How can we use pleasure in our meditation practice? Buddhism offers specific techniques for meditating on pleasure as a way to deepen our qualities of concentration, fearlessness, loving-kindness, and even our understanding of the ultimate nature of reality.
Is it possible to use pleasure as part of a meditation practice? At a certain level of Buddhist practice, pleasure is something to avoid, because it causes attachment. Attachment is an agitated state of mind that can’t ever be fully satisfied and leads to craving and addiction. But from another perspective, pleasure can be used as a way to deepen just those qualities that we most want to expand through meditation: the qualities of concentration, loving-kindness, and understanding the ultimate nature of reality.
Settle into your meditation posture, cross-legged on the floor with a cushion elevating your seat. Or on a chair with your legs straight, feet flat on the floor. Straighten your back, relax your shoulders, neck, face, arms; let all the tension run out. Slightly tilt down your head, just barely open your mouth, touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth if that’s comfortable, and half-close your eyes. If any of these instructions don’t suit you, you can modify your posture so that you’re comfortable, relaxed, and alert.
Generating a positive motivation for meditation
Now generate a positive motivation for meditating. We’re meditating not just to relax or to increase our focus, but to bring out all our best qualities of kindness, generosity, patience, attention, ethical behavior, and an everyday joy in the wonders of being alive. In particular today, we’re meditating to understand how to enjoy life’s pleasures in healthy ways that further our inner development.
Mindfulness of the breath
To stabilize the mind, focus for one minute on the breath. Pay attention to air as it flows in through your nostrils. Then notice how there’s a pause, a still moment for an instant. And then feel the breath as it goes out of your nostrils. You’re feeling the breath, not observing it as if it were separate from you, but rather, seeing that your breath is one of the many things that come together with the collection of atoms, cells, thoughts, and processes that you call your self. For one minute, watch the breath and see that your breath is you.
Practicing mindfulness of pleasure to increase concentration
Now we move into an analytical meditation, the type of meditation that uses a stream of thoughts to steer our mind toward one of its good qualities. In this meditation, we use a memory of a pleasurable experience to enhance our ability to focus our mind single-pointedly; using pleasure to increase concentration.
Bring to mind an instance of pleasure you’ve had recently. It could be a sensual pleasure like eating delicious food, being in a beautiful place, a great conversation, an enjoyable sexual experience, or the fun of reading a great book, listening to a song you love, or watching a great show on Netflix.
It could be also be a pleasure of a good deed, like making dinner for your family, or listening to a friend who really needs help, or accomplishing something at work that benefited someone else. Don’t worry right now about whether you feel strong attachment to this pleasure. Just bring it up without any guilt or worry, wishing to use a memory of pleasure to see how pleasure focuses our attention.
Now let your mind merge into that pleasurable experience as deeply as it can. See if you can maintain a single-pointed focus on that pleasurable experience for a minute. And as you do, notice how a smile may come to your lips. See how that smile is not only a result of the pleasant memory, but also notice how being focused on this experience and nothing else is also a pleasant feeling. The concentration itself is also pleasurable. See how you get a taste of the happiness of concentration, the bliss of meditative concentration, when you focus on a pleasant memory.
(Meditate silently for one minute, concentrating on your pleasurable experience)
And then, coming out of this meditation on a specific pleasure, make a small determination to try and notice the way your mind is focused and concentrated the next time you have such pleasure, and to start to use pleasure when it occurs in life to enhance your concentration.
Using pleasure meditation to understand impermanence
Next we’ll look at pleasure as a way to understand impermanence.
Pleasurable experiences, like all of everyday life’s experiences, are impermanent. Whatever that pleasure is, it runs out, it finishes, and it’s often uncertain when or even if we’ll enjoy them again. If we could enjoy pleasures without the anxiety of worry about when it ends, or if we’ll experience again, wouldn’t our enjoyment of that thing or experience be so much greater? Then we could be fully present for that meal, that walk on the beach, or for our lover.
So in this meditation, we bring to mind the same pleasurable experience, or a different one from recent memory. Do that now.
