Pleasure is often viewed as a hindrance to the spiritual path, a hotbed of craving and attachment, but what if we told you that pleasure can actually be a positive part of the spiritual path, a portal to love and happiness?
Today, I want to talk about pleasure and how it can be part of a spiritual path. Why does pleasure feel good? What does the mind of pleasure do to us? Is pleasure something that makes our life more beautiful and satisfying, or is it the source of craving, addiction, and dissatisfaction? In one form of Buddhist thought that focuses on a more ascetic way of life, pleasure can be seen as something that gets in the way of everyday contentment and the evolution of our mind toward its greatest potential for good. But in other places on the Buddhist path, pleasure can be used to expand our love and compassion for all beings.
The vast array of life’s pleasures are something that I enjoy, and I’ve struggled with thinking about how pleasure might be part of a spiritual path, just as you may have too. Over the years I’ve had some beautiful teachings—I guess I might even say pleasurable teachings—on how to experience and share pleasure in a way that advances a spiritual path. I’ve also learned about ways to identify and apply antidotes when pleasure… turns to addiction. So in this episode, I want to go in depth on beneficial ways of thinking about and experiencing pleasure that I’ve learned from some of my Buddhist teachers.
Why does pleasure feel good?
So why does pleasure feel good? There are logical, biological theories about pleasure: that things feel good because they help us to survive, like the pleasures of eating and feeling safe in a sheltered place and the pleasure of sex that helps us pass on our genes. But that level of satisfaction is more on the animal level, the ground level of meeting our basic human needs for survival. From a neuroscientific perspective, this level of pursuing pleasure is also lower in the cognitive chain, at the limbic level of instinctual emotional responses conditioned by evolution.
But the focus for us on this podcast isn’t just survival, but advancing our highest aspirations as human beings, of finding a deeper sense of happiness, meaning, and connection to others. So in this episode, we’re not looking at the basic animalistic origins of pleasure, but how pleasure might advance our higher aspirations as human beings.
So what does the mind of pleasure do from this higher level of meaning and satisfaction and even spiritual development?
Pleasure helps us concentrate
One way that pleasure helps us is that since it’s a pleasant state of mind, we naturally have greater concentration on pleasurable experiences compared to experiences that aren’t pleasurable. When we experience something unpleasant, often our mind is focused on how much we dislike it, or fantasizes about what we’d rather be doing instead. But during a pleasurable experience, we’re often completely focused on that experience without much effort.
From a Buddhist perspective, developing focused concentration is one of the absolute keys to happiness. But even from a secular perspective, concentration’s essential to getting just about anything done in life at all. So it’s useful to acknowledge that when experiences are pleasurable, they’re easy to focus on. And pleasant experiences don’t just induce concentration themselves, but they can even help us develop our overall capacity for concentration in a way that transfers to other forms of concentration, including the concentration of meditation.
Pleasure is less dualistic
Another way that pleasure helps us is that the mind of pleasure can be less dualistic in discriminating between subject and object, you and your object of pleasure. When something is pleasurable, we naturally want to fuse with it, become one with it. And when we experience pleasure, there can be this sense of losing ourselves and for a little while becoming just the experience of pleasure, rather than a separate person seeking out that pleasure.
If you’re able to let go of your dualistic sense of self when you’re enjoying something, your level of enjoyment can sometimes be quite profound, because, finally, you’re not craving an object, you’re not separate from the object. In one sense, the happiness of a pleasurable experience is just being free from the craving for that object for a little bit, not attaining the object itself. But in another sense, if we can let go of the solid idea of a separate, independent, partless me and partless object of my pleasure, a pleasurable experience can even turn into a powerful meditation on emptiness.
Pleasure is fearless
There is also a sense in which pleasure is fearless. When your mind is pleasurable, it doesn’t have fear. From a Buddhist perspective, we can’t have opposite states of mind at once, though sometimes they alternate quickly. So maintaining a pleasurable state of mind can help dissolve fear, especially when meditating on ideas like selflessness or emptiness.
