The work of pleasure and desire is to be honest with ourselves.
Sometimes we think that in order to live a healthy, virtuous life, we can’t do anything fun. We start doing yoga and we think that means we can’t eat anything delicious or watch dumb, fun TV. Well, I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t have to be like that! Pleasure and enjoyment are truly key to a full, meaningful life. The hard part is that we have to put some effort into figuring out what pleasure actually means to us.
This can be difficult because pleasure has a dirty little secret: feeling pleasure requires that we feel everything else. If we can access joy, we’re just as close to grief, sadness, and fear. Pleasure opens us up to the truth of our bodies, and we can’t access that truth selectively. Falling in love means opening our hearts to all the other times we’ve been hurt and the people we’ve lost. Fully tasting something delicious means being willing to access our hunger for what’s missing. Laughter and play require feeling the flow of all our old wounds.
Pleasure opens us up to the truth of our bodies, and we can’t access that truth selectively.
Ideally, our pleasures help us connect more deeply to our bodies, but many of us use them to do the opposite, to disconnect and distract from whatever it is we feel. It doesn’t matter so much what we are doing to find our pleasure as why we are doing it: Are we allowing ourselves to fully feel that pleasure? Or is it the simple relief of numbness spreading a comforting warmth over our skin?
Desire and craving have a similar relationship to pleasure and distraction. Our desires come from a place of truth and honesty in our bodies. They push us toward what we really want, and are powerful enough to help us get through the fear and vulnerability that comes with honestly admitting what we truly want. Desire helps us evolve, grow, and change as people, while craving only serves itself. Craving blinds us to everything but the craved object, pushing aside every thought, feeling, and sensation in order to reach its own goal. Desires move us forward in our lives while cravings keep us exactly where we are.
Sometimes, however, we need to be still and numb. Tough things happen all the time and we can’t always be brave and fully present to every painful thing life has to offer. Cravings and distractions aren’t bad or evil in and of themselves. They can help us get through the day and put our exhausted minds at ease for a little while. They can allow our souls to rest while we ready ourselves for the difficult work of feeling our feelings. Pausing to check out mentally isn’t always a bad thing. It can be quite useful from time to time. If we spend too long in the numb place, however, we start to self-generate the anxiety of not dealing with our problems. We put a constant, low-level degree of stress on our nervous systems that can make us sick. Over time, our cravings and distractions take more energy from us than they give. They hold us back from feeling genuine pleasure and desire.
The work, then, of pleasure and desire, is to be honest with ourselves. It’s okay to numb out sometimes, as long as we know we are doing that and can put a limit on it. It’s okay to fear feeling our honest feelings, as long as we do what we can to find support and cultivate the courage to be present with whatever is true for us. Every time we allow ourselves to feel the full range of our genuine emotions, we are cultivating the bravery that is required to feel genuine pleasure and to follow the desires that might just change our lives.
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