And then as your mind settles into this pleasant memory, see if you can first analyze how it’s logical that this experience is impermanent. It’s natural for a meal to end, or a walk or an intimate encounter. In fact, it’s one of the most fundamental aspects of reality. When our mind wants pleasurable experiences to last forever, it’s literally railing against the entire universe as we understand it. Because nothing we’ve observed in the universe so far is permanent or unchanging.
So see if you can mix your memory of your pleasurable experience with an acceptance of change for one minute.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Now, this is a little harder. But imagine if this were the last time you enjoyed this experience. There are so many reasons it could be the last time you enjoy something, but we rarely think about this. With a friend or intimate partner, that relationship could stop for any number of reasons. For beautiful places we might move away. For foods we enjoy, we might be deprived of them. And of course, there is the possibility of death that eventually takes us away from all these pleasures.
So see for a moment if you can simply imagine that you might be okay enjoying this thing or experience for the last time. It may be difficult, but this is only a mental exercise, a kind of fantasy to build the muscle of accepting impermanence. So do this now in your imagination. Try to be okay with the inevitable parting from this pleasure that might occur in a day or in a hundred years.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Using pleasure meditation to increase our love and compassion
We go on now to using pleasure to expand our love and compassion. Bring to mind again a pleasurable experience. The same one is fine, or a different one if you want some variety. Settle into the pleasant feeling of that memory now.
And then, in your imagination, imagine that you share this pleasure with everyone on earth. If it’s food, imagine that you’re giving all seven billion people on earth this delicious meal. Or being in a beautiful place, wish that everyone on earth had the access and free time to enjoy such a beautiful place. Or if it’s an experience of being with friends or family or with your intimate partner, wish that everyone is able to enjoy a good friend, a loving family, or the love and care and sensual connection with an intimate partner.
Do this for a minute now, silently, visualizing as well as you can sharing your pleasure with the whole world.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Meditating on pleasure to see the nonduality of reality
Now we use pleasure to try and see more deeply into the nature of reality.
Bring to mind an object of pleasure again. Settle into that good memory, enjoy it.
Try and notice how, when we are absorbed in a pleasurable experience, we don’t feel separate from it. Because it’s so enjoyable and we are so focused, it’s like we merge with the pleasurable experience. We fuse with it. We are that pleasurable experience in a way that shows the nonduality of reality; how, in a way, we become whatever we focus on, and the stronger our focus, the more we experience nonduality.
Now that you’ve thought about this intellectually, try and let yourself immerse more deeply in the experience of nonduality that’s possible in a pleasurable experience.
See how you can let go of your separate sense of self a bit when you enjoy something pleasurable. When you’re enjoying that slice of cake, it’s like you become it. When you’re listening to a great song, in a way you are the song. Or when you make love, you’re not separate from the experience of making love and the partner you’re making love with, you fuse then too into the experience that softens and expands your sense of separateness.
So try and let yourself deepen this feeling of nonduality, of not being separate from your memory of pleasure now for a minute.
(Meditate silently for a minute)
Meditating on pleasure to become fearless
Finally, notice how in this meditation on pleasure, you become fearless. That sometimes when we think of ideas like nonduality or selflessness, it can be scary, because we feel like we’re losing something. But when we meditate on our nonduality with a pleasurable experience, there’s no fear, because what we’re dissolving ourselves into—this pleasurable experience—is something we enjoy, something we like, and it feels good to let go of our hard, separate ego and merge with something that feels good.
Notice this now as you stay with your memory of pleasure. How, even as you let go of a solid, separate, partless ego self to merge with your object of pleasure, how you are free from fear, fearless.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Now, as you come out of the meditation, decide for yourself whether this experience was pleasurable? Is meditating on pleasure pleasurable too? Try and take away some of these ideas to apply the next time you enjoy pleasure in real life.
The purpose of meditation isn’t to be separate from everyday life, but to prepare us to have the same constructive thoughts and feelings and realizations we had on the cushion in real life. If you found this meditation beneficial make a small resolution now to try and bring back these ideas, these mental tools, the next times you enjoy pleasure.
Five ways to use pleasure for inner development
- Use pleasure to increase our concentration
- Use pleasure to understand impermanence
- Use pleasure to increase our love and compassion
- Use pleasure to see the nonduality of reality
- Use pleasure to become fearless
Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio