I’ve been reading a book by Dr. Mark Epstein about the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and Western psychotherapy (professional interest, mainly, but I recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the topic.) Early in the book, Epstein describes “a basic Buddhist concept… that the pursuit of pleasurable sensory experiences leads inevitably to a state of dissatisfaction, because it is the nature of pleasure not to be sustainable.” He discusses the Buddhist realization that unhappiness (or “suffering”) is the inescapable result of trying to “extract lasting pleasure or meaning from what is essentially a transient pleasure.”
A marvelous parallel exists between this philosophy and Western psychotherapy’s insights into human nature. As Epstein quotes from Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents):
“What we call happiness in the strict sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as a periodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.”
I’ve been thinking a lot, during these two winters, about heat as an addictive drug, or intoxicant, or sensual experience, to which we’ve all grown tolerant and inured. Over the past 50-odd years people in these parts have come to expect, insist upon, and in most cases acquire consistent, warm temperatures, under precise control, in every corner of their habitations, through every day of the winter. In the realm of home-heating, we have aspired to achieve “a state of things”, and we’ve pretty much done it: warm everywhere, all the time. The more consistent, the more even, the more endless, the better. Two years ago I thought of this as the ideal myself.
Yet I’m convinced, now, that people are no happier for having attained this “state”. My experiences at the Cold House have led me to a different conclusion: the greatest satisfaction comes neither from consistent, “pleasurable” heat, nor from interminable, “uncomfortable” cold. It comes from a contrast, a fluctuation, a natural acceptance of no “perfect” or “ideal” temperature, and a setting-aside of the desire for and attachment to the constant warmth which we’ve become accustomed to.
The cold of a frigid morning kitchen or an icy bedroom intensify the delight of a hot cup of coffee or a warm shower, and the pulsing warmth of sitting by the fire is most appreciated in the first few minutes after moving towards it from the cold. As suggested by Freud (he was, after all, talking mainly about sex and hunger), attempting to gain consistent pleasure from a house stuck at 68º may be absurd as trying to gain consistent happiness from perpetually eating or having orgasms non-stop.
Some people have posited that I’m just a self-flagellating ascetic who thrives on discomfort, the implication being that my enjoyment of this way of living (even if only for one or two winters out of my life) is aberrant and definitely would not apply to “normal people”. I thought so too, for a while, but now I disagree. As the Buddhists apparently know, attachment to a fixed pleasure leads, before long, to no pleasure at all, or in any case, to forgetting what is it about the pleasure that you once enjoyed. At the Cold House, at least in one little way, we no longer have that problem. We aren’t warm all the time, but neither are we cold all the time. And we enjoy our warmth, when we get it, in a way that I didn’t know before.