Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pleasure: the Purpose of Life, the Reason for Life

Dear everyone,

It's been about six months since I've sent out some musings about life on Earth. I guess twice a year isn't too bad. And if you're tired of being belted by my nonsense, then feel free to click that pointer on something else as soon as humanly possible. Personally, I find that I have to be in a special mood to hear people's rants, raves and ramblings. The title of this piece is called, ahem, "Pleasure: the Purpose of Life, the Reason for Life."

Pleasure. Simply. Pleasure as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. Pleasure now. Pleasure later. Pleasure tonight, tomorrow and for years to come.

Does this idea seem selfish to you? Would you feel guilty if this was the foundation on which you built your life? I wonder why. When I, the perennially ornery kid, stopped listening to the advice of other people and started listening to my own body and my own experience, this was the answer that kept coming back to me. Live in pleasure.

Employers in various economies, teachers in various educational systems, and gods in various religions, have different ideas about what a life should be, but why should I listen to them? These people tell me I should listen to them. But why should I? Why do we? Our bodies, our minds and our souls (all indistinguishably connected, I think, and probably more accurately referred to as "mindbodysouls" in the same manner as "spacetime") know pleasure and yearn for pleasure. This seems to be undeniable.

Priests try to convince us that gods and devils will punish us in the afterlife if we enjoy ourselves too much. Employers will try to convince us that pleasure costs money, and we must work if we want to find it and ensure it for future generations, after our deaths. Doctors will tell us that painful, sometimes unnecessary, procedures (orthodontic braces) are an inevitable part of life that are a must before the vaults of pleasure can be opened, death thwarted, and winning smiles achieved.

I find it interesting that, while these people tell us what pleasure is, they're almost always using the idea of death to bully us away from pleasure. I sometimes imagine that in some utopic civilization that's long been buried under the sands of time, death wasn't a big deal. People never really thought about death because it always hampered pleasure. After thinking about death for a long time myself and hearing a lot of other people lament about it, this is the conclusion I've come to: I don't know the experience of death and I don't plan to. The "I", me, Ian, probably won't even be around in death, just as "I" wasn't before my birth. If I'm not afraid of those non-existing moments before my life, why would I be afraid of the non-existence afterwards?

Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the 4th century BCE, had some interesting words on the subject: if pleasure is perfect in each moment and "infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures by reason the limits of pleasure," then desiring immortality is unnecessary. In other words, even if our lives only have one resounding moment of pleasure, then we have experienced the highest form of contentment, and need not yearn for more. I think this resounding pleasure is something we have all experienced before and is not some unattainable form of bliss. Again, we all know pleasure.

I guess we could quibble forever about eternity, nothingness, reincarnation, hell, heaven, and the like. Nothing but words, words, words, all words, that would prevent us from finding the most important one--pleasure--and discovering its myriad manifestations that go far beyond the word itself. Indeed, we may discover that an entirely new vocabulary is needed for this territory that is vaguely described as pleasure. I know that I'm still quite ignorant of its peculiar waxings and wanings, its intensities and its species. I wonder though if words are enough. Maybe we can begin to learn about the landscape of pleasure without necessarily categorizing it like those most keen of naturalists.

Let's give ourselves the permission right now to be happy, to find joy, to live with love. Let's stop being afraid that we're wrong. Let's stop being bullied by guilt, death and fear. We are right. Deep down, our sense of pleasure is right.

What follows are some preliminary ideas on pleasure that may help us to orient ourselves in the world of titillation, as well as offer new perspectives on the topic.

1. Living in a home.

Let's have modest buildings that keep us warm and offer us shelter from the rain and from the cold. I wonder how many don't even acknowledge this pleasure? I sat in my bedroom chair for an hour today, simply enjoying the warmth of my apartment.

2. Enjoying food.

Let's eat what we crave and what we love. But it's good to be aware of the consequences of our consumption. Watch how eating some foods can take pleasure away from us at a later time. Tonight, I could enjoy the drunken reverie that flows from a bottle of wine, but would tomorrow morning's suffering make it worthwhile? I could have an ice-cream cone right now, but I might crash from the sugar rush a couple hours later. Worth it? I think we each have our own unique reactions to food, and it's good to monitor how much pleasure and pain they bring.

We may eat and relish a medium-rare steak, but the animal who unwillingly sacrificed his or her life for the meal may have had a miserable time in a factory beforehand. Is the pleasure of the steak worth it? If we feel guilty about the specific kind of carnivorism that's attached to big industry, it may be closing the doors to other kinds of pleasure we can have in this life. Namely, a life with less guilt. In my experience, simple, whole, unprocessed, herbivorous diets provide a deeply resonating pleasure that both includes and goes beyond the simple happiness of taste buds.

3. Enjoying the sun when it shines.

On these clear days of early March, the sun shines for about 11 hours. Why not dress cosily, sit under a tree, and enjoy an hour or so of its warm sweetness?

4. Bringing pleasure to others.

This is where living modestly and sustainably becomes important, because if we live in this way, we can let our coffers grow and offer more to less fortunate people. Accumulating surplus in time, food, and clean environs means that we can give the gift of pleasure to others, now and later.

