Thursday, May 7, 2009

Seeking Satisfaction, or, My Italian Vacation


Italy, the land of pleasure: vistas, beautiful art, and of course, fabulous food and wine. Lela and I had two weeks to indulge every desire.  It was more pure vacation that we've taken in years (we did a 10-day meditation retreat on our honeymoon).  It was a blessed, bountiful two weeks that proved once again that no sum of pleasures can ever totally eradicate dukkha - the pervasive residue of dissatisfaction that accompanies all experience, first articulated by the Buddha.  

The river of delicious bread, pasta, meat and cheese leads to overeating, dulled senses and constipation.  Then regret over the bill.  $10 for that tiny salad!  The next night I order less food, but it's too little, and I regret not ordering what the next table is eating.  We finish dinner quickly and have nothing to do but watch TV because the quaint hilltop village is dead at night.  Our hotel room is freezing cold because the building is made of stone.  Worry that we picked the wrong place to stay, but now it's too much of a hassle to change...

When pleasure-seeking is the only motive, it easily becomes a "job" that I have to "do right".  I must pick the best restaurant, the best museum, the best wine.  The mind can make anything into a burden.

After time in Rome and Assisi, we moved to the Cinque Terre, a quintet of absurdly picturesque villages along the Tyrrhenian Sea.  We spent a couple days hiking between towns, up and down hillsides covered in vineyards and olive trees.  It felt wonderful to use my legs again, to make effort, to sweat.  My senses became sharper, my appetite revived.  The meals that followed were some of the best of the whole trip.  

In recent self-inquiry, I have noticed my tendency to view pleasure as something that has to be earned.  For example, a cookie earned as a reward for the completion of some unpleasant task, like homework.  There is a subtle self-violence here, a sense that I'm basically not worthy of enjoying life unless I've done something to deserve it.  Perhaps it goes back to my Puritan ancestors insisting that leisure is sinful. 

But my time hiking the Italian coast showed me a different perspective, which is much more pragmatic:  pleasure is experienced more fully when balanced by effort/work/challenge.  As the Buddha discovered, a Middle Way between indulgence and austerity is the most skillful path.  

I see this dynamic at play in my home yoga practice.  It is when I hold myself over the fire a bit - staying in Warrior 3 for 5 more breaths than usual - that I experience the sweetest relaxation at the end of the practice.  There must be some neuroscience to back this up - a connection between the challenge and reward circuitry of the brain.  

Of course, there is a risk of becoming dependent on challenge in order to feel satisfied.  There is also great value in exploring what is simple, familiar and mundane.  For some asana junkies, the greatest challenge may actually be to slow down and really experience Triangle Pose, rather than always pursuing the next, crazy arm balance.

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