Sometimes these ideas of selflessness produce fear: fear of losing oneself, or a fear that nothing exists at all. But if you can use pleasure itself as an object of your meditation on emptiness, then that pleasurable aspect of your mind helps you be less upset about dissolving yourself into a positive, pleasurable state of mind, instead of losing yourself into nothingness.
Why we avoid pleasure on the solitary path
On the first stages of the Buddhist path, one is taught at first to avoid pleasure because it creates attachment. But when you start meditating on the ultimate nature of reality, on emptiness; or when you start to expand your mind to a love and compassion that encompasses all other beings, then pleasure can really help on the path.
Using pleasure to understand the interdependent nature of reality
As we’ve said, when you have pleasure, the mind has better concentration, it’s less dualistic, it has less fear of emptiness. So that mind of pleasure is actually a better vehicle to realize emptiness than one of fear or one of aversion to pleasure, which is, of course, itself empty.
In the next episode, we’ll meditate on these ways of using pleasure to increase our concentration and our understanding of the interdependent nature of reality. But right now, just for a moment, try for yourself to induce a mind of pleasure. Sometimes it’s possible to just feel generally pleasurable at being alive and comfortable and aware. But usually it’s easier to recollect some recent pleasurable experience. So do that now.
Then, within that mind of pleasure, try and focus on how it’s impossible to find the body and mind, and impossible to find the object of pleasure. My body’s made of innumerable parts. My mental experiences break down into a nearly infinite stream of momentary thoughts and perceptions. My body and mind come from innumerable causes and conditions around me, making me an interdependent, interconnected part of the universe, not something or someone separate, partless, and independent.
Now think about your object of pleasure. It’s also made of parts that have causes. And it’s your mind that wraps a label around those caused parts, the label of chocolate or a great TV show or sexual pleasure. You see with this method how you can even transform watching Netflix into a cause for spiritual development by turning your mind to the pleasure of the experience, and then breaking down you, the show, and the experience of watching it into its parts, causes, and the mind labeling them as separate pleasurable entities. I bet you never thought watching TV could lead to enlightenment. But part of non-duality is that any object or experience can be the grounds for understanding the intderdependent nature of reality, how everything is empty of existing from its own side.
If you really get in the habit of this, any time there’s a pleasurable sensation, you can try and unify it with the absence of inherent existence. But don’t do this in too effortful of a way, because you’ll become exhausted; or in a way that’s too relaxed, because you mind will wander off. The right level of attention is not too strong or too loose.
Pleasure on the solitary realizer path
Usually we don’t just jump to the most advanced level of practice. But if you’ve been following along with this podcast or if you have your own experience with this or another version of the stages of Buddhist practice, you can benefit from going straight to the ultimate antidote, the ultimate level of practice, of trying to see reality as it actually is. And even if you’re new to these ideas, hopefully it’s inspiring or at least interesting to look at pleasure from this profoundly different point of view of the ultimate nature of reality.
But now I want to rewind a little and go back to the ways we see pleasure on the earlier stage of the path.
In Buddhism, they call this first level of the path the hero or solitary realizer path, sometimes called the Hinayana or Theravada path. This was the Buddha’s first teaching of how ordinary conditioned life is filled with suffering, and that the cause of that suffering are our delusions of attachment, anger, and ignorance. The emphasis at this first level of the path is getting free of mental afflictions and their causes.
This is the part of the path where we learn the different aspects of mind and mental cause and effect; the way that our mind comes into contact with an object and it instinctually has an immediate reaction of positive, negative, or “I don’t care.” From a neuroscientific perspective, these reactions are conditioned by evolution, biology, society, culture, and our education and habits. Also from a neuroscientific perspective, we now know that our brains have neuroplasticity, and that we can change these habits through determined effort and mind training. This view aligns with the Buddhist view.
