Attention, the gift of loss
You've heard the saying "you don't know what you've got until it's gone" — but have you really considered all that it might mean? I hadn't.
Practically, pragmatically, literally, loss and deprivation are great ways to force yourself to become more fully conscious of something. Of its value to you, sure; but that's just one aspect of it. When you lose something, you don't just wish you had it back: You feel all the little crevices it had filled. You startle awake a little every time you pass a dimple in your life that it had filled, or a bump it had smoothed over. You pay attention, for a while, to every. tiny. way. in which that thing meant something to you, changed you, was part of you. And that pain, whether it's dull or sharp, horrible or sort of sweet, urgent or gentle, snaps you into full awareness like almost no other sensation can.
That saying isn't just melancholy, and it doesn't just refer to a simple irony: It's an important fact of our existence. In order to understand something, go without it; and if you have to go without something, recognize in that experience the gift you're being given: the ability to understand it deeply, fully, in all its subtle interactions with you, in a way that you might never be able to pull off otherwise.
Sure it hurts a bit; sure it's unpleasant. If you're still thinking that life means "pleasant things good, unpleasant things bad", then I humbly request that you remove your head from your arse as quickly as possible; there's not much air up there.
And speaking of air, that's where this post comes from (no, not my arse, you cheeky drongo you): I have a nearly four-minute static breathhold now, and an 87.5 yard dynamic (length I can swim on one breath; 3.5 pool-lengths, in other words) — and while I've spent my whole life studying singing, meditating, and other breath-related stuff, I can honestly say that I didn't know shit about my mind and body's relationship with air until I explored the often-incredibly-unpleasant edges of just flat going without it.
So I'm actually a bit slow to get this meta-lesson, about loss and the really detailed and super valuable knowledge of things it can give you; considering that I've already had this experience with sleep and to a lesser degree, food (remember my fasting experiments?), it's weird that it took playing with apnea to really hammer home how almost supernatural the understanding that you gain from deprivation really is. I mean, I knew that learning to sleep polyphasically a few times, pushing through sleep-deprivation to my limits, taught me a ton about how sleep and living were related (shit, I think I've kind of written a book on it at this point); but because my experiments with loss of sleep had another purpose, I didn't really consider the depth of the value of what I'd learned. Similarly, food; I was fasting in order to try it and to see if I could, which isn't the same as giving that attention its real due (see next paragraph), so it didn't sink in. And like most people, the losses of love I've experienced rarely, if ever, struck me as valuable for anything other than a chance to pay some of my wading-through-awful-times-in-life karma. But air — maybe because the experiences of losing it are so quick, and so physically powerful — really rammed it home. During my last major exercise with breath-hold, I realized that by experiencing this deprivation, I was doing a lot more than teaching myself a discipline: I was internalizing details about what air is, and how my body exists in this world, that I maybe never could have learned any other way.
"Asceticism" is the term usually given to the practice of seeking knowledge-by-deprivation; but like many -isms, it can easily be done in a way that misses the point. The point isn't to be deprived just to be deprived, or to show how far you can go with it or how much pain you can stand — the point is to force-feed yourself attention, and to learn everything that loss has to teach you about the things that are important in life.
Attention is why pain is the best teacher, and loss the best path to full understanding. They're not fun experiences, and if you find them unbearable then there's no need to seek them out — but you will encounter some losses anyway, so it's not a bad idea to try and remember that, while they hurt, they can also give you super-powers.