be specific and heart is used quite vaguely.

The basic message of the text is that if we don't have faith and confidence in the three jewels, if we are doubtful and unsure, then this is like a wasteland, a patch of barren land. A wasteland is not productive, not somewhere we expect crops to germinate, flourish and ripen; we cannot grow spiritually under these conditions. So this is an agricultural metaphor for a Buddhist life.

Note that the tone of the text changes with respect to our companions in the spiritual life. With the Three Jewels we can be confident that they will never let us down. With respect to other people, other Buddhists, the text does not suggest that we have faith them. It assumes that they will let us down, that they will fall short, and it requires of us that we not harbour ill-will and resentment towards them when they do let us down. We are not to take offence. This is much harder than it sounds because when people do let us down we usually assume the worst, we assume that they hurt us on purpose. We do not see them as conditioned beings responding habitually or unconsciously. So we blame them for their behaviour. In the Christian morality that underlies Western societies blame implies guilt, and guilt demands punishment. In Christianity vengeance is the Lord's province, but in anger Christians often pre-empt Him by harming the person who has offended them and calling this "justice". Similarly Buddhists profess to believe in karma, but are reluctant to allow karma time and space to work, but want to hurt the person who has hurt them. So we unreliable humans are constantly lashing out at each other. It is not a failing of religion, as militant atheists suggest, but a failing of people. Atheists are not less likely to lash out, but only to rationalise their lashing out in different ways.

The emotional bonds that prevent us from making progress draw on a different metaphor. Here passion, desire, etc are chords that tie us in emotional knots. The wasteland is more about aversion, and the bonds are about attraction. The main thing we desire is pleasure. As I have argued before: people mistake pleasure for happiness, and the pursuit of happiness becomes a pursuit of pleasure, which is disastrous for us, for the societies we live in, for humans generally, and for the planet. Despite the abject failure of the pursuit of pleasure to produce positive results we find it difficult to imagine any other way. This was true in the Buddha's day also. One of the most refined and pernicious aspects of this pursuit of pleasure is the idealised heaven. The text pays particular attention to using practice as a means to rebirth in heaven. Many culture's have heavens (even Buddhists) and you can tell a lot about that culture from the heaven they imagine: whether it is perfectly flat surfaces and jewelled trees, numbers of virgins, or a father's uninterrupted attention and love, heaven tends to contain the things that will give a man the most pleasure they can imagine. I say "man" advisedly here, because I think it's clear that 'official' heavens of the big religions were imagined by men. Unlike the Islamic heaven, in both Buddhist and Christian heavens there is no sex, and no sexuality. [3] Make of that what you will.

Perhaps it is the contrast between aversion and attraction that lead to the inclusion of stock phrases on the samādhi's accompanied by effort - which appear to refer to meditation accompanied by the four right efforts. Unravelling this paragraph on its own is next to impossible. Neither the Pāli commentary summary (MA 2.67), nor the longer explanation in the Visuddhimagga it refers you to, are very helpful as they are almost equally cryptic. I only understood it when I chanced on a reference in the notes to Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. [4] This pointed to the Chandasamādhi Sutta (SN 51.13 ) which untangles the long compounds in a way that makes sense. It is interesting that the Chandasamādhi appears to be a commentary on other texts which refer to the four bases for success (iddhipāda). The cryptic phrasing of this part of the text suggests to me a sophisticated intellectual milieu, and a written rather than oral medium. To find a commentary already in the Canon is intriguing.

The last image more or less speaks for itself. If you have faith in the three jewels, are tolerant of you companions, and cut the bindings of pleasure-seeking, and apply yourself to right effort, then you don't need to worry about breaking through. What we do as Buddhists is set up conditions for practice, and get on with practice. Wishing for Enlightenment is only useful to the extent that it gives us what Sangharakshita calls 'continuity of purpose'. We need to keep on committing ourselves, to keep on making the right kind of effort, but if we do that, then we can be confident of making progress. In fact doubt in, and of, this process prevents us from growing.

  1. MN 16, PTS M i.101. A pdf of my translation accompanied by extensive notes is available on my website: The Psychological Wasteland: a Translation of the Cetokhila Sutta.
  2. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. p.194ff.
  3. This is arguable. The Book of Enoch (which may originally have been in Aramaic or Hebrew, but survives only in Ethiopian) was originally part of the Canon of both Jews and early Christians, but was excised in the 4th century. In Enoch the sin of the fallen angels was not pride, but lust - they had sex with and fathered children with human women. See for instance: Link, Luther. The Devil : the Archfiend in Art from the 6th to the 16th century. Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1995. (see especially pg. 27f)
  4. Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.1939, n.246.

image: lots of copies of this around the net. I copied it from