Delayed Gratification

There’s an meme, partly unconscious, going around. Especially among us education, respectable American types. It goes something like this: delayed gratification is good. Therefore anything that gives me pleasure is suspect.

Now, it’s attractive because there’s obviously something to it. Delayed gratification can bring a lot of benefits. And doing things that seem really great at the time can bring a lot of heartache.

Studying hard and getting good grades bring a lot of benefits. But they are not immediate. They take a lot of time to unfold. My kids are learning the piano. When you first start, it’s exciting. Then it gets a little boring. Then it gets really exciting again when you actually starting learning real music. But it takes time and the willingness to work hard even though the goal is in the future.

There’s the famous marshmallow experiment where kids who could wait to eat a marshmallow instead of immediately eating it were more likely to be successful later in life.

But it can lead us to some bad places. There are days when I feel like things are all delay and no gratification. Here’s an example: exercise. Many times I tried to force myself to exercise or eat right. Well guess what. If you force yourself to do some kind of exercise or eat some kind of food, you won’t last long.  I promise you. We only have so much willpower, and simply forcing yourself to do something won’t last. Now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to GET exercise or eat well. It’s just that you have to find a way to do it that is actually pleasurable. Hate running? What about strolling with the dog? What about playing racquetball at lunch? Hate rice cakes and 100 calorie snack packs? What about fresh fruit and coconut? Just for a couple of examples.

It’s the same thing for meditation. If you do a style of meditation where you are suffering for 30 minutes a day. It won’t stick. That doesn’t mean that meditation is never uncomfortable. Sometimes it just is. But it’s important to find a style of meditation that gives you comfort, that gives you pleasure, that gives you bliss, and ultimately gives you insight. Suffering for 30 minutes a day isn’t just unnecessary, it’s counter productive.

The idea that delaying gratification is always a good thing comes from business and agriculture. It comes from education. It comes from the Protestant Work Ethic.

So what did the Buddha say? Should mediation be painful and difficult? Or peaceful and enjoyable? Or perhaps both?

“…Before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too thought thus: ‘Pleasure is not to be gained through pleasure; pleasure is to be gained through pain.’”
MN 85 Bodhirājakumāra Sutta


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