The past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about working with difficult emotions. To a certain extent, I think perhaps we put the cart before the horse. Buddhism teaches that a significant portion of the difficult things that we face arise as a result of our patterns of clinging. Indeed, the Buddha didn’t mince words here. His second ennobling truth told us that the cause of suffering is tanhā. Tanhā is a Pāli word that is often translated as clinging, craving, longing, or grasping. The best sense of the words meaning, I think, comes from it’s literal translation – thirst. In its extreme forms, tanhā is like when you’re really really thirsty. Awareness disappears. The only thing you can think about is water. Nothing else matters. You’re consumed by it.
In regular life, our experience of tanhā is not always that extreme. Often, it goes unnoticed because it is our habitual way of paying attention to the world. This week and next we are going to begin exploring this crucial concept.
from a talk called Right Restraint by Ajahn Chah
In the ordinary way of experiencing things, when something good appears, we have a positive reaction, and when something bad appears, we have a negative reaction…Even though we can’t yet let go, we are aware of these states continuously. Being continuously aware of ourselves and our attachments, we will come to see that such grasping is not the path. Knowing is fifty percent, even if we are unable to let go. Though we can’t let go, we do understand that letting go of these things will bring peace. We see the danger in the things we like and dislike. We see the danger in praise and blame.
So whether we are being praised or criticized, we are continuously aware. When worldly people are criticized and slandered, they can’t bear it; it hurts their hearts. When they are praised, they are pleased and excited. This is what is natural in the world. But for those who are practising, when there is praise, they know there is danger. When there is blame, they know the danger. They know that being attached to either of these brings ill results. They are all harmful if we grasp at them and give them meaning.
When we have this kind of awareness, we know phenomena as they occur. We know that if we form attachments to phenomena, there really will be suffering. If we are not aware, then grasping at what we conceive of as good or bad gives rise to suffering. When we pay attention, we see this grasping; we see how we catch hold of the good and the bad and how this causes suffering. So at first we grasp hold of things and with awareness see the fault in that. How is that? It’s because we grasp tightly and experience suffering. We will then start to seek a way to let go and be free. We ponder, ‘What should I do to be free?’
(I’m using a practice originally presented here because I think she nails it. Note that she uses grasping, while I use clinging, but we’re talking about tanhā.)
In order to follow this advice from Ajahn Chah, we have to make an effort to know what’s going on inside of us, continuously — in spite of our inclination to have our primary focus be directed outwards.
Let’s say we’re in a beautiful park and we see another person dropping litter on the ground. We think, “she shouldn’t do that!”, and we get upset. Do we notice that we’ve gotten upset, or do we keep thinking about what a terrible person the litterbug is? Do we notice that we have grasped the thought of injustice or outrage or “shouldn’t!” and let it run away with us?
We can cultivate a meta-awareness, that is, an awareness of the quality of our awareness. When we are calm, we can know that we’re calm; when we’re distressed, we can know that we are distressed; when we’re elated, we can know this state, too. It is possible to be aware of every sort of mind state, as it comes up. In this way, we can observe how grasping and suffering arise and pass away in our experience. Slowly, wisdom can develop from these repeated observations.
So, this week I’d like you to pay attention to what clinging is like for you. Maybe you can catch it in the moment! If not, you can reflect on it afterwards. At the end of each day this week, think back and identify a moment when you got hooked by tanhā. Make note of it and we’ll discuss on Sunday.
As always, thanks for your practice!