5. Spending less time at work.

If we're finding access to some modest pleasures that don't require too much money, we don't need to waste time at meaningless jobs, most examples of which aren't terribly good at offering pleasure. We don't need the money. I live quite pleasurably for $900 a month. Life near the poverty line doesn't bully me away from pleasure. But if our work and our money is helping to bring pleasure to others while bringing pleasure to us, then let's do it.

6. Avoiding displeasure.

Let's stop doing those things that don't give us pleasure, or will take too much effort before they bring us pleasure. Epicurus offers some advice: have the courage to face pain only if the pleasure that follows is really worth it.

7. Trusting that pleasure will bring positive change to the world.

This whole idea of focusing on ourselves and our own pleasure may seem selfish to some. But I really think that people who are radiating with satisfaction are the most likely candidates to bring positive change to the world. My hunch is that these types of people get into less arguments, and have more time to help other people with whom they are in contact. And people are more likely to listen to those who are content. What do we want to give to the world? Essentially, more pleasure. The first step is to become experts on pleasure ourselves.

8. Remembering pleasure.

Let's remind ourselves of all the pleasures we experience. Don't forget about the warmth of the home. Remember that we have friends and family who love us and will help us if we are in need. Never doubt this. And if you don't have friends, there are billions of people on the planet who could be likely candidates.

9. Having wonderful conversations.

In this way, we can learn about the world, change our perspectives, and find new forms of pleasure. This could be the underlying motive for most conversations. It would be nice to think that, one day, "arguments" will disappear from our vocabulary, and be replaced by "vibrant discussions that expand one's knowledge of pleasure."

10. Having a healthy mindbodysoul.

The healthier we are in ourselves, in these strange vessels that focus our experience in this life, the deeper the pleasure we feel and the more frequently we feel it. Let's learn how to manage guilt, fear and anger within the mindbodysoul equation. Let's trust our mindbodysouls in their journies towards pleasure.

11. A special note about guilt.

We waited patiently in our mothers' wombs (well, most of us) and burst into this world, so that we could enjoy, relish and savour. Guilt only happens when we listen to others about what is right and what is wrong. Guilt should never come from pleasure. Our reaction to others' pain is a different story, and it's important to listen to those sentiments that are more closely allied with compassion. Compassion can lead us to help people in pain, which can, in turn, bring us a certain kind of pleasure. Let's try not to become overwhelmed by pain that we cannot affect. Instead, let's focus on the people in pain immediately around us, whose situations we can help. Trust that, eventually, ripples of pleasure can travel to shores very far away from us.

12. Paying special attention to the body in the mindbodysoul.

In other words, have sex. Alone or with others. In all its magnificent facets. Have a sore neck? Massage it. For an hour. Who's stopping you? Cuddle up to someone when enjoying the warmth of your home. Don't be picky. Know that the feelings of warmth, security and love are things that we can carry with us, and access, always.

13. Having pleasure right now.

Don't run around and have a terrible time, thinking that one day, "I will have the time to enjoy myself." "One day in the future" is only speculation and it may never happen. Better to enjoy ourselves as soon as possible.

14. Stopping neuroses about pleasure.

Let's not waste time thinking about pleasure. Keep it simple. Pleasure is meant to be experienced and not thought about too much.

15. Moving beyond the oversimplified designations of pleasure and pain.

Some notable spiritual texts like the Bhagavad Gita talk about moving beyond both pleasure and pain. This idea is worth exploring. A person can potentially view all of experience as collection of infinitely various sensations, without attaching labels like pleasurable or painful to them. In this way, "pain" may lose some of its intensity, and we can choose to navigate more often towards those sensations that each one of us has individually decided is pleasurable. We can develop an ability to transcend pain and pleasure, but then soar again towards simple moments of pleasure, rather than always stay in the detached realm of a masterful yogin.

16. Managing those sensations that are often labelled as being painful.

Just as our minds can block out the sun by closing eyelids, perhaps we learn to block out those sensations that we consider painful, especially when they become unbearable. Rather than always resorting to pain-killers, perhaps we can train our minds to look away from pain when needed. Pain is a sensation that carries important messages with it. We can heed those messages without being incapacitated by them.

17. Adding new perspectives to pleasure.

Let's share our ideas about pleasure, so we can learn more about it. Some of these ideas are already over a couple thousand years old, thanks to the likes of Epicurus and the people who agreed with him. Unfortunately, his ideas have been twisted and turned over the centuries, and have become more synonymous with hedonism, when really he humbly advocated those simple pleasures that everyone could attain, such as friendship.

Leave a comment. And enjoy.


"A happy day is this on which I write to you . . . . The pains which I feel . . . could not be greater. But all of this is opposed by the happiness which the soul experiences, remembering our conversations of a bygone time."
--Epicurus, the moment of his death, 270 BCE.

(originally posted on March 7, 2007,


Ian Christopher Goodman said...

Some neat comments for this can be found on

Anonymous said...

yea but isn't it inevitable to think a lot about pleasure when you're experiencing it greatly... it's as if you can't believe how limits can be pushed sometimes, so you end up think about it whether you like it or not (the latter being more likely). It sort of sucks, but then again that's how my over-analyzing brain works.

peace Ian,