The Trance of Never Enough:
How Meditation Can Help With Wanting More
Our thought patterns are like trance states. Before we know it, we’re sucked into a storyline and we find ourselves in a sort of hypnosis, unaware of the spell under which we’ve been cast. As we start to watch our mind more in meditation we come to recognize not only this tendency to fall into a trance but the familiar storylines that tend to hook us.
As I was sitting a 10 day silent retreat over the New Year, I started to become conscious that I was falling into a familiar mindset: The Trance of Never Enough. The Trance of Never Enough begins with a fundamental aspect of the human experience: as experience arises in consciousness, if the mind registers an experience as pleasurable, it makes a note of it–”I like this, I want more of this.” Then it seeks to repeat this behavior in the future. It’s a cycle of craving consisting of Trigger, Behavior, Reward.
Some personalities are more inclined to grasp after pleasurable experience, other people are more focused on how they can avoid unpleasant experiences. Of course, we all experience both of these tendencies strongly depending on time and place, but overall most people tend to incline more towards one tendency: grasping after pleasure or aversion to what’s unpleasant.
By nature, I’m much more in the former camp, inclined to seek pleasurable experiences. For one, I’ve always loved to eat. You can pick out the sensuous type often by the way they eat! I used to drink alcohol heavily until, through meditation and yoga, I came to see how self destructive those patterns were and began to let those go when I moved to Thailand in 2010.
But grasping after things doesn’t only involve things we might think of as hedonistic. As someone who has always been intellectually curious, I now realize that I have a tendency to crave more and more knowledge. Travel (pleasurable experiences, novelty) is another big one.
You might be thinking: what’s wrong with pleasure? Absolutely nothing. Pleasure itself is not the problem. Life is meant to be enjoyed. But attachment to pleasure is a problem (especially when our pursuit of pleasure becomes so blinded that we cause harm, emotional or worse, to other people).
Why is attachment to pleasure a problem?
All experiences arise and pass away. When pleasure is gone, people–especially the sensory desire personality type–have an inclination to grasp after more pleasurable experience. The cycle of craving that this grasping sets into motion is what The Buddha referred to as “dukkha,” which is often translated as “suffering,” but can also be understood as “dis satisfaction” or “dis-ease.”
The feeling of grasping after pleasure is like rope burn: as the rope inevitably gets pulled away from your hands it inevitably burns as you grasp after it, as you resist the inevitable demise of this pleasurable experience: for all things that arise will also pass away.
But if you can let go of the rope as you feel it being pulled away from you. It won’t burn. Pleasure is not the problem; grasping after the pleasure is the problem.
So as I sat on my retreat over several days in a beautiful location and started to enjoy deeper states of insight through intensive meditation practice, my mind inevitably started to drift to the thought of when I could sit the next retreat. This retreat wasn’t even finished yet but I was already thinking: how can I get more of this!?
I remembered that registration for another retreat was opening while I was on this current one. This next retreat was with a popular teacher and her retreats tend to sell out very quickly. It would surely be filled within the first day and I had meant to ask a friend to register on my behalf while I was on this retreat. But here I was on this retreat, having taken a vow to not use technology and my mind was now pulling me into The Trance of Never Enough. Moreover, even if I wanted to cheat, we were in a remote location with no cell service or wifi.
But…aha! Then I recalled I got cell service just about 100 yards to the entrance of where we were staying on a lake. Many people on the retreat enjoyed taking out kayaks during breaks. The thought arose: “that’s it, I’ll get my phone, kayak out 100 yards, then register for the retreat.” The ego is very clever: it loves to scheme, to strategize in order to get what it wants. It creates rationalizations and arguments in order to persuade itself to get what it has already decided that it wants on an emotional level.
I was watching my mind and just noticing what was going on with curiosity. But the pull of past patterning is strong: so my mind kept coming back again and again to this plot that it wanted to hatch. I laughed at the absurdity of it, even as my mind would gravitate back to the idea again and again. At some points the idea was comical, at other moments I was persuading myself that I should indeed indulge this proposal.
Then I remembered how one of my meditation teachers, Tara Brach, would talk about thought patterns as trance states. It helped to just recognize “ok this is what this is. I’m in a trance. It’s The Trance of Never Enough.”
Would it really have disrupted my practice to book the retreat? Actually, I don’t think so. But I realized that this deeply ingrained pattern of seeking was built on the illusion that kept me in a state of restlessness and dis-ease: the deeply ingrained belief that whatever I was looking for could only be found in some imaginary point in the future, rather than right here and now.
What was I hoping to find on my next retreat that I couldn’t on this one? Isn’t it true that the very things that I seek–inner peace, joy, and freedom–can only be found in the same place that anything can be found: in this very moment?
The great Thai forest monk Ajarn Chah once said:
“If you let go a little, you’ll have a little freedom. If you let go a lot, you’ll have a lot of freedom. If you let go completely, you’ll be totally free.”
The more that I travel down this path of meditation, the more I realize that Letting Go is at the heart of this path. In that moment I chose to drop my fantasies about what the future might hold. I made the decision: this moment is enough. This moment has everything that I need. The capacity to make that choice requires mindfulness, but also compassion and wisdom.
Can you identify a pleasurable experience that really triggers craving for you?
Then try the RAIN technique. It’s a powerful meditation for working with challenging emotions, including the pleasurable ones that tend to make us so contracted. Then please leave a comment and let me know what was helpful, what was challenging, or what questions you have.