Buddhism, Happiness, Freud, The Cold House

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.

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9 Responses to “Buddhism, Happiness, Freud, The Cold House”

  1. Johanna Says:

    By that same principle, wouldn’t a beer taste *really* good right now?

    And I suspect the same argument could be made about consumption of *anything*. I see it in the endless quest for – something – in the shopping malls. I realize now that I probably got more pleasure out of a Sony Walkman that I saved for for a whole year than many of my contemporaries got out of the cars their parents bought for them…

  2. John Says:

    Read your Cynics, or Socrates.

    The way to be happy is not to lack anything you want, and the way not to lack your wants is not to have many.

    So Diogenes lived in a giant storage jar (a tub, we used to say).

    • coldhousejournal Says:

      Indeed. And Thoreau said that “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” I know, none of this is a new idea. I’m just applying it to the topic at hand. I think around here we’ve all come to take warm (dare I say hot) winter homes to be a necessity, rather than a luxury. Even people who do without a lot of other “things”, by principle or by necessity, tend to keep their houses warm in a way that not even the wealthiest did in the day of Socrates, or Thoreau, or even Freud.

      And Johanna– yes, a beer would taste pretty good.

  3. Amber Says:

    Beautiful post!

    Chatting with someone at a permaculture workshop this weekend, the fellow wondered if it would be possible to survive in a cold climate or if people would abandon the north and migrate closer to the equator if there were serious disruptions in being able to heat our homes. It was as if he had come to rely on a constant, steady supply of heat so thoroughly that he was able to completely dismiss the thousands of years of history and the civilizations that have survived and even thrived in the Northern hemisphere.

    Heat was such a necessity for him that he honestly believed we would all die or leave an area if we couldn’t have access to a constant heat source.

    These ideas you write about might not be new, but they are easily forgotten and we need to be reminded of them.

    Thank you.

  4. John Says:

    Of course, historically speaking it’s a lack of cold, not heat, that keeps people away.

    It’s always been easy enough to provide extra heat. Removing lots of excess heat has only been possible since the mid-20th century.

    Even today people in other parts of the world simply make do with less heat in

  5. Michael Rottersman Says:

    The irony is that I’d guess more people die in heatwaves when their AC conks out than from the cold. You can always add a layer or build a fire, but what do you do in Nevada or Arizona if you can’t “fire” up the air conditioner?

  6. Wife of College Roommate Says:

    Don’t forget the fact that some populations did migrate based on the seasons, moving north in summer and south for the winter. Sort of like some populations still choose to do today. 🙂

  7. John Says:

    In that case, it’s probably better to use the jet-fuel equivalent to hear the house. 🙂

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