Taking Leave From Our Senses (Holidays, Pt. 1)
Play Fool, Vol. 2, Ch. 3
Welcome to Play Fool, a newsletter about the games we play and the games which play us. This is the first of three pieces about re-imagining the holiday experience, and the idea of a holiday as a kind of Live Action Roleplaying Game. If you enjoy it, please consider sharing and subscribing.
I recently returned from a ten-day silent meditation retreat. The retreat is in the secularised Buddhist tradition of S.N. Goenka which, although claiming to be non-sectarian, cannot help but sidle up to the rite and the ritual. The chanting, one could say, is optional but highly recommended. One such ritual—which Goenka evasively calls a ‘formality’—involves taking five buddhist precepts. These are to not kill, lie, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, and take intoxicants for the duration of the retreat.
In my own life, my interpretation of these precepts is more nuanced. We all accept, for example, that there is such a thing as a white lie. ‘Sexual misconduct,’ just begs the question as to where the line between conduct and misconduct is. However, part of the retreat experience is that the cloistered nature of life makes following these precepts much simpler. We cannot lie because we cannot speak. We cannot steal because we leave our wordly possessions at home. The ambiguity of moral life is momentarily set aside, enabling students to focus exclusively on learning to meditate.
I suggested in my last post that meditation can be thought of as a game. To extend the metaphor further, the meditation retreat is a kind of Live Action Roleplaying Game (LARP). This isn’t, I think, an overextension of the metaphor. Following the five precepts, Goenka suggests that students are to “live the next ten days as if you are a monk.” It is this “as if,” that makes a meditation retreat into a roleplaying game. We are allowed to keep our hair, but almost everything else about ourselves must be left behind.
The LARP is a kind of roleplaying game where players physicalise and act out characters in an imagined world. It is similar to Dungeons and Dragons in that it still utilises rules and conventions, but it is conducted in a bigger physical space and often includes elements of costume and drama. Some LARP experiences are grounded in conventional fantasy—wizards, trolls and the like—but Nordic-style LARPs often involve grounded, lifelike roleplay, such as roleplaying a couple deciding whether or not to have a baby. In the LARP experience, players are chasing what is called ‘bleed,’ a kind of experience in which the player becomes uncertain where their own agency ends and the character’s agency begins. The bleed experience is also what meditation players are chasing on retreats. The dissolution of ego, a state called ‘Anatta’ in the language of the Buddha, could be considered an extreme form of bleed.
The meditation retreat, for me, has come to take the place of an annual holiday. The retreat experience, which takes place only about an hour out of the city, shares some topography with the holiday experience—we pack, say goodbye, set our out of office replies, and cook awful meals in an attempt to empty the fridge of all perishables. When we return, people ask us how it was and patiently listen for ten minutes or so before returning to their own worries. On the retreat itself, as with a holiday, time tends to distort and distend as life finds new rhythm and routine.
One observation I have had from the meditation retreats is they seem to deliver something that the conventional holiday experience promises, yet seems unable to actually deliver: A sense of rejuvenation, gratitude and energy to sustain mundane life. In an obvious way, this is unsurprising. The Vipassana retreat involves renouncing many of the pleasures we take for granted. Meditators eat a simple vegetarian diet. We fast each day from noon until 6:30am. We sleep on simple bunk beds and rarely have the privacy of our own rooms. We give up all entertainment, including reading, writing, and exercise. The monk’s life is comfortable but bare. When returning to life, even small pleasures —for me, nut butter and coffee—seem great in contrast. The first bite of a rich, post-retreat meal comes into consciousness like a vivid, technicolor flood.
Yet there is, I think, more going on. The restorative feeling isn’t a dopamine rush following extreme deprivation. The bleed experience endures following a meditation retreat. One becomes able, in day-to-day life, to have fragmentary experiences in which one responds to things as if one were a monk. These changes are small, yet significant — like the feeling of good health after recovering from a mild cold. In my case, I had a quizzical moment in which I realised a formerly bothersome coworker had ceased to be a bother. I paused and listened to this person for a moment, faintly aware that I seemed to be responding from a different perspective, or even from a different version of myself. Their overenthused, ingratiating nonsense had become neutralised, more like the chattering din of a cafe. Monk-me was doing the listening. I was, in some sense, still playing the LARP.
I don’t want here to appear elitist or reductionist, so the next few paragraphs I offer humbly. The conventional holiday seems to me a kind of foolishness1. By ‘conventional holiday,’ I mean a discrete, time-bound travel experience to a location where the focus of our time is on minimising our pains and maximising our pleasures. I mean skiing in Aspen, visiting museums in London or drinking wine in Margaret River. These can be ‘lesser’ pleasures around material consumption or ‘higher’ intellectual or cultural pleasures. I draw no distinction between a steak buffet and a visit to the Apartheid museum.
A common refrain from the holiday returnee is that they would much like a “holiday after their holiday.” The joke seems to be an ironic way of coping with the failure of the holiday to provide a longed-for reprieve from the challenges of day-to-day life. The re-entry is always shaky. There is a banal element to this that is the reverse of the return from the retreat—holidays involve more fleeting pleasures, which cannot be sustained by normal life. Three-course degustations are replaced with reheated ratatouille. Sunbathing is replaced with winter skies. There are sometimes a few kilograms which have to be worked off.
However, I think there is also more going on here. The holiday fools us. It promises us something that our senses promise us every day—that on the other side of an empty wanting there is a satisfied having. We fail to learn from our experience that on the other side of having there is just more wanting, a phenomenon which psychologists call ‘hedonic adaptation2.’ The phenomenon is perhaps less interesting than that we continue to fall for it. Well before we had the term ‘hedonic adaptation,’ we had The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. If one doubts that the satisfaction of our desires leads to unhappiness, I suggest following any billionaire on Twitter for a month or so.
When we return from a holiday, we are confronted by the crash of our senses—a heightened sense of want/don’t-want, a prickly sense of the unsatisfactoriness of all life, and yet an inability to truly confront it. A conventional holiday turns up the volume on the garish, fluroscent elements of experience. Our wants and needs take on all the nuance and candor of car horns in a traffic jam. The holiday tricks us. Where the meditation retreat asks us to live as a monk, the holiday invites us to live as a satisfied imaginary of ourselves. It asks nothing of us except to do the things we want to do. The holiday is the laissez-faire parent who accepts a child’s wants as valid by virtue of being wants. Children who always get what they want tend to end up both unhappy and unsure of who they really are.
The good holiday, then, is not one in which our desires are met but in which we experiment with new desires. Feminist scholar Sandra Bartky tells us that “To be a feminist, one has to first become one.3” Goenka may as well have said the same thing about becoming a monk.
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Foolishness and Mere Stupidity goes into more detail what I mean by foolishness. The fool is someone who’s imagination has been attenuated by their habitual fears and desires.
Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (Kahneman, D., 1999).
Toward a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness (Bartky, S., 1995).