That may buy you just a moment of pleasure,
But then drag you for days
Like a broken man
Behind a farting camel…
I just returned to the world from my latest internal adventure, 30 days on a silent meditation retreat. This sort of activity has become quite normal for me, and I often get asked by family, friends, and students what it’s like to spend 30 days in silence, mostly alone, sitting on a cushion for 10 hours a day. When I describe to them the bland food, the total absence of entertainment, the no- technology policy, the vow of celibacy and renunciation of all sexual activity, the long hours of sometimes boredom and loneliness, there is often a strong reaction in them. Their face contorts into a sort of wince, and their usual response is a mixture of pity for my unfortunate habit, confusion as to why someone would actually pay for this and willingly do it again and again, but also a curiosity, often followed by self doubt “I could never do that/ I’m too busy/ When my kids leave the house maybe”. I’m beginning to realize I have a tendency to emphasize the challenging parts of meditation retreat, mostly because they are easier to describe, but I haven’t done a very good job of describing the beautiful and joyful parts of meditation retreat, the happiness that comes with living in an extremely simple way, and even the ecstasy of a life lived in solitude and contemplation. This blog entry is an attempt to convey that happiness.
A good way to describe the happiness of being on retreat is to look at the Buddha’s teaching on the two kinds of happiness. People would often visit the Buddha in ancient India and ask him all sorts of existential questions, such as “Is there a soul? Is the soul the same as the body? Is the soul separate from the body? Where does the soul go after death?” to which the Buddha would reply, again and again, “That’s not what I teach. I teach two things; Suffering and the end of suffering.” And in the Buddha’s map of the mind, a mind free from suffering is enjoying the highest happiness, peace, freedom, and love. The Buddha was called the “Happy One”. You might say the Buddha was an expert at both suffering and happiness, because you can’t really know happiness if you don’t know suffering. The two main kinds of happiness the Buddha pointed out were the “happiness of the sense pleasures”, and the “happiness of renunciation”.
“The happiness of renunciation” is a hard pill to swallow for many westerners, and that phrase often brings up a fear of deprivation. We think of that intense crash diet we went on and the pain associated with the cravings and the harsh self-discipline. I prefer instead to use the phrase “The happiness of letting go” or perhaps even more accurately to describe this happiness “The happiness of being free from addiction.” I think most of us can get a palpable sense of the well-being, freedom, and happiness that comes with being truly free from a harmful addiction.
The happiness of the sense pleasures is the happiness that most of us are familiar with. This refers to anything that delights the senses, such as a gourmet dinner, good coffee, a fine wine, pleasing art, beautiful music, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. When we engage in these activities there often comes a sense of delight and pleasure. There is absolutely nothing wrong or “unspiritual” about delighting in the sense pleasures, we don’t have to give everything away and check into a monastery to meditate. The direction of meditation is to look at our relationship to the sense pleasures.
The sense pleasures are wonderful, but they have a fatal flaw; they don’t last, and when they’re gone we’re often left wanting more, which easily turns into addiction. No matter how wonderful your gourmet dinner is, it is going to end at some point. And if you are attached to the pleasure of the senses, there will be some suffering or stress, or “Dukkha” in Sanskrit/Pali. A common reaction is to then look for more sense pleasure; the dinner is over, perhaps I’ll have some dessert. Now the dessert is gone, how about a little coffee? Now the coffee’s gone, lets go out to a movie. Now the movie’s over, how about a drink? Now I’m drunk, how about some sex? Now that I’ve had an orgasm, how about a cigarette? Now that I’ve smoked, how about watching some Youtube videos? The youtube videos got boring, now some Facebook. Facebook is over, now some Angry Birds. Now it’s 4am and I’m exhausted and pass out. I wake up exhausted and go right for the TV and coffee. This tendency of running after sense pleasures is likened to a monkey swinging from vine to vine; as soon as it lets go of one sensual hit it grasps for another. So begins the cycle of addiction.
Our culture has been called a culture of addicts, with over 10 million alcoholics and millions more addicted to sex, food, and technology. The average American is exposed to 4,000 advertisements per day telling us to buy more, do more, consume more. Even the self help/new age scene can feed this tendency towards addiction, with books like “500 things to do before you die”, and the “law of attraction” scene that has us visualizing ourselves driving luxury cars to our mansions. Despite the “spiritual” undertone of these books (some of them go so far as to use Sanskrit words) they seem to deny that no matter how rich we become, how pleasurable we can make our surroundings, there is no lasting happiness to be found in the sense pleasures, that the addiction itself is what is in between us and that happiness we’ve been searching so desperately for. I think of Michael Jackson; he had everything in the world. He was fantastically rich, famous, talented, and powerful. But he couldn’t sleep, and eventually died from addiction.
One of the ways we look for sense pleasures is in the acquisition of material goods, also known as stuff, or when we have too much of it, “shit”. I watched an amazing short film by Annie Leonard entitled “The Story of Stuff,” which portrays how we in America are basically drowning in material goods. Among a number of disturbing statistics, the film notes that:
-The average American now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago.
-We see more advertisements in one year than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime.
-In the U.S. we spend 3 to 4 times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do.
In the film, economist Victor Lebow is quoted in order to explain how this glut of consumption came about:
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.”
