The most exciting thing about the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is the discovery that there is no such thing as a small or insignificant experience. If you are attentive to what goes on when you do something as simple as taste, you will find yourself holding the key to all other experiences.
Feeling, then craving, then clinging: we’ve seen when observing ourselves taste ice cream that feeling is unavoidable as long as we have the sense organ to feel with and the sense object to feel, but that clinging and craving — the desire for more, and the compulsion to secure the pleasant feeling — present themselves as an immediate component of feeling but are really not intrinsic to it. We cannot help liking the sweetness of good chocolate ice cream, but when we gobble up the whole bowl and rush to the store to buy more we are acting automatically and unthinkingly, assuming that this is a natural chain of events that necessarily spills out of the first taste — and we are frustrated, disappointed, sometimes angry, when the chain is interrupted. But we know we can easily train ourselves not to need more than the first taste, and therefore we know that craving and clinging are in fact not intrinsic to feeling: we can feel, notice, enjoy, and move on. We do not have to be locked into the initial feeling, in the hope of repeating it. We’ve seen how in the case of pleasures our clinging leads to the creation of a world that is built upon the guaranteed satisfaction of our pleasures; and in the case of our displeasure, our clinging structures our world such that unpleasantness can be avoided. The pleasure can be relatively simple: good food, good drink, nice clothes, nice car, cheap gas, cheap utilities. The displeasures can also be simple: pain, illness, death. We spend most of our physical and mental energy working to secure the pleasures and ward off the displeasures. There are more subtle versions of these too: music, the arts, the cultivated pleasures; and there are also ideas we dislike, things we would rather not think about, regarding which we work hard to secure our ignorance — for example, what happens with our waste, who grows our food, how exactly our peace and safety are maintained. The clinging pervades and orders our lives, and as long as we are unconscious of it we cannot really be free.
The unthinking drift from feeling to clinging is easy to notice in a sense experience such as taste, partly because in such experiences nothing big is at stake and we have nothing we feel we need to hide from ourselves. But what if we meet people in much the same way as we meet taste pleasures? It is difficult to achieve awareness of how we relate to other people because so much of our way of relating is bound up with who we think we are or who we fear we might be. We would in fact rather not look at ourselves too closely. When we meet someone we find delightful, and enjoy the first encounter because of similarity of interests, attractive appearance, the pleasure of finding someone else interested in us, a compatible tempo in speech and thought, it is easy to slip into a belief that there was a deep pre-existing bond, something significant underlying the encounter that gives it its “destined” feel. We go home wondering if this person is “the one,” and for days after might even fantasize about future encounters or a future life with this new person. This move from feeling — that first delight — to craving and then clinging, in which we actively take steps to secure the delight, feels perfectly natural, and is much more intense than any mere sense pleasure. We easily become obsessed, because we feel that everything is invested. The initial attraction may lead quickly to the desire for sexual intimacy; our entire gender identities are suddenly at stake, our “manhood” or “womanhood,” and being rebuffed can hurt us deeply. Yet most often, when acted upon, the desire for intimacy is disillusioning, and pursuit can bring on complications that have more pain than pleasure. When that happens, we may realize that in the first marvellous encounter we were already getting everything we could want from this person: the encounter was perfect, there was nothing lacking. The need to have more was not at all intrinsic to the situation, and whenever we insist that we must have more we are in fact pushing the encounter beyond the bounds of delight into more troubled territory. We see this in clinging that is not only sexual but romantic.
The Buddha points out that one of the non-sensory objects of clinging is our idea of self — for example, that we have a permanent self underneath the changing being we actually experience from day to day, that this self has a nature and something like a destiny, that its reality is confirmed by other selves with whom it is meant to be, with whom it has a profound and meaningful bond. Romantic clinging is one of the most powerful expressions of clinging to an idea of self, and it is so powerful that a romantic person clings to the clinging itself, becoming angry when it is questioned. The idea that the person we just met and to whom we are irresistibly attracted has a deep unbreakable bond with us is a form of clinging because in our minds we have already managed to render permanent the delight of the first encounter; there, in our minds, it is much more than a meeting in the moment. When we act on the attachment, and seek not only more dates but something like marriage, the mental clinging is given legal and physical form.
Just as we attempt to make a wonderful ice-cream constantly available to us because we like the first taste so much, here we want to make sure that the good romantic feeling of the first encounters never goes away: the golden days become the ideal for the whole relationship, and we strive to relive them whenever we can and are always reminding ourselves of them. This is what Valentine’s Day and anniversaries are for: ritualized repetition. Couples who have been married for a few years and suddenly notice that the old romantic feeling is no longer there — neither in their partner nor themselves — can find themselves in despair or panic, as if the whole relationship has now lost its meaning. They never really thought about what it meant to know that everything changes, that nothing stays the same, especially thoughts and feelings. Since all attachments are essentially a desire for repetition, a hope that something will stay the same, therefore all attachments are doomed to disappointment, because nothing can be repeated. If our relationship is founded on a hope of repeating the golden days forever, even if only internally, by holding them up as a standard to measure all subsequent days, we will surely be miserable and unfulfilled — because in everything, “then is then and now is now.”
Does that mean that a commitment like marriage is sheer folly, because no one can possibly know they will stay constant? Perhaps. If it is not folly, it will have to be built on something other than a desire to repeat or maintain; it must be built rather on a knowledge that every moment is new, and that the partners will be new each day, and that the commitment is to navigate together through the new and unexpected — which will include physical and mental illness, and the derangements of suffering. Marriage then becomes a frightening adventure — undertaken with that magical someone who has a true love of adventure with all its dangers, who understands that the golden days of romance were only a beginning to be moved beyond, and that what follows will bring difficulties and joys that will always be surprising. Perhaps only very few people can do that, but those who can will surely have welcoming good humor and generosity towards their unpredictable partners.