‘The trick is not minding that it hurts’

So says T.E. Lawrence, played by the recently deceased Peter O’Toole, in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. The ‘it’ in question is allowing a match to burn down to his fingers and not displaying any feeling of pain.

Or is it that Lawrence quite liked that it hurts? There are subtle hints in the movie that Lawrence was a closet homosexual with masochistic tendencies. (The movie is set at the time of the First World War.) There seems scant evidence to support this, but the slur had the effect of undermining the moral ground for Lawrence’s role as a guerrilla in the Arab Revolt while the movie cultivated the romance of the spectacle. The British prefer their revolts on the screen.

The match ‘trick’, however, can be interpreted another way: as a lesson in the nature of aversion (to pain) and craving (for pleasure). Let us call the typical response to the burning of a match to the fingers an aversion to pain. Let us imagine a craving for pleasure, e.g., for the touch or taste of someone or something.

Lawrence’s match trick suggests that what we avoid and crave are the sensations or feelings that objects elicit in us and not the objects themselves. [Do we love our beloved, or do we love the sensation our beloved elicits in us? It can take a lifetime to appreciate the distinction.] The burning match does not hurt Lawrence because he is aware of this distinction. The burning match does hurt his companions because they are not.

How does this work?

Sensations have both external and internal causes. Internal causes involve emotions. We’re not ‘only flesh and blood’. Fear of being hurt, in this case by a burning match, infiltrates the material experience and influences our experience of the sensation. Typically this fear causes us to resist the pain by tensioning and this makes matters worse.

All this matters because craving for pleasure and avoiding pain are the means by which secondary emotions are internalized. Avoiding the vicious circle of craving and aversion through arduous and prolonged emotional training is the raison d’être of Buddhism.

Lawrence (1888–1935) was a remarkable man—a scholar-warrior-monk.

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