In my teens and early 20’s I rebelled strongly against my parents’ wishes for me to live a comfortable middle class American life and became disillusioned with the emptiness of consumer society. I decided to dedicate my life to the pursuit of pleasure in the ways I had found it most available: through drugs, sex, rock n roll, and powder skiing. I became a ski bum in Lake Tahoe, California, where I lived off $400 a month and skied over 100 days a year. I would “table dive” for my food (eat half-consumed chili dogs off the lunch tables in the ski lodge) and live in tiny houses meant for maybe 2 people with 7 other dudes. At the time I would try to convince myself that I was living the dream; and when the skiing was good and I had a good party to go to that was true. The problem was it didn’t last, and I would often find myself lonely and depressed, and I couldn’t help but look at my self centered life as empty and hollow.
After my years as a ski bum I tried out pursuing my rock n roll fantasies and became a live sound engineer at various music clubs in San Francisco and Seattle. I figured that I just hadn’t found the right formula of sense pleasures, so I traded in my skis for a microphone. I lived the rock n roll lifestyle, doing a variety of drugs with rock stars in the backrooms and basements of clubs, staying out till sunrise, being a part of the “scene”. But the drugs would wear off, the curtain would fall, and I would be back feeling lonely, depressed, empty, and hollow.
Slowly it dawned and me that my attempts at happiness using the model I was using were actually leading more towards addiction, dependency, depression, and isolation. Not only had consumer society let me down, so had my cherished libations. With nowhere else to turn I looked toward Eastern spirituality. I started practicing hatha yoga and found instant relief and benefits. I started cleaning up my diet and detoxing from drugs. Eventually I found my way to a 10-day silent meditation retreat, which changed my life completely.
On that first 10-day retreat in Southern Washington I knew I had come home. As the days unfolded and I got over the initial body pain and my mind settled, it was if a veil to the world had lifted. My senses came alive; it felt as if I was tasting food for the first time. I would take 20 minutes to eat a single orange, cherishing the smells as I peeled, the little spouts of juice fountaining into the air as I bit, the bursts of flavor. I’d take a walk in the woods, not as an isolated stranger with his grievances and agenda, but as a part of the woods. My monkey mind would sometimes stop it’s neurotic self-referencing for long enough to fully take in my body, my breath, my emotions. It was like a returning to life from a deep sleep. And it slowly dawned on me that what was keeping me asleep was my relentless and automatic running after pleasurable sense experiences. When I finally stopped and allowed life to come to me, I finally got what I was looking for, Happiness with a capitol H. “There is no higher happiness than peace” said the Buddha.
The Buddha held the happiness of renunciation, of not being addicted, much higher than the happiness of the sense pleasures. One of the ways we can all tap into this happiness is to remember the last time you were generous, with your time, money, or anything else. In generosity there is a letting go, a renunciation, a willingness to open your hand to help another. This movement of the heart gladdens the mind. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. We experience joy in the moment we are generous, when we see how our gift has benefited others, and every time in the future when we remember our generous act we get that same hit of joy. A team of economists and psychologists at the University of Oregon found that donating money to charity stimulates primitive sources of pleasure in the brain. Some native American tribes knew the joy of generosity very well, and their ideas of a good time were to give away all of their possessions in the ceremony of the Potlatch.
Just the simplicity of being on retreat brings with it a lot of well-being. When we add meditation to this mix, we get an extremely potent happiness cocktail. When the mind becomes quite steady and quiet through practice and training, usually on a retreat, states of absorption or “Samadhi” can arise. A way to describe the experience of these states of Samadhi is like your body being filled to the brim with warm vibration, as if you are taking a bath in warm honey, or getting massaged by 100 fairies with butterfly wings. The body is filled with such pleasure sometimes it feels like it will explode, accompanied by a deep mental well-being, satisfaction, and wholeness. In these amazing states the very idea of searching for pleasure outside of yourself seems absurd. While I was exploring these states during a 2 month retreat at Spirit Rock I went in for an interview with my teacher Jack Kornfield, who was guiding me through them. I said “Powder skiing and sex will never be the same.” He said, “I know what you mean.” I had touched a place in myself more satisfying and fulfilling than any fleeting sexual experience or rush of adrenaline, which had previously held the place of the end-all-be-all of human experience in my psyche.
One of Jack Kornfield’s meditation teachers, Dipa Ma, was a master meditator and had extraordinary powers of concentration and Samadhi. She was an unassuming Bengali grandmother who lived in the slums of Calcutta. She could stay in a state of Samadhi for 3 days and nights without moving. It is said that the Buddha could stay in for 7 days. Can you imagine having sex for 3 days and nights in a row? You’d be exhausted. Or eating a gourmet meal and having your taste-buds titillated for 72 hours straight? You’d need your stomach pumped! Eventually the joy of renunciation outweighs anything the senses can provide.
An important point I’d like to reiterate is that there’s nothing wrong or unspiritual about indulging in the sense pleasures. It’s just when we become attached and addicted to them that they become a problem, or if we base our well being on having them titillated. I’ve found that once I’ve found relief from the addictiveness of a sense pleasure, I actually enjoy it a lot more, because I’m not afraid of it going away. When I don’t have an addictive relationship to the food I’m eating, I’m not dreading the last bite or rushing the experience at all. The best sex has no agenda or goal in mind. And when the mind is quiet and the senses are alive, even cold raw broccoli can be a dance with the divine, let alone a well-made Americano.
I’ll end with some words from Henry David Thoreau:
“Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the head or hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”
Posted by: Brent Morton