Sex and sweat and everything ever

by lonesomeyogurt

A while ago, a friend sent me a link about a very interesting study done in The Netherlands:

Borg and her colleagues separated 90 female university students into three equal groups: one watched “female friendly erotica”; one watched a video of extreme sports meant to get them excited, but in a non-sexual way; and one watched a video of a train, meant to elicit a neutral response.

The women were then given 16 tasks, most of them unappealing. They were asked to take a sip from a cup of juice that had a large (fake) insect in it, to wipe their hands with a used tissue and to take a bite from a cookie that was sitting next to a living worm. The women were also asked to perform several sex-related tasks, like lubricating a vibrator.

Women in the “aroused group” said they found both the unpleasant tasks and the sex-related tasks less disgusting than women in the other groups. They also completed the highest percentage of the activities, suggesting that sexual arousal not only decreases feelings of disgust, but directly affects what women are willing to do, the study shows.

(No word on how they made sure that the women in the last group weren’t secretly turned on by trains like I am.)

Buddhism has long understood the way desire can blind us to the repulsive nature of things, from used tissues and bug-filled cups of juice to the very substance that makes up our own bodies. Just as these women were, in the grip of lust, willing to do that which the normal, undisturbed mind would find disgusting, so too are all beings capable of great delusion when desire and craving prevent them from seeing accurately the coarse and vulgar nature of their actions.

The experience of these women highlights the conflict between the rational, clearly comprehending mind and the infatuated, craving mind; it shows what can happen when we value a sensation so greatly that we are willing to ignore the repulsiveness of its vehicle, and how the fundamental differences between the mindful and unmindful approaches to life set us up for either contentedness and peace or suffering and distress.

With a mindful approach to life, one based in detached, non-conceptual observation, we can come to see that this world is empty. It is impermanent and unsatisfying, out of our control and relentlessly spiraling towards dissolution. It is a world free of guidance, of a master plan, of God or souls or much of anything except misery and tension. As the most Venerable Vajira said:

It’s only suffering that comes to be,

Suffering that stands and falls away.

Nothing but suffering comes to be,

Nothing but suffering ceases.

With a pure, concentrated mind, we can see the coarse and transitory nature of all constructed things – neither beautiful nor ugly but simply repulsive, not worthy of attachment. Like a curious couple may chip away the richly painted walls of a new home to find rot and decay only inches below the surface, the mindful person discovers through meditation the true nature of the world around them and reacts accordingly, determined not to make a home where suffering is bound to follow.

The unmindful way, the heedless approach to living that is ruled not by clear thought and wisdom but by desire and passion, leads us in the opposite direction. We engage with the world as though it was permanent and steady, basing our happiness on a foundation of sand. We grow infatuated with pleasant feelings, with delicious tastes and beautiful sights, and we decide to sacrifice our time, our money, our health and our peace to hunt them down; we give up control of our own minds and let desire take the wheel, driving us to the four corners of the Earth in search of the one body that will never grow old, the one possession that will never grow obsolete, the one thing that will never disappear before our very eyes in a pile of ash. We use the things we own to craft a fragile truce with sorrow, a ceasefire between us and the universe that reality is always equipped to break.

About a year ago, I read an article that illustrated just how much hurt some people will endure in the pursuit of sensual pleasure, the story of story of a man who arrived home to find his house consumed by an electrical fire. He called got out of his car, called 911, and then promptly ran through the flames in an attempt to save his most valuable possessions. The report stated he died of smoke inhalation and asphyxiation in the doorway of his bedroom, dead before he could even grab any of the things he cherished so deeply.

His greed led him to run without reservation into the center of a raging fire. And although we may laugh or at least shake our heads, the Buddha taught in the Adittapariyaya Sutta that we too run into such a conflagration every time we chase sensual pleasure:

“Monks, all is aflame. What is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame. Consciousness at the ear is aflame. Contact at the ear is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the ear — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The nose is aflame. Odors are aflame. Consciousness at the nose is aflame. Contact at the nose is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the nose — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The tongue is aflame. Tastes are aflame. Consciousness at the tongue is aflame. Contact at the tongue is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the tongue — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The body is aflame. Sensations are aflame. Consciousness at the body is aflame. Contact at the body is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the body — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

Any time we suspend our mindfulness and clear comprehension in the pursuit of pleasure, any moment we spend saturated with desire instead of wisdom, we are no better than the man who runs into the fire to save that which is impossible to save. Just like him, we blind ourselves to the danger, closing our eyes to the pain and anguish guaranteed to those who hold close that which is bound up with suffering. We delude ourselves, making pleasant sights and sounds and tastes a perpetual ambition that hangs in our vision like a rancid carrot on a stick, all the while never more than a moment away from recourse to the reprehensible.

The root of this destructive path is the mechanism demonstrated so perfectly by the women in the study up above; when our mind is muddled in pursuit of a sensation, that which a clear-headed and wise person would see as repulsive becomes just another avenue for pleasure. We don’t mind placing burnt skin and muscle into our mouths because our desire for the sensation it brings is great enough to overcome the part of the rational mind that screams for us to put down the lump of dead flesh at the end of our fork. We crave wealth and respect, too excited by the dopamine rush of fame and popularity to realize what worthless, painful hoops we’re jumping through to get it. and most inexplicably, we’re willing to suffer horribly, sacrificing our health and security and happiness, just for the chance to fuck a mass of blood and foam, full of disease and filth and putridity – all because the wise part of us that would look at a human body with revulsion, seeing the sweat and shit and fat and grease and snot, is being strangled by a desire for orgasm.

The hard truth is that our world is burning, aflame with aging and death, anguish and pain, sadness and fear and hurt; the question for us is how we react. Do we tell ourselves stories until we are convinced that we can survive the heat? Do we cover our eyes and rush into the blaze, propelled by a desire to hoard ash and dead wood? Or do we heed the Buddha’s advice and step back with a smile into the cool breeze?

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