- In Cogitations
- Post 09 April 2009
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By: David Edwards
The Power Of Pain
In his book, The Art Of Seduction, Robert Greene outlines a strategy for conquering romantic "targets":
"The greatest mistake in seduction is being too nice. At first, perhaps, your kindness is charming, but it soon grows monotonous; you are trying too hard to please, and seem insecure. Instead of overwhelming your targets with niceness, try inflicting some pain. Lure them in with focused attention, then change direction, appearing suddenly uninterested. Make them feel guilty and insecure. Even instigate a break-up, subjecting them to an emptiness and pain that will give you room to manoeuvre." (Greene, The Concise Art Of Seduction, Profile Books, 2003, p.167)
It is no secret that "emptiness and pain" can provoke desire. A key theme of advertising is the manufacture and exploitation of shame. If our hearts can be made to sink at the thought of our sagging bellies, our "Here comes pizza face!" complexion (the words were used in an actual advert), our personal hygiene - "Could you be cleaner?" - we can easily be made to crave the proposed solution.
In sexual, consumer, and political seduction it is crucial that the true intent be camouflaged. Greene explains that we should use "spiritual lures":
"Play up your divine qualities; affect an air of discontent with worldly things; speak of the stars, destiny, the hidden threads that unite you and the object of the seduction. Lost in a spiritual mist, the target will feel light and uninhibited." (Ibid., p.161)
This also describes the art of political seduction - Clinton, Blair and Obama know all about these "lures".
Greene's strategy of seduction is doubtless successful within its own terms. The method is simple: on meeting an attractive woman, say, for the first time, one should direct a focused beam of flattering conversation, smiles and interest in her direction. She should be made to feel deeply interesting and welcome. One should then suddenly switch attention to some other person and ignore the first woman as if she had ceased to exist. The idea is that this sudden indifference will be experienced as a wounding loss - she will feel out in the cold - and this will create a needling urge to regain the lost attention. At this point, the "target" has begun to desire the seducer.
Alas, no matter how effective the strategy, relationships rooted in manipulation and pain must ultimately suffer the fate of all pleasure-based activities - boredom. If discomfort and its relief (pleasure) are the main focus, then the relationship will quickly be revealed as empty and hollow.
Moreover, the use of pain to manipulate desire and control will surely generate resentment. The Indian mystic Osho commented:
"There is constant fight between lovers and the reason is that you cannot forgive the lover because you know you are dependent on him or her. How can you forgive your slavery? You know your woman makes you happy, but if she decides not to make you happy... then? Then suddenly you are unhappy. Your happiness is in her hands and her happiness is in your hands. Whenever somebody else controls your happiness, you cannot forgive them." (Osho, The Buddha Said..., Watkins, 2007, p.292)
Greene's strategy comes as no surprise in a society that systematically treats human beings as means serving "higher" ends. It is a matter of legal fact that corporations the world over are obliged to prioritise shareholder profits above all other issues, including human and animal welfare - the reduction of pain is not allowed to impede the maximisation of profits. Anyone who thinks we live in a free society based on humanist values should try suggesting, in a business environment, that these priorities be reversed, and observe the reaction.
The exploitation of human "targets" for self-gratification is not particularly extreme by our society's standards.
The Art Of Giving
By contrast, in his classic work The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm defined a loving relationship as one based on "care, responsibility, respect and knowledge". We care for someone by responding to their needs based on our understanding of, and respect for, them as unique individuals. Fromm wrote:
"In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily +giving+, not receiving." (Fromm, The Art Of Loving, Thorsons, 1995, pp.17-18)
Although in our corporate culture we are trained to believe that receiving is far preferable to giving - the assumption underlying Greene's approach - this is badly mistaken. Fromm wrote:
"Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness." (Ibid., p.18)
What exactly is given in this sense?
"He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life... he gives him of that which is alive in him: he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humour, of his sadness - of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the other's sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness. He does not give in order to receive; giving is in itself an exquisite joy." (Ibid., p.19)
Greene writes that "The greatest mistake in seduction is being too nice." This is correct, if we accept the standard misuse of language. Greene is in fact referring to greed +posing+ as "nice" - giving to get. An infatuated teenager may well shower phone calls and gifts on his beloved. But this will very often be motivated by his concern for the happiness the girl can provide +him+. This is 'generosity' as investment, a form of trade, rather than giving motivated by concern for the happiness of the other person.
It is certainly true that "being too nice", in this sense, is a mistake. Who would not feel aversion for self-centred manipulation masquerading as 'love'? When we consider Fromm's key characteristics of authentic love, we can see that this attention will often have nothing to do with generosity, care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. Our ardent teenager may not give a thought to any negative impacts he might be having.
On the other hand, Greene is wrong if he believes that it is a mistake to be too "nice" in the sense of giving out of generosity and kindness. To be genuinely loving is to desire the happiness of another person: to feel happy about their happiness, delighted by their delight, and distressed by their sadness. To be "nice" to someone, in this sense, is to give out of concern for their welfare. This obviously does not mean bombarding them with attention regardless of their feelings. The attention will respect their needs for peace and privacy, and will be non-possessive, rooted in the awareness that no-one enjoys being imprisoned, not even in the name of 'love.'
Equalising Self And Other
This is not to suggest that a loving person will be completely selfless. She will of course also be concerned with her own happiness. The point is that this will not all be one way - she will +also+ feel a genuine interest in making the other person happy, will feel happy about that prospect. In my opinion, few words are more beautiful or revolutionary than those spoken by the 8th century Buddhist sage Shantideva when he asked:
"Mine and other's pain - how are they different?
Simply, then, since pain is pain, I will dispel it.
What grounds have you for all your strong distinctions?" (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.124)
The last line resonates across the centuries. To all the killers, torturers, racists, nationalists, religious fanatics, bigots and chauvinists, Shantideva asks: "What grounds have you for all your strong distinctions?" What is the basis for an Israeli feeling that the life of a Palestinian is worth so much less than the life of an Israeli (and vice versa)? What is the basis for the clear media presumption that the suffering of an impoverished, brown-skinned Iraqi is less important than the suffering of a wealthy, white New Yorker? It is nonsense: all happiness is equal. All suffering is equal. No person is more or less important than any other.
And this applies to ourselves in our personal relationships: what grounds do we have for thinking that our happiness is more important than our partner's happiness? I believe that if even a glimmer of recognition lights up in our hearts at the reasonableness of this question - though it involves taking the side of others +against+ our own self-interest - this is a wonderful moment in our lives. I believe we can transcend blinkered self-interest in the understanding that our happiness is not in fact more important than the happiness of others. We can come to see that this is simply crude prejudice. We can actually come to take the side of others against our own selfishness. Shantideva asks again:
"I indeed am happy, others sad;
I am high and mighty, others low;
I am helped while others are abandoned;
Why am I not jealous of myself?" (Ibid., p.133)
When I know others suffer as I do, when I know my happiness is no more important than theirs, how can I simply revel in my good fortune? How can I not feel aggrieved on their behalf?
When we accept and act on Shantideva's premise, we can treat people with the same care, responsibility, respect and knowledge that we rightly afford ourselves. It is not that we treat ourselves with contempt - the important thing is to equalise our concern for self and others:
"Just as I defend myself
From all unpleasant happenings, however small,
Likewise I shall act for others' sake
To guard and shield them with compassion." (Ibid., p.125)
An interesting question arises. How do others respond when we place their happiness on a par with our own? What happens when we reject Greene's strategy of maintaining interest through pain? What happens when we devote ourselves to making the other person happy? Do we become sorry doormats - the victim of every rampant ego?
This, in my view, is the second great wonder associated with the equalising of self with other. Our lives are full of difficulty, confusion and suffering - we are all seeking answers to the problems facing us. To find someone who genuinely cares for us - who feels happy when we are happy, who truly aspires to relieve our suffering - is an extraordinary boon. Most sane people treasure this human quality above all others. As the Ekottarika Agama noted so well:
"When you have found a true friend,
you have found the best thing in life
and life will no longer seem so evil." (Hsing Yun, Being Good - Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life, Weatherhill, 1999, p.103)
And this commitment to kindness creates the supreme foundation for mutual love. The 4th century Buddhist poet, Aryasura, wrote:
"For so it is that the brilliance of the virtuous [the authentically loving] attracts the peoples' love as strongly as does their most beloved friend or relative - just as the smiling autumn moon in the heavens, showering its beams freely in all directions, wins the love of all." (Aryasura, The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.333)
Our society gives us endless advice on how to become more loveable: get a clearer complexion, earn more, get smarter, dress better, tidy up the wrinkles, add a couple of inches to the penis. In truth, the best way is to equalise our concern for the happiness of self and other. Nothing is more loveable. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has commented:
"If you make yourself available to others, regarding them as of primary importance and trying to help them by all possible means, everyone will regard you as a friend and hold you dear in their hearts." (The Dalai Lama, Awakening The Mind, Lightening The Heart, Thorsons, 1997, p.121)
And there are clear implications for the many quarrels that bedevil so many relationships, particularly those dominated by self-interest:
"Increasing like the moon, lovelier than moonglow, virtues [kindness, generosity, compassion] appease the ferocious, the jealous, the angry, and the proud - no matter how deeply their selfishness is rooted in hatred." (Aryasura, op. cit. p.209)
A friend of mine, a Buddhist monk, told me of how he lived in a house with 50 other monks. Because they were all devotees of Shantideva's philosophy, each of the monks was genuinely focused on working for the happiness of the other 49 people in the house. My friend said it was a wonderful place to live and invited me to imagine the opposite scenario: where all 50 people were strongly devoted to making themselves happy with no regard for the other 49!
So many couples consist of two armoured egos waging a kind of trench warfare for their own happiness. But the war itself is a disaster and trenches are a miserable place to live. The tragedy of the metaphorical battle for the TV remote control is that, if the concern were reversed - if both desired the happiness of the other - the tiny loss of a particular TV programme would be offset by the huge benefits of a virtuous circle of kindness and happiness. In Tibetan Buddhism this is called "giving a hundred to gain a thousand". The Buddha said:
"Victory over a thousand thousand enemies is not as valuable as victory over oneself." (Hsing Yun, op. cit. p.14)
The rewards from any amount of selfish 'victories' are utterly trivial beside the triumph achieved in equalising self and other in our minds. If all couples fought for the happiness of the other, how different their lives would be.
As discussed, authentic kindness has the power to inspire love. To perceive another's joy at our happiness is a transforming moment - we naturally feel inclined to return that love. Fromm wrote:
"... in giving he cannot help bringing something to life in the other person, and this which is brought to life reflects back to him; in truly giving, he cannot help receiving that which is given back to him. Giving implies to make the other person a giver also and they both share in the joy of what they have brought to life. In the act of giving something is born, and both persons involved are grateful for the life that is born for both of them. Specifically with regard to love this means: love is a power which produces love; impotence is the inability to produce love." (Fromm, op. cit. pp.19-20)
It is easy to understand how there can be no more stable foundation for friendship than the shared awareness that both individuals are strongly committed to the happiness of the other. What room is there for jealousy, anger and resentment when we know that our friend or partner is deeply committed to making us happy? When we know he or she values our welfare as much as, perhaps even more than, his or her own happiness? Who inspires greater confidence in us than the person who truly believes that they gain more from kindness than from greedy self-indulgence?
As with so much that matters in human life, the issue revolves around where we locate the true source of happiness. Our answer cannot be faked: if we believe that self-interest delivers, that everything else is naïve wishful thinking, then that will certainly be reflected in our behaviour.
If this is what we believe, then we should attend more closely to how we actually feel when we prioritise ourselves over others. How do we feel when we win and others pay the price? How do others feel and react to us? And how do we feel in the moments when, in giving, we make someone else happy? How does this warmth, tenderness and joy compare to the chilly, diminishing return of self-interested pleasure-seeking?
The answers are clear, but only if we pay close attention to our reactions: to what is actually true as opposed to what we +imagine+ is true. This is particularly vital in our society, which never tires of persuading us that grabbing, getting, taking and receiving are everything. After all, what use does a corporate system have for the idea that kindness - which cannot be monopolised or bottled - is the key to happiness?