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©2018 by Homespun.

Seeking Pleasure

Human beings need pleasure the way they need vitamins. {Lionel Tiger}

​​​​​​​Pleasure is mandatory. Pleasure is mandatory. Pleasure is mandatory. Please repeat.

Philosophers throughout the ages—from Socrates to Buddha to the authors of Judaism’s Kabbalah—were more than willing to advise others on how to live a happy life. These are all complex traditions, and I obviously cannot do justice to them in the short post that follows. My intent is to pull out some pertinent ideas in an attempt to understand the role of pleasure in our lives.

Socrates believed that reason was a path to the good life. He also told his followers to look inward (i.e., do some soul searching) to find happiness. Socrates was so convinced about the power of introspection that he famously declared, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

As far as our desires were concerned, Socrates said mere mortals had the ability to achieve “a divine-like state of inner tranquility.” He was among the first philosophers to argue that happiness is not divinely given but humanly possible if we make an effort. Keep in mind that the ancient Greeks believed that happiness was extremely rare and reserved only for those the gods favored.

Socrates’s student, Plato, wrote a number of famous dialogues on the pursuit of pleasure and the philosophy of happiness using his teacher as the central character. Scholars continue to debate the relationship between Socrates’s original teachings and Plato’s own ideas, but the following are their deepest thoughts about pleasure and happiness:

  • All human beings naturally desire happiness.

  • Happiness is obtainable and teachable through effort.

  • Happiness does not depend on material things but on how we use material goods (wisely or unwisely).

  • Happiness depends on learning to harmonize our desires. We do this by giving more weight to our desire for knowledge and virtue than to our desire for physical pleasures.

  • Virtue and happiness are inextricably linked; it is impossible to have one without the other.

  • The pleasures one gets from pursuing virtue and knowledge are on a higher plane than the pleasures we get from satisfying our baser desires. Pleasure is not the goal of existence, but it is an integral part of being virtuous.

Plato had a renowned pupil, Aristotle, who proposed that pleasure is made up of energeia, which includes many activities such as music, art, and thinking, all of which help us lead fulfilling lives. He said the amount of pleasure we experience depends on how ardently we pursue certain activities. For example, as a beginner pianist gets better, the satisfaction she gets from playing music will also increase. Like his fellow philosophers, Aristotle believed some pleasures are greater than others. He ranked them as follows:

1. Thinking

2. Sight

3. Hearing and Smell

4. Taste

Aristotle also argued that animals experience pleasures that are appropriate for their species; that is, a bear’s pleasure is different from a dog’s. Similarly, there are certain pleasures, such as the ones listed above, that are mainly for humans: thinking (contemplation), hearing (music), sight (art), smell (flowers/nature—although one could argue that animals enjoy this as well), taste (food—again, does anybody enjoy their food more than a dog?). We humans, on the other hand, can apply these ancient musings to our modern-day pleasure principles when deciding which activities we would like to pursue.

The Dalai Lama, another beloved spiritual leader who travels the world teaching his Tibetan Buddhism, has this to say about how to achieve pleasure and happiness:

"We all want happiness, not suffering, and as a consequence we have to see if the mind can be transformed… There’s no reason to feel low or demoralized; much better to be confident and optimistic… I believe compassion to be one of the few things we can practice that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives. I’m not talking about the short-term gratification of pleasures like sex, drugs or gambling (although I’m not knocking them), but something that will bring true and lasting happiness. The kind that sticks."

One of my favorites, Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and best-selling author of The Power of Now and A New Earth, takes a slightly different view, although he also believes that our thoughts are directly connected to our happiness. He is guided by the precepts that involve living in the moment and clearing one’s mind of all thoughts, both positive and negative, to maintain emotional “neutrality.” He says living in the moment has given him the gift of true peace and contentment.

“Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within,” Tolle explains. “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but the thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral. It is as it is.”

He also advises people who are often caught in a maelstrom of negative thoughts and worries to, literally, stop and smell the roses: “Look at a tree, a flower, a plant,” Tolle suggests. “Let your awareness rest upon it. How still they are, how deeply rooted in Being. Allow nature to teach you stillness.”

So....Pleasure is not something to put last on your list, or wait for someone else or something else to bring to you. Finding pleasure in each day is as important as flossing your teeth or getting good sleep or watering your plants. The soil you will thrive in is filled with the nutrients of pleasure. So the question is, What brings you pleasure? To start, look towards the small pleasures: washing your face with cool water. The feeling of cuddling up in bed with a warm blanket or a good book. Seeing your child's delight at something unexpected. The scrumptious chocolate truffles in the photo above. The color green in all of its manifestations in nature (one of my favorites). What pleases you? Remind yourself today to go towards the pleasure in life.