By Anupama Bhattacharya
Pleasure has many faces and can be found in the simplest things. Life without pleasure and enjoyment would be arid. What are the dynamics of pleasure? How many facets does it have?
LIVE WITH PLEASURE
Watch the clouds roll by, soak in a bath, or retreat to a solitary placeBREATHE
Take a deep breath through the nose and release the soft exhalation slowly through the mouth
Practice tai chi and dance, or just put on music and allow your body to move with the flow
Breathe gently and work your way up to a strong belly laugh. Sit down to a 10-minute laughter session
GET RID OF STRESS
Use those stressful moments to consciously face novel situations and create openness in your mind, body and emotions
Ask for regular massages from your partner or give yourself massages. Zoom in on what feels good. Explore new ways of savoring sex, be it with a partner or solo. Focus on the connection between letting go and sensual pleasure. Explore neglected senses, such as smell and hearing. Pick up an instrument you haven’t played in years
TAKE PLEASURE IN NATURE
Go for a walk, look around. Watch out for unnoticed sights and sounds, the chirping of a bird, the shapes in the clouds, the humming of a bee
Give pleasure to others. Be generous with hugs and expressions of affection.
DO YOU RESIST PLEASURE?
Are you a person who enjoys the pleasures of life without any guilt? Or do you look upon pleasure with fear, and repel it whenever it draws close? Check out with this questionnaire.
DO YOU deny yourself what you most enjoy—foods you prefer but have convinced yourself are bad for you, work breaks to relax, little treats and presents?
DO YOU feel guilty that you’re not doing enough or accomplishing enough?
DO YOU rehearse in your mind worst-case scenarios, so that you are fully prepared when and if something bad happens?
ARE YOU more likely to say no to an invitation or a new idea?
DO YOU get superstitious when good things happen?
DO YOU have a hard time acknowledging your success?
DO YOU live your life as a melodrama, playing tragedy king/queen?
DO YOU secretly or openly think of yourself as a victim?
ARE YOU abusive toward people who love you or treat you well?
DO YOU believe that love requires sacrifice and that the only way anyone will love you is if you forfeit your own needs and desires to theirs?
DO YOU abuse food, alcohol or drugs, and feel you can’t have a good time without them?
IS SEX less than wonderful, limited in passion, and resulting in mediocre orgasms, if any?
DO YOU have to be in control of a situation, getting competitive with companions who make alternative suggestions?
DO YOU feel uncomfortable with solitude, making busywork to keep yourself occupied when you’re alone?
If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions, you are most probably living a life of self-denial and need to work on relaxing and experiencing pleasure. From Zone by Stella Resnick
The pleasure of pain. Or the pain of pleasure! The two somehow seem irrevocably interlinked in the labyrinth of the human psyche. And perhaps it is this dilution which balances off the intensity of these emotions. Otherwise, the pleasure might be too exquisite to bear, or the pain too enormous to tolerate.
That’s one point of view. Grudgingly endorsed by religions and moralists. The other, most often discarded as hedonism, is the enjoyment of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, without guilt, without boundaries. Somewhere between the two sits the confused biped, hoping for the latter and rooting for the former. The mind holds back, while the heart rebels. And the random juxtaposition of civilization over the primal has a field day wreaking havoc over whatever passes for sanity.
So, what is the real nature of pleasure? Just another hangover from the cave days that, at best, should be
ignored? A temptation from the Prince of Darkness? Or is it something as simple as living, the creation of a neural miracle, that makes life worthwhile?
HEDONISTS AND EPICURES
Pleasure is commonly understood as the positive stimulation of the senses. The Webster’s Dictionary defines pleasure as ‘enjoyment or satisfaction derived from what is to one’s liking’, closely followed by ‘sensual gratification’. In a more plebeian perspective, pleasure is primarily limited to sex, food and luxury—in that order.
