The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
Chapter 24: Pleasure
All right, so if attention is the tool for working with pain on a personal or social level, how do we work with pleasure? Pleasure, remember, is among other things the feeling we get from satisfying a need. The more powerful the need, the greater the pleasure. To follow this principle requires, first, accepting that our needs are valid and even beautiful. And not just our needs, but our desires as well, coming as they do from unmet needs. Hold your breath, and your need for oxygen generates a desire to breathe. Stay too long at a dull job, and your need to grow will generate a desire to break free of limitations. Society tries to confine or divert that urge to break free, channeling it toward something inconsequential like drunkenness, video games, or bungee jumping, but what are these pleasures next to the exuberant expansiveness of real freedom?
To trust pleasure is to controvert norms and beliefs so deep that they are part of our very language. I have already mentioned the equation of “hard” with “good” and “easy” with “bad.” The fact that words like “selfish” and “hedonist” are terms of disparagement speaks to the same basic belief. But the logic of interbeing tells us that among our greatest needs are the needs for intimacy, connection, giving, and service to something greater than oneself. Meeting these needs, then, is the source of our greatest pleasure as well.
Pleasure and desire are a natural guidance system that directs organisms toward food, warmth, sex, and other things that meet their needs. Are we to imagine that we are exceptions to nature’s way? Are we to imagine that we’ve graduated past that guidance system, moved on to a higher realm in which pleasure is no longer ally, but enemy? No. That is a thought form of Separation. The guidance system of pleasure works in us too. It does not stop at the basic animal needs of food, sex, and shelter. In all its forms, it guides us toward the fulfillment of our needs and desires, and therefore to the unfolding of our potential.
To trust it again, after all these centuries, is a journey that might begin, for those of us who are most alienated from it, with the conscious, deliberate fulfillment of whatever trivial pleasures are available, building the habit of self-trust. As that muscle of discernment grows stronger, we can use it to choose greater and greater pleasures, which correspond to the fulfillment of deeper and deeper desires. It is for good reason that hedonism has always carried a faintly subversive air. To choose pleasure, even the most superficial, and to embrace and celebrate that choice, is to set in motion a process that upends the Story of the World. Eventually, the superficial pleasures become tedious and unsatisfying, and we move on to the kind of pleasure we call joy.
To follow this path strikes at the heart of the program of control, and outrages the intuitions of anyone affected by that story. Images come to mind of the consequences of the wanton pursuit of pleasure: rape, sexual abuse, overeating, shooting heroin and smoking crack, sports cars and private jets … for the sadistic there is even the pleasure of torturing and killing. Surely, Charles, you can’t be serious in advocating the pleasure principle. Surely, it must be tempered with moderation, with balance, with self-restraint.
I am not so sure. For one thing, let us ask, how many people ever really pursue the pleasure principle? How often does anyone pause before a decision and honestly consider, “What would really feel good to me? What action right now would truly be a gift to my self?”? I am advocating a dedication to pleasure that is almost unknown to us. Perhaps pleasure isn’t quite the right word for it; perhaps I should use the word joy, except that I want to emphasize that pleasure and joy are not two separate things, the first getting in the way of the second, but, rather, are on a continuum. Bring to mind a moment of real joy or connection, a moment at the bedside of a dying loved one, perhaps, or that breakthrough moment of forgiveness melting away a decades-long enmity. I am remembering the time I encountered a doe in the woods, and we stood, just a few feet apart, looking at each other. And I am thinking of my eight-year-old son Philip, looking long and innocently at me this morning as I dropped him off at school, saying out of the blue, “Dad, I love you.” You have experienced moments like these: the joy of connection, the momentary dissolution of separation. Bring one to mind, and compare it to the feeling of binging on cookies, looking at pornography, or lashing out in anger. Based on what feels the very best, what would you choose? Which of these is the best gift to your self?
Can you see that our notions of selfishness and restraint have been turned on their heads? Can you see the enormity of the crime that has been perpetrated upon us, cutting us off from our guidance toward Reunion?
The more beautiful world my heart knows is possible is a world with a lot more pleasure: a lot more touch, a lot more lovemaking, a lot more hugging, a lot more deep gazing into each other’s eyes, a lot more fresh-ground tortillas and just-harvested tomatoes still warm from the sun, a lot more singing, a lot more dancing, a lot more timelessness, a lot more beauty in the built environment, a lot more pristine views, a lot more water fresh from the spring. Have you ever tasted real water, springing from the earth after a twenty-year journey through the mountain?
None of these pleasures is very far away. None requires any new inventions, nor the subservience of the many to the few. Yet our society is destitute of them all. Our wealth, so-called, is a veil for our poverty, a substitute for what is missing. Because it cannot meet most of our true needs, it is an addictive substitute. No amount can ever be enough.
Many of us already see through the superficial substitute pleasures we are offered. They are boring to us, or even revolting. We needn’t sacrifice pleasure to reject them. We need only sacrifice the habit, deeply ingrained, of choosing a lesser pleasure over a greater. Where does this habit come from? It is an essential strand of the world of separation, because most of the tasks that we must do to keep the world-devouring machine operating do not feel very good at all. To keep doing them, we must be trained to deny pleasure.
