The Excitement of a Cup of Coffee

I stayed at a friend's last night (and by that I mean sleeping in my van in their driveway). I woke up this morning feeling so excited! I'm prancing around, of course because I love my life and just finished a painting and all that...but also for something else: this morning I get to have home-made coffee and a shower! Yes!

Those are two things I was taking for granted. If I had them, it was just normal, and if I didn't I would be a bit cranky for a few hours. They were not source of joy and gratitude, just things necessary for my morning to go reasonably well. 

Now, when I get it (and I'm lucky I managed to get a shower about every other day since I'm in the van), I'm super grateful. More than that, I feel like I won a game!

That makes me think of a research I read while in college: if you put a rat in a cage with a lever that distributes food every time he presses it, the rat will press when he's hungry and then go about his business. But if you put him in a cage with a lever that doesn't deliver food every time he presses but randomly about once every three or four times, the rat will start pushing on the lever feverishly for hours. That's gambling. The explanation is that when it's random, the brain acitvates not only the pleasure center of getting food, but also the adrenaline rush and the dopamine flood that makes you feel high. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of high like winning at a chance game, new love and self-confidence. 

So now, it seems like I'm getting a dopamine rush from my morning shower! 

Maybe that is one of the reason why monks and other spiritual seekers tend to have very strict rules and habits, doing the same thing at the same time every day: to not be distracted by the dopamine rush. To have a stable brain chemistry that allows them to develop serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for stable feelings of well-being and happiness (found in exceptionally high dose in the brain of buddhist monks by the way). 

It is an interesting balance to seek: getting out of our comfort zones enough to grow, discover and renew our gratitude for things we took for granted; while at the same time staying stable enough in our important habits and way of life so as to not be overly distracted by the ever-changing landscape spread in front of us. To me, it requires stretching two muscles: flexibility (aka faith that everything is the way it should be) and clarity (aka discernment about whether we are acting in accordance with our values/virtues). And that is my spiritual path.