My first Vipassana retreat was a cold, foggy ten days in late December, 2009. Not having meditated much, but having thought of doing so often, I figured that I needed a long period of time devoted to learning more about the practice, and—even more importantly—actually practicing. For meditation is truly something that requires practice.
Practice wasn’t a luxury I could force myself to obtain—it’s often so difficult to do anything difficult by oneself—so I just went ahead and signed up for a Vipassana retreat to avoid putting it off forever. Not having practiced much at all beforehand, then, I was somewhat sidestruck as the retreat went on by the physicality of meditating. In particular, sitting still for long periods of time gets to be physically painful after a while. By the end of the retreat I’d decided that some component of this Vipassana must have to do with raw pain, and with the endorphins that the brain uses to deal with that. Self-drugging, I ruminated. Or was it just plain masochism, the willful self-flagellation of one’s body or mind, to reap some sort of psychological reward? When I returned to society after the retreat, one of the first searches I executed online was “Buddhism masochism”.
Being somewhat naturally inclined to masochism myself, at least in some form or another, I’ve thought about this connection off and on for a long while after the retreat. On the surface, the connection seems so clear: the life of a monk consists of willfully depriving oneself of worldly comforts, in pursuit of spiritual development. Such deprivation might easily be considered harmful to a person’s body or psyche (ego?) and so appear to be self-destructive. But something deeper is going on below the surface, and this warrants further exploration.
After the retreat, I returned to San Francisco, a sudden transition from quiet to amplified, singular to multiple, calm to active, sensing to anticipating. It was New Year’s Eve, and we headed out to a bar to chat and get some dinner. A plate of fries caught my eye from the menu, and when they came out I was suddenly struck by the excess of it all! The fries, salty and crispy, came with some creamy dipping sauces, and the whole mountain of food fairly screamed and jumped in the air while asserting its appeal to my senses. In the bar were not two, or three, but six large-screen televisions, each blasting out a completely different world from the one I literally occupied. One TV showed basketball in Boston, another soccer in Sweden. And all of it was interspersed with advertisements for things I didn’t want or need: cars, deodorant, toys. How unnecessary all of the rich food, constant feeds of information, countless demands of attention for trivial tasks! I was stunned by a simple plate of fries, and they were delicious.
I doubt anyone would necessarily consider it masochistic to pass up a delicious plate of fried potato wedges, or to turn off the TV, or even to close one’s eyes every once in a while and reflect on something. But that was somehow the conclusion I’d drawn by the end of ten days of sitting for hours on end. These, then, somehow mark important points on the continuum of pain—on the one end, pure hedonism, bacchanalia everywhere, and on the other pure masochism, self-flagellation and deprivation. Somewhere nearer the former lies a plate of fries, and somewhere nearer the latter lies continuous sitting in silence.
I recently read one of the books that’s often recommended for followers of thepositive psychology movement: Optimal Experience. It’s an interesting book, for several reasons, but one passage from a chapter about generational differences in experience has continued to bounce around in my head for the past few weeks. Quoting one of the subjects in the study, an older person who has chosen to live and work on a farm in a remote village in the Alps:
Even the most rigidly determined life makes one feel free as long as one chooses it freely. (p. 199)
Freedom is such an interesting topic, one that I’d like to get into in more detail in future posts.