It was with great difficulty that the workers of the early Industrial Revolution were induced to work in factories. The organic rhythms of biological life had to be sacrificed to the monotony of the machine; the sounds of nature, children, and stillness had to be sacrificed for the din of the mill; the individual’s sovereignty over his time had to be sacrificed to the clock. A whole system of education and morality was therefore constructed around self-denial. We still live in it today.
Let us be wary of any revolution that isn’t threaded with an element of play, celebration, mystery, and humor. If it is primarily a grim struggle, then it may be no revolution at all. That is not to say that there is never a time for struggle, but to frame the transformative process primarily in terms of struggle reduces it to something of the old world. It devalues other parts of the process: the gestation, the latency, the coming inward, the breathing, the emptiness, the observation, the listening, the nourishing, the reflection, the playful exploration, the unknowing. Aren’t these the things we could use a little more of on this earth?
The recovery of sensitivity and discernment in pleasure can be a long process, unique to each individual, that proceeds according to its own pace and rhythm. It is not to heroically conquer all fear, disregard restraint, ignore caution, and break through all limitations. That kind of transcendence smacks of the old story. Fear is not Enemy Number One, as some spiritual teachers would have us think: the new evil to conquer in place of the old bogeymen like sin or ego. Fear limits growth, it is true, but it also bounds a safe zone within which growth can happen. Only when the growth is bumping up against those boundaries is it time to break through it. So the feeling to look for is that of a fear that feels a bit obsolete, a new step that you’re ready to take. When you contemplate it, whatever fear you feel should have the flavor of exhilaration, not dread.
We might apply the same ideas to our relations with other people as we strive to invite them into the new story. Salesmen understand the power of invoking an unmet need and associating it with some product that appears to meet it. How much more powerful it would be to see the unmet needs, and offer people something that actually met them. We can practice perceiving the unmet needs and unexpressed gifts in other people. Then we can meet those needs or create opportunities for them to be met. Herein lies half of what leadership is in a less hierarchical world: a leader is someone who creates opportunities for others to give their gifts.
Another way to look at meeting the needs of others is that we are serving their pleasure, joy, and happiness. As our understanding of what these are deepens, the needs we seek to meet evolve. Usually, of course, our ability to see those needs depends on having met them within ourselves—as one would expect, in a world of interbeing.
I hope you can see how this philosophy differs from what we ordinarily call hedonism (though I think our reflexive contempt for hedonism is a symptom of our self-rejection). I’m not telling you to indulge in more cigarettes, booze, and casual sex. I am saying, “Feel free to do these things as much as you truly want to.” When we do them with full permission and no guilt, we may find they aren’t truly what we wanted, or perhaps that the desire evolves with its fulfillment into something else.
Years ago I was (unprofessionally) counseling a woman who was trying to get off Ritalin and her obsessive behavior with the men in her life. She would call and text her ex-boyfriend tens, hundreds of times a day, compulsively. She started to call me more and more often, asking, “You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?” “Is it really possible for me to leave this addiction and have a normal life?” And, “Am I calling too much? Maybe I’ll drive you away like everyone else.”
I told her, “I trust you to call when it truly serves your highest good. Please do call whenever you truly want to.” After that, she stopped calling so much. By giving her permission to call when she wanted to, I was also subliminally giving her permission not to call when she did not truly want to.
Usually, destructive pleasure-seeking behavior arises as an outburst of pent-up desire, and not as the expression of authentic desire. The Catholic priest pedophilia scandal shows us how healthy sexual desire denied finds another way out. The same applies more generally. What are the consequences of the suppression of our urges toward creativity, service, intimacy, connection, and play? What we call hedonism is a symptom of that suppression. Suppressing the symptom will only channel that desire-energy toward another, even more destructive, outlet, or it will express itself as cancer or some other disease. Instead, we can follow the symptom to the cause. After the binge, the bender, the indulgence in whatever vice, really ask yourself, “How do I feel now?” Did it meet a real need, as a nourishing meal does, leaving a feeling of satiety and well-being? Or is there still a hunger there? A hangover? A wound still throbbing under the narcotic? Give attention to that feeling—not as a trick to make yourself stop, but as a sincere inquiry intended to increase the amount of pleasure in your life. The power of attention integrates the whole experience, so that the behavior includes among its internalized associations the unpleasant aftereffects. It will no longer seem superior to other pleasures, and the craving will diminish. The power of attention is much greater than the force of self-restraint.
Earlier, you may have questioned my somewhat flippant nonjustification of my air travel. I am not dismissing the importance of information about the effects of burning jet fuel, or more broadly, the effects of consumption in general. It is important to know, for instance, that every electronic device we buy uses rare earth minerals mostly taken at horrifying ecological and human cost from places like Congo, Brazil, and Ecuador. We need to integrate the pain of that. When we do so, we begin to make different choices—the results of “Do what you want to” change naturally.
