A couple of weeks ago I was having a wonderfully deep conversation with a friend. It was one of my favorite kinds of conversations – you know the type – the ones where you contemplate life and existence and All That Is. We were on a five hour car ride from Germany to Prague after attending a conference about the science of living a contemplative life, so there was a lot to discuss.
At one point I shared a pet peeve that often comes up for me. This is going to sound strange, but sometimes I get annoyed at the fact that I don’t know everything. Not because I want to be a know-it-all. Rather, I think the universe is such a fascinating place that I want to know everything there is to know about it. Sure, I have pretty deep knowledge in a couple of areas of Psychology, because that was my area of specialization in grad school. But I also want to have a complex understanding of a whole host of other topics like quantum physics, the philosophy of science, astronomy, and meditation.
This brought up some ideas for me around knowing versus experiencing. For most of my life I’ve prided myself in my ability to know things. I’ve studied hard and learned a lot. But learning something in a textbook is vastly different from experiencing it.
Here’s an example. When I was in eighth grade my teacher showed our classroom a sex education video that described all sorts of things about puberty. One piece that stuck out for me was the video’s description of orgasms. The host described orgasms as being like sneezes, where you experience a build-up of energy and then a pleasant release. Needless to say, I developed a huge interest in sneezes after that. Every time I sneezed I would wonder, “Is that really what an orgasm feels like?”
The analogy was somewhat useful, but as most of us know, even the best sneeze doesn’t come close to how it feels to have a good orgasm. When I was in eighth grade I learned, on a cognitive level, that sneezing was vaguely like having an orgasm. But it wasn’t until I actually experienced an orgasm that I knew what orgasms were really like.
Similarly, I’ve read lots of books and taken my fair share of courses about meditation. I’ve been to scientific conferences where we’ve discussed research on the tiniest intricacies of what meditation really is. I’ve stared at brain scans of monks meditating in fMRI machines. I’ve heard meditation masters describe their glimpses into states of enlightenment. But, like sneezes compared to orgasms, I have no clue what enlightenment is actually like because I’ve never experienced it.
When discussing this with my friend, I brought up the fact than in addition to knowing everything, I would also like to have experienced everything – particularly the experience of being enlightened.
There is a part of me that desperately wants to know what it feels like to inhabit a space of oneness and equanimity, where I am detached from the needs and wants of this world, but also living in it.
To this, my friend posed a provoking question. She asked, “Are you sure you really want to experience enlightenment? Do you really want to feel such equanimity that your feelings for your closest loved ones are the same as your feelings for a stranger on the street? Do you really want to let go of the highs and lows, the pleasures and pains, that come with being human?”
This got me thinking about an experience that I had while at the conference in Germany. One beautiful summer evening, I went and sat on a bench overlooking Lake Chiemsee and the Bavarian alps. It was warm and slightly humid, and the air was thick with the smell of roses. The full moon was rising over the lake and my bare feet were planted firmly in the grass. Just when I thought the moment couldn’t get any better, someone started playing an acoustic guitar a few feet away from me. The music was light and dark and perfect. Then, to top it off, hundreds of fireflies started dancing over top of the water, underneath the moon.
The moment was so gorgeous that my heart ached. Tears came to my eyes as I was filled with such a sense of gratitude, and I wanted my deepest soul friends to be there with me to share the experience.
Of course, I can describe this moment to you in words so that you can understand it cognitively, but
I sat there for over an hour, in absolute awe at the beauty around me.
One of the main tenets of Buddhist philosophy is that life is suffering. In other words, one common thread that unites humans is that we all suffer at one point or another. But something that is rarely discussed is the other aspect of this philosophy, namely that pleasure is also suffering.
In other words, all beautiful experiences inevitably end, which causes us to suffer. Enlightenment serves to break this cycle of suffering, so that we no longer experience pleasure or pain.
And so I return to my conversation with my friend. Would I really want to experience this world without feeling the pleasure of an orgasm, or the beauty of a summer night or the bittersweet pain of a broken heart? Part of me believes that my Soul is here on this earth at this time to Feel. To feel the embrace of a lover and the sensual touch of a summer night and the longing for human connection on all levels.
I am by no means an expert on meditation or enlightenment. Perhaps enlightened states involve feelings of such continuous, overwhelming joy that it’s like you’re having an orgasm all the time. And the pleasure that we feel here in this world pales in comparison, like a sneeze.
What I do know is that for now I’m going to continue feeling and meditating and getting annoyed that I don’t know everything and that I haven’t experienced everything. I’ll do my best to appreciate what it means to be human. And then someday, perhaps in this lifetime or the next, I might catch a glimpse of what’s beyond the veil of this human experience.
What about you? What are your thoughts on pleasure, suffering, and transcendence? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and join her whole-self health revolution.
If you’d like tips on how to create a life you love, plus some personal instruction from Bethany, check out her online course, Creating A Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose and Create Financial Freedom.
Image courtesy of Dylan Luder.