(About a 6 minute read)
I will be among the last people on earth to become an ascetic. The idea of rejecting pleasure — all pleasure — for any reason gut-punches me. It’s alien, it’s unnecessary, it’s outrageous.
Or at least that’s what my instincts tell me. Whatever the reason, I simply wasn’t born to be an ascetic. Not my path at all. Someone else may “get” asceticism, benefit from it, but not me.
So it might seem curious to some of you that I have gone a full two years in my life without even once laughing out loud. Not once in two years.
They were the first two years immediately following my leaving my maliciously abusive second wife, and there was a chemical cause for why I could not laugh out loud. Low levels of dopamine.
You need to maintain a certain minimum level of dopamine in your body if you are going to be physically able to laugh out loud. My levels must have fallen below that threshold due to the severity of my depression, because there is pretty much no other explanation for why it was physically impossible for me to laugh out loud.
Around the same time in life, I had at least a whiff of anhedonia — enough of a case that I quit seeking most pleasures in life, albeit I would still enjoy them if they came to me anyway, unsought.
So, I write this evening with a moderate amount of experience bumbling through life without much in the way of pleasure. Here’s what I can quickly tell you about it: Do not try it if you are suicidal.
Seriously, don’t. Going without pleasure is not painful, it won’t drive you closer to suicide in that way. But it does cut through a lot of the ropes that normally might bind you to life. You lose interest in so many things. And your morale sinks, bounces and skips along the bottom now.
For all of the above reasons and more, I am far from being opposed to pleasure. Even if we could do much, much more than merely reduced how and/or to what extent pleasure is felt by us, I’d be among the last to mess with my own feelings of pleasure. Among the last.
Yet, having said all that, it is much more than clear to me that pleasure can be dangerous, even exceedingly dangerous. It’s certainly not always merely the pleasant thing it sometimes seems to be. Pleasure can lash out and bite in any number of ways.
To begin, on the simplest level, pleasure can cause misery when it’s withdrawn. That’s just another way of saying that we humans routinely become emotionally attached to pleasurable things. The result is dukkha, which is a term borrowed from Buddhism that is useful enough it should enter the vocabulary of common English.
Dukkha is most often translated as “suffering”, such as in the famous saying, “All life is suffering (dukkha)”. But the word has about a dozen other meanings beside suffering — “pain”, “anxiety”, “stress”, “out of joint”, etc. — and the one meaning that is most important here in this context is “clinging” or “clingingness”. Dukkha is clinging to pleasure.
Clinging to pleasure — trying to make it last and last and last — is an absolutely common thing for everyone to do, but it causes misery — Anxiety, stress, sorrow, etc. So the first negative to note about pleasure is that it crucially involves “dukkha”, the clinging to pleasure that causes us so much misery.
Pleasure is also a fountain of confusions and illusions. However, most of us seem only vaguely aware of the fact. We just don’t think of pleasure as a lens through which we see the world — but that is precisely what pleasure is. A lens.
A lens that often distorts our experiences and views in ways that confuse or delude us. Who has not had the experience of at least once being charmed by someone who turned out to be more charm than substance — but not before you learned that the pleasure of charm can cause you to overlook any number of things about a person.
I suspect that in 2016 at least a few Trump supporters might have overlooked the kind of man he is because they were looking forward to the pleasures of “sticking it to the liberals” by voting for Trump. Maybe not many such folks in comparative terms, but perhaps a few. I do know a couple people who support Trump today for that reason.
So pleasure can be a lens through which we see the world distorted. But another — and final — way pleasure can burn us is by giving us false values.
We meet someone, we love them. Our love brings us great pleasure, so we become greedy for more and more pleasure — and forget all about love itself. Pretty soon when he or she looks at another person, we are no longer happy for them. Instead we are jealous, scared they might leave us, scared they might thus deprive us of pleasure.
But once we were happy when we would notice our friend was looking at a handsome man or woman. Happy for them that they were having fun, that they were delighted by the man or woman. Once we really were in love with them. We cared for them — not merely for us, not merely for ourselves.
Maybe the saddest factually true sentence in the English language is this, or something close to this: “Pleasure can even drive out love and bring it to an end.”
Only here’s the thing: We make the situation far, far worse than it is because — in addition to all else — we convince ourselves that we still love them, even when we don’t If only we were to deeply and honestly admit to ourselves what was going on, something might be done about it. But now that’s impossible because we won’t admit anything has gone wrong even to save our love.
Jiddu Krishnamurti often wrote about just the sort of situation as described here, and he was adamant that one should try to do nothing to fix the situation (for a few reasons). Kirshnamurti insisted that trying to fix the situation would only make it worse.
Instead, he recommended that we “merely” look at the situation, thoroughly examine it, come to profoundly understand it. He claimed that “simply understanding a thing brings about by itself its own action”.
I agree with Krishnamurti. What he lays out has been my experience too.
So here is where we’re at. We’ve mentioned that pleasure is a like a fire. It can warm or it can burn. In addition to the ways it can warm you, there are three main things to look out for:
(1) We should be aware of, and on the look out for, dukkha — our greedy clinging to pleasure that will cause us misery.
(2) We should also examine and learn all the ways pleasure can confuse and delude us.
(3) Last, we should be aware that pleasure can mislead us into adopting the wrong values, such as when we substitute the value of pleasure for the value of love.
It seems wise to me to adopt the approach of trying to understand pleasure and its consequences, rather than try to actively change it. It has been my experience that the more profound one’s understanding, the more one naturally and effortlessly changes.