When we expand our scope of attention, we expand ourselves. We are what we eat, and any object of attention becomes a kind of food. Conditioned as we are to a worldview of force, it is new for us to trust that new information alone is enough for someone to change. We want to back it up with some kind of emotional pressure, an accusation, a guilt trip. As I argue throughout this book, these are counterproductive. They provoke resistance to the information. I prefer to use humor and love as a kind of Trojan horse to get the information in. Once it is in, it will have its effect.
Now, please consider the possibility that everything in this chapter is wrong, and I am just weak-willed, justifying my indiscipline through an elaborate psychological rationalization. Certainly there are many venerable spiritual teachings enjoining us to cultivate self-discipline, restraint, and moderation. Who am I, born into the lap of privilege, to question an ancient spiritual tradition of asceticism? On the other hand, the equally venerable tradition of tantra, which has expressions in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism alike, is more or less aligned with everything I am saying. Which is true? I don’t think I can offer any logic or appeal to authority that will settle the matter. Perhaps the two, tantra and asceticism, are one. I know that the results in my life of trusting pleasure have often taken me to a place that looks, from the outside, a lot like asceticism. I have witnessed the truth of verse 36 of the Tao Te Ching: “To reduce something, one must deliberately expand it; to weaken something, one must deliberately strengthen it; to eliminate something, one must let it flourish.” Very often, it is only by achieving what we thought we wanted can we realize that we didn’t want it. Having gone through that cycle, we quicken it for others. Our stories shorten the time others spend lost in what they do not want. Sometimes our exploration of that territory is enough to prevent others from going there at all. On the human journey, each bit of the territory of Separation must be explored before we can, in completion and repletion, make the return journey.
So, by giving myself absolute license to drink as much alcohol as I wanted, I ended up almost never drinking any. By giving myself absolute license to eat as much sugar as I wanted, I ended up eating far less than when I tried to restrain myself. And my unrestrained license to shop leads me mostly to the thrift shop. It isn’t because I have disciplined myself to stop these behaviors. It is because I have integrated on multiple levels the fact that they actually don’t feel very good. Then, it takes no more willpower to stop them than to refrain from poking my thumb in my eye. If my eye had no pain receptors, I might have difficulty refraining, just as it is hard to stop a habit if we don’t integrate the full experience of it, before, during, and after.
Our society promulgates a belief that the pain resulting from any act can somehow be avoided. Feel bad? Do something to take your mind off it. Have a cigarette. Feel even worse? Put on a movie. Still feel bad? Have a drink. Got a hangover? Take a pill. The habit of endlessly managing the consequences is analogous to the mentality of the technological fix, which seeks to avoid the consequences of the damage caused by the previous fix. But because the underlying wound is still there, the pain will be waiting there too in the end, when every fix is exhausted. Hence the saying of Ch’an Buddhism: The ordinary person avoids consequences; the Bodhisattva avoids causes. Why? The Bodhisattva would probably try to avoid consequences too, except that she knows it is impossible. The pain is waiting in the end, when every fix is exhausted. That’s where our society is today.
From the Bodhisattva’s perspective, we might reinterpret certain rule-based religious teachings. Perhaps the Ten Commandments are meant to be the Ten Indications: you will know you are close to God when you find that you do not kill, do not steal, honor your parents, and so forth.
The focus on pleasure, desire, aliveness, and joy offers a guideline for work on the social and political level as well. Amid all the doom-laden exhortations to change our ways, let us remember that we are striving to create a more beautiful world, and not sustain, with growing sacrifice, the current one. We are not just seeking to survive. We are not just facing doom; we are facing a glorious possibility. We are offering people not a world of less, not a world of sacrifice, not a world where you are just going to have to enjoy less and suffer more—no, we are offering a world of more beauty, more joy, more connection, more love, more fulfillment, more exuberance, more leisure, more music, more dancing, and more celebration. The most inspiring glimpses you’ve ever had about what human life can be—that is what we are offering.
If you can firmly hold the vision of that, you will communicate it as a subtext to your activism. People respond much better to that than to the secret message “You are going to have to sacrifice and live a poorer life. You are too selfish. Your life is too good.” They will react as if you are attacking them, and in a sense they will be right. To be effective servants of a more beautiful world, we have to know that the things we will sacrifice aren’t nearly as good as the things we will discover. We have to believe that five-thousand-square-foot houses aren’t as happiness-inducing as communities with walkable public space. We have to believe that the convenience lifestyle isn’t as happy as gardening and cooking our own food. We have to believe that living life faster isn’t living life better. We have to believe that civilization’s baubles are miserable substitutes for what a human being really needs. If these beliefs are insincere, and if we cannot see the real possibility of the world we seek to create, our words will have little power and our actions will have little motivation. That’s also why it is so important to “walk the walk”—to practice what we preach. It is not to avoid hypocrisy (that would be part of the campaign to be good). It is to fully inhabit and embody the new story so we can serve it joyously and effectively.