Aristippus of Cyrene, the father of hedonism (hedone: pleasure), however, believed that pleasure is the ultimate object of endeavor. His definition of pleasure included not merely sensual gratification but also mental pleasures, domestic love, friendship, and moral contentment—all that is commonly understood to comprise happiness.
Epicurus, who emphasized the superiority of social and intellectual pleasures over those of the senses, followed Aristippus. Epicurus taught that pain and self-restraint have a hedonistic value; pain is sometimes necessary to health but self-restraint paves the way for long-term pleasure. He further classified sensual pleasure as pleasure in motion; the state of ataraxia, which is pleasing in itself. He discarded transitory stimulation in favor of enduring satiation.
Eventually, the pleasure-pain debate metamorphosed into what Herbert Spencer, British philosopher and sociologist, called his evolutionary theory of ethics. It postulated that the discriminating norm of right and wrong is pleasure and pain. According to this argument, pleasure, in its ultimate sense, defines ethics since that which pleases us and gives us joy, is also beneficial for our survival and evolution.
Ayn Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged, the fictionalized acme of her philosophy: ‘By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man—every man—is an end in himself; he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.’
THE PAIN OF PLEASURE
On the face of it, there isn’t much difference between Rand’s statement and those propounded by followers of self-indulgent hedonism. It is the context that marks the contrast.
The ‘father of sadism’, French writer Marquis de Sade, averred that nature is inherently destructive, and it is our identification with this primal trait that links pleasure and perversity.
De Sade’s philosophy of pleasure is actually a no-holds-barred promotion of a system of ethics, if it can be called that, where the only criterion of judging an action is the amount of pleasure one derives from it. And the pleasure itself is at its greatest when it is at the cost of another’s pain. Thus ‘sadism’!
James W. Prescott, neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, USA, however, argues that violence and pleasure, neurologically, can never go together. ‘The deprivation of physical sensory pleasure is the root cause of violence,’ he claims. ‘Pleasure and violence have a reciprocal relationship, the presence of one inhibits the other.’ So, even though people prone to violence may claim to enjoy it, their actual motivation is the insecurity derived from a lack of pleasure and not pleasure itself.
THE PLEASURE INDUSTRY
Perhaps the one form of pleasure that has never found open acceptance is sex. Unlike other sensual pleasures such as food or luxury, which are most often ignored or tolerated, sex has been looked upon as the bane of civilization, the original sin. Children’s desire to indulge in food or comfort is humored, but their exploration of their own sexuality through questions, masturbation or pornographic movies, is strongly discouraged.
According to Stella Resnick, author of The Pleasure Zone, it is this taboo that leads to repression, guilt, and, as an obvious extension, sex-related problems. Resnick argues that most people are excited by extra-marital sex because the major arousing element here is the knowledge that ‘it would violate some moral precept or personal pledge.’
Prescott claims that societies where pre-marital and extra-marital sex is accepted, and where children are freely allowed to explore their sexuality, violence and abuse is at its least. So, does civilization as a whole need free sex?
Looking at the celebrity status of Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, it would seem a popular choice. Hefner, in his mid-seventies, is today the not-so-secret idol of every man—not just for the magazine, but for his lifestyle of pleasure that includes a luxurious Playboy Mansion where he lives with his four buxom ‘playmates’.
Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, who redefined the term sexuality to cover any form of pleasure derived from the body, suggested that human beings are driven from birth to enhance bodily pleasures.
In fact, the mind-boggling popularity of pornography would suggest that next to necessities such as food and shelter, perhaps sexual pleasure is the primary focus of the human psyche. Censorship adds spice to it, while the good old pleasure industry thrives on repression. ‘Sex, eventually, should be a personal choice,’ Anita Sood, a Hyderabad-based practising psychiatrist, explains. ‘So, whether you opt for a multi-partner system or monogamy, it should be a matter of decision limited to you and your partner(s). It is not a moral issue.’
