The Wisdom of the Fire, or Why Philosophy Won’t Make You Happy


  Philosophy, the “love of wisdom,” can help us to live better, happier, and more fulfilling lives. As someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy, who has been reading and teaching philosophical texts on better living for over a decade, I have always wholeheartedly believed this claim—that is, until I went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat.

Before the retreat, I was convinced that deep, intellectual reflection and critical thinking about the aims and goals of life could lead me to a richly satisfying and genuinely happy existence—you know, that bit about the unexamined life. And, indeed, the lessons I’ve learned in the classroom have made a more thoughtful person, with a more coherent worldview, and a clearer story I can tell about who I am.

But, in the inevitable moments of depression or desperation that we all face, I found little solace in my books and intellectual commitments. Philosophy failed, even in traditions that are all about developing happiness, such as Buddhism, which teaches that minimizing desire will bring peace and contentment. For all of this reading and reflecting, I found that learning that I ought to want less didn’t make me feel any less desire. It just made me feel like a selfish, indulgent person, who should go look at more “life edit” blogs. In short, philosophy made me feel smart, but it didn’t make me feel happy.

After years of feeling dissatisfied and mildly depressed, I signed up for a 10-day retreat to study Vipassana meditation, (which means “to see reality as it is”). According to the course’s teacher, S. N. Goenka, Vipassana is the same technique that the Buddha himself used to become enlightened.

I was surprised to learn that students of this meditation course are asked to leave all reading and writing materials at home. What? No journal? How was I supposed to reflect, process, and work through my spiritual awakening? How would I remember what I’d learned? If not sitting contemplatively in the forest and writing, what would I be doing all day?

Turns out, I would be doing a lot of sitting—sitting very still. The strict schedule at the meditation center required that all students gather in the meditation hall for one-hour-long sessions of sitting quietly, three times a day. This may sound about as interesting as reading Hegel, but the kicker is that during these one-hour sessions, students are also asked to make a strong determination not to change postures. Don’t shift, don’t stretch, don’t move. “Don’t open your eyes, your hands, or your legs.”


The technique takes as its foundation the awareness of the body’s sensations—without reacting to them. Sitting silently, bringing my attention through every part of my body from head to feet, without shifting around in my seat was, at times as tedious as it sounds, but more often, it felt like sitting on a bed of hot coals. When a twinge in my hip slowly built to a pulsing pain, and then a searing, screaming fire, it awakened all my of mind’s habitual desires to escape, to adjust, to fix it so that the pain goes away. It put to the test my ability to, as Goenka says, accept reality as it is, and not as I would like it to be.

Now this was learning to diminish desire. Put myself in a situation in which I want something, (i.e that burning in my muscles to go away), really, really badly, and very immediately, and just sit in the center of the fire.

I had to tell myself over and over that is was just pain, that I was not going to die, (although one time I did actually feel like I might), and to keep, as calmly as I could, bringing my attention slowly from head to foot and back again. I discovered that, when the mind stops resisting the pain, eventually the body relaxes, and the pain subsides.

Through this experience, I learned much more than I ever could have in reading a book about meditation. For one, I learned that I am capable of enduring much more than I thought. I sat with excruciatingly severe pain, not moving, and trying to talk myself into staying composed as sweat beaded on my forehead. Granted, several times after a particularly hard session, I ran to my room and sobbed for 30 minutes, but I also felt like I had let something go—an old pain that I’d been carrying around for a long time.

I saw a glimpse of the same thing I had read in those books—that indeed, all things are temporary, even if it feels like a pain that will last forever and swallow you whole.

I learned too, that when I stopped reacting so much and could be equanimous with the sensations of my pain and pleasure, (well, not so much pleasure and just relief when the pain subsided) my capability to see and observe things increased.

I’d read plenty of philosophical texts about how we acquire knowledge, but I had never experienced a lesson in perception like this before. After a week of meditating, I literally noticed things I hadn’t days earlier—I would go out walking on the same forest footpath and hear moles rustling under the leaves, see tufts of tiny mushrooms, smell the musk of wet moss. As my reactivity and my obsession with my own thoughts decreased, my senses heightened.

I learned to be more present, more mindful, more focused, and I started to feel moments of, dare I say, deep peace and contentment.

I learned that knowing something from reading or hearing about it is one thing and knowing it through experience is entirely different—one is intellect, the other is wisdom. And there are certain things that the intellect alone can never know. For someone who has never smelled cinnamon, reading about it will only leave a confused and vague impression. Indeed, reading the Dhamma Sutra or latest issue of Yoga Journal, or spending a dozen years buried in books only got me so far.

I had to go sit in the fire.