Religions throughout the ages have tended to have a dysfunctional relationship with pleasure. In most religions (especially Eastern traditions), there is the concept of the ascetic. The ascetic recants all material possessions and pleasure in order to seek enlightenment. Additionally, the “pleasures of the flesh” do not have a good reputation in Christianity, possibly due to their connection with the fall of man in the Bible. Such ideas and practices have caused many people to view pleasure as sinful, and thus themselves as sinners for desiring pleasure.
Thankfully, pleasure is not an evil at all. In fact, reaching a state of eternal bliss is the ultimate point of the spirituality. And lest there be any confusion: by “bliss” I mean “pleasure”.
The bias against pleasure comes from the erroneous understanding that actions that derive pleasure are inherently selfish. But this is not the case. Selfish actions may include an aspect of pleasure, but there is also a aspect of guilt, pain, or emptiness as well.
By contrast, actions that are truly unselfish are the ones that will always bring true pleasure. We can clearly see this in the act of lovemaking. If two people have sex simply for the purpose of each one fulfilling a sexual desire, there will be pleasure but also a sense of emptiness. On the other hand, if the couple engage in sex by completely and freely giving themselves to each other, the outcome may easily be one of 100% joy and pleasure. As I once heard commented: “sex is only a sin if it is ‘bad’ sex.”
The spiritual path is essentially one of returning to a state of pleasure (i.e. union with God/love), which is what we all enjoyed before “the fall”. The challenge in this physical world is learning how to successfully navigate our way back to this state of bliss. The first step is to establish that pleasure is in fact good and what we want. And once we are clear on this point, there is a much more difficult task or learning how to cope with pain (the opposite of pleasure) in a healthy manner.
Pain is Pleasure
One expression that is common in New Age circles is the idea that “pain and pleasure are one”. But like so many “truths” of modern spirituality, this one can so very easily be abused. So let’s be clear on one point: “truth” is not meant to be used to excuse one’s actions, nor is it meant to be haphazardly shared with others. In general, there is nothing more dangerous than a person who “knows” a truth, but doesn’t understand what it means.
The connection with pleasure and pain is simply that pain is opposition to pleasure in a dualistic reality. So in a non-dualistic world, pain and pleasure are essentially the same “energy”. But in the physical dualistic reality we currently live in, pain and pleasure are certainly not “one”.
If there is any takeaway from this truth, it is the realization that while pain is unavoidable in Earth-life, there is only pleasure at the level in which the dualistic world has been transcended. This gives us much cause for hope, but in the meantime the question remains: how do we cope with pain?
Dealing with the Pain
Many people tend to cope with pain in one of two dysfunctional ways. The first way is defeatism. A person will accept pain in a negative way, believing that pain means defeat and that pleasure is unattainable. Such a person will not try to bring pleasure into his life, believing that any efforts to do so are in vain. There may even be an attitude of “I deserve this pain”, which could in part be connected with a sense of low self-worth.
Another common technique for dealing with pain is by denying the truth that you do indeed want pleasure. For instance, suppose a single man wants to find a partner because he is lonely. If the man is unable to find somebody as soon as he wants, he may be tempted to deceive himself and suggest that he would rather be single. This self-denial is an attempt to ease the pain of loneliness, but such a strategy (which is actually quite common) does not work.
A Mature Approach to Pain
In order to obtain healthy pleasure in life, a healthy attitude towards pain is necessary. Such an attitude involves understanding that it is often necessary to wait for pleasure. In the physical world, obtaining the things that bring pleasure often take time. Recognizing this reality is crucial.
The next part involves retaining the desire for whatever it is you want, regardless of the fact that you cannot have it immediately. This is direct contrast to the immature strategy of deciding that if you can’t have something now, then you do not want it.
The third thing that is necessary is to maintain a positive attitude that you will ultimately get what you desire. This desire could be a fulfilling job, a new house, or finding one’s “soulmate”. Whenever there is doubt about getting what you want, it actually makes obtaining the desire harder. This leads to a vicious circle of trying to force your way to getting what you want, which in turn increases to block the energy that would otherwise attract what you desire.
In short, the attitude towards pain should be the following:
“I feel pain because I am not able to have what I desire at this very moment. Regardless, I will gladly wait until the thing which I desire is manifested into my life so that my life. I gladly look forward to my desire being fulfilled; in the meantime I completely accept – and will be at peace with – the discomfort of not currently having my desire.”
Using such a strategy, it will become easier and easier to process through experiences of pain without getting caught up in them. The acceptance of the pain of not getting one’s desires will also potentially speed up the time it takes to manifest our desires into our lives. And this in turn will lead to a greater amount of pleasure.
Due to the nature of physical existence, ultimate pleasure is not possible. Pain and pleasure will always exists as long as we continue to live in physical bodies. However, it is possible to learn to become much more at peace with the pain in our lives, and to become much greater experiences of the pleasure. As a general rule: the more that we accept pain as part of our lives, the greater the capacity that we have for experiencing pleasure.