It took me awhile to get to my writing today because I kept finding myself outside, staring at my spring garden. It is strangely alluring, this moist and fertile patch of earth, studded with baby plants. And I’m not the only one drawn to it. I often catch my husband out there just standing and gazing. My daughter practically sets up shop in the garden, lying down next to it on a blanket with the pillow from her bed. We have all described the experience in different ways, as grounding, relaxing, Zen… We keep strolling out to the back yard to be fed, somehow. It feels nourishing just to be in the place where the plants grow.
After a long winter, we’re all going out there to get an easy infusion of “vitamin P”, Pleasure. Pleasure is one of a trio of vital non-food nourishers I’ve coined the “P-nutrients”: pleasure, passion, and purpose. The P-nutrients feed our deeper longings for fulfillment and satisfaction in our lives. They are as crucial to our well being as all the physically nutritive vitamins, and often even boost their performance efficiency in our body.
Everyone longs for pleasure. Seeking pleasure is a biological drive shared by all animals, not just the human ones. But, as with so many other natural drives, humans take it to extremes. We continuously seek out pleasurable acts and experiences. To that end we’ve created a massive entertainment industry, a booming sex industry, an active trade in alcohol and less legal drugs, and whole new categories of foods designed exclusively to stimulate our pleasure centers. The interesting thing about all this is that though we are somewhat obsessed with these pleasure-seeking experiences, when we are actually having them we tend to zone right out and don’t derive much true pleasure from them at all!
More often than not we just skate the surface of these experiences, going for quantity over quality to numb out our less comfortable feelings rather than heightening the more pleasurable ones. We think we’re enjoying ourselves, but actually we’re just splitting off from our internal experience. I think this phenomenon is part of the reason so many of us will forego homemade, super-fresh, high quality foods in favor of Big Macs and Big Gulps. In this ultra-fast-paced age we’ve traded in slow, rich, sensual pleasure for speedy “low-cal” stimulation. This “junkfood” stimulation doesn’t truly satisfy, so we keep going back for more.
Pleasure satiety doesn’t come from accumulating more and more of these kinds of empty experiences, but rather in tapping more deeply into any experience to extract the pleasure inherent in it. True pleasure occurs much more in the body than in the mind.
It doesn’t come from our mental stories about things, but through direct experience. So to tap it we have to get past the distraction of our constant, usually negative thinking. In our mind we use words to categorize things, and we use thoughts about those things to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. But pain is a more powerful stimulus than pleasure, so our thoughts are mostly preoccupied with pain, remembering it in the past and planning ways to avoid it in the future.
Here’s a way to jump over pain-based thinking and into the felt sensation of pleasure right now: Check out your immediate environment. What is the most attractive item in your space? If you’re in a dingy cubicle, maybe you can find a pretty color on a pamphlet somewhere. Now really look at that object. Focus your full attention on it. Soften your gaze a bit and relax your jaw. Keeping your visual attention on the item, tune your ears into the sounds around you. Don’t label the sounds, just let them pass through you like light passes through crystal. Listen between the sounds to the silence that holds them. Now, while you are looking and listening, go inside your body and notice some part of you that feels deeply comfortable. Maybe it’s your backside cradled in a soft chair cushion, or your feet in soft, warm shoes. Maybe it’s just one cheek feeling the soft touch of the warm air of the office. Keep your focus on the beauty of the object, the sounds and quiet around you, and the part of you that is in comfort. Breathe slowly and gently while you do this, feeling the light lift that comes from the oxygen entering your blood, and notice the calm that descends over you.
It’s harder to get distracted (pulled out of direct experience) by thoughts when you keep your attention focused on sensations. And if you focus on pleasurable sensations, you will begin to relax and have the actual felt experience of pleasure. You can do this anytime, anywhere. It’s easier to do this in relaxed settings, and especially in nature. It’s much easier to feel pleasure in a new garden than in the dentist’s chair, for example, but your focus point is ultimately more important in this exercise than your surroundings.
Try it and see.