ETHICS OF PLEASURE
Rand’s philosophy of pleasure, however, completely negates the sensual, and takes into account only the morality of joy. ‘Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction,’ wrote Rand in her philosophical treatise, The Virtue of Selfishness.
For Rand, the defense of pleasure was not just an ethical choice, but also a reaction against the anti-pleasure stand of religious and moral authorities.
‘For centuries,’ Rand stated in Atlas Shrugged, ‘the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors; between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.’
Perhaps it is worth a thought. Why is it that almost all modern religions preach the sacrifice of ‘earthly pleasures’ for the sake of ‘higher pleasures’, when no one really knows what these higher pleasures are all about?
‘A lot of anti-pleasure conditioning goes into our upbringing,’ says Sood. ‘As children, we are told not to feel proud of our achievements. As teenagers, our tentative forays into discovering our sexuality are repressed, when we earn money, we are told it is the root of all evil. Name anything you enjoy—sex, food, luxury, achievement, ambition, appreciation-it is all branded with the devil’s name!’
No wonder, feelings of pleasure almost always bring up feelings of guilt and shame. And the greater your sacrifice, or self-torture, the higher your stature on the scales of morality. Isn’t it time we step back and ask ‘why’?
We usually think of charity, compassion, humility, wisdom, mercy, sacrifice and other ‘virtues’ as morally good and pleasure as, at best, morally neutral. In fact, all the virtues are a classic case of self-denial. Why else should asceticism be considered the height of virtue? Why should human beings be born with the capability of enjoyment, if the goal is to deny them?
The obvious conclusion here would be that pleasure as an end is not only ideal, but ought to be sanctified by ethical and religious codes. So, what stops us?
Let us get back to Epicurus. ‘The Epicurean brand of hedonism can be surprisingly ascetic in its totality,’ explains Manuel Goldsmith, a Manchester-based student of philosophy. ‘In fact, it is pleasure through self-denial. All that pleases you need not necessarily be good. A lot of food that we crave can actually harm our health. Alcohol, tobacco, drugs are all pleasurable but harmful. Free sex can be quite pleasurable, but it can have adverse physical and psychological consequences, and sap you of your capacity for intense love.’
The criterion here is long-term pleasure. Or delayed gratification.
Most ascetic religions regard the senses and the passions as traps that cage the soul. In fact, chastity and non-possession are part of the five vows of Jainism. This, however, applies to monks who dedicate their life to religious activities with the aim of transcending the body. The same applies to Buddhist monks and post-Vedic Hindu sages. There are innumerable examples, however, of revered sages in the Vedic period, who often lived with two or three wives.
So, is pleasure compatible with spirituality?
LIVING WITH JOY
‘Organized religions might have their own code of conduct,’ says Atmara Yogini, a US-based personal growth trainer, ‘but spirituality does not preach asceticism. What’s the point of being human if you cannot take pleasure in the beauty around you?’ And how worthwhile would life be if shafts of light breaking through the clouds, a flower blossoming in the wilderness, raindrops caressing your limbs, don’t fill you with joy? And why should one be born with a body if one doesn’t take pleasure in it? Or have the capacity to feel joy, yet deny it?
Pleasure is as much a part of the human experience as life itself. ‘By implanting electrodes and taking recordings from the deep-lying areas,’ explains Dr Robert G. Heath, who first experimented with electrodes in the human brain, ‘we can localize the brain’s pleasure and pain systems.’ Pleasure and pain are, literally, two parts of the same coin, and cannot exist without the other. Pleasure would not be identified as pleasure in the absence of pain. And pain, perhaps, would lose its sting without the awareness of pleasure. Is that the idea when we deny it?
Probably. Pleasure is a risk. Of letting go. Of drowning in the exquisite sensation of joy. You will have to surface sometime. That’s the bargain
Is it worth it?
Is it a fair bargain to witness each dawn after the darkness of the night? To risk death as the inevitable when you choose life? Think about it!
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