From this perspective, if we have pleasant feelings, we normally tend to get attached to them and crave for more. If we look at our life, we all have our attachments and addictions: coffee, tea, food, sleep, movies, friends, going for walks, sex. And these come from the pleasurable feelings that emerge from our body and mind making contact with objects of pleasure.
From the Buddhist perspective, the attachment, the craving, is seen as a painful experience in and of itself. It’s also an experience that perpetuates itself, that only makes us crave more and want more, only to be yet again unsatisfied when we do obtain our object of pleasure.
But it’s not the object that harms us. And it’s not the pleasure that harms us. It’s only our attachment. So that’s the mental factor to work on in this first level of Buddhist practice: attachment, craving, addiction.
If we look a tiny bit deeper, we see that the root cause behind our attachment to pleasurable experiences isn’t due to the objects, but due to being attached to the illusory me and illusory mine that we hallucinate as separate from the world and the environment around us, an illusory me and mine that needs external things to be happy.
From this perspective, if we could stop attachment we could stop craving and stop suffering.
That’s why, at this level of practice, attachment is seen as bad, and the cause of attachment is seen as pleasure. If you reduce your attachment, you reduce your craving. So on this level of practice of the hero or solitary realizer, they say beware of pleasure, because pleasure produces attachment and craving.
So you reduce your level of pleasure. You eat simple foods, live in simple places, surround yourself with mediocre quality objects that don’t produce attachment. Because from this point of view, the less you create the causes for suffering, the more your mind is free.
If you observe your mind when it’s experiencing attachment and craving, you find that it’s not in a happy state. The more that we’re free of those unhappy states of mind, the more we have inner peace, the more concentration we have, and the easier it is to see and unravel the selflessness of person, objects, and so on.
So at this level of the path pleasure isn’t something you cultivate, because it leads to attachment and craving. That all makes sense. But it’s kind of disappointing to most of us, isn’t it? Because there’s so much to enjoy in life! Is renouncing all the beauty of life really the answer?
Pleasure in the path of love and compassion
In this first level of Buddhist practice, our focus is to get liberated from our suffering, and what binds us is our attachment and craving. We reduce attachment and craving in order to be free. But still, the main point is about yourself: your attachment, your craving, your liberation, your freedom from suffering. On the next level of the path, your perspective shifts.
This next level is the Mahayana path that leverages love and compassion for all beings as a path to enlightenment. At this level of the path, the main problem isn’t attachment, craving, or ignorance. We have another problem in the Mahayana, the path of love and compassion, which is the self-centered attitude. Basically, we are too obsessed and concerned with ourselves.
At the first level of practice, we didn’t see self-centeredness as an obstacle yet. It was okay to want to be free of my attachment and anger and ignorance and to seek out my liberation and contentment.
In the Mahayana, on top of attachment, anger, and ignorance about how things exist, we deal with self-centeredness. Now we open up to others and see that this self-centered attitude is also a problem. We try and change our attitude to being more concerned about others’ wellbeing than even our own liberation.
The logic is inescapable. I’m one human being, and there are billions of other human beings that also want happiness and don’t want to suffer. They’re exactly like me, they have the same problems. Why am I so obsessed with me, with my problems? A more advanced practitioner, like the ideal of the bodhisattva, shifts her perspective so that instead of thinking about herself, she thinks about all other sentient beings all the time. The logical reason for this is that there are simply more of them than there are of me, and we all want the same fundamental happiness and causes of happiness.
So how does this path of love and compassion, the Mahayana path, the bodhisattva’s path affect our attitude toward pleasure?
What we do is that whenever we have pleasure, we offer it to all living beings. And of course you can’t directly reach all living beings, so this is something you do mostly in your mind. As you enjoy a beautiful meal, you think, may all living beings enjoy such a nice meal. When you sit on a comfy couch, you think, may all living beings have a nice place to sit. Or may all living beings enjoy a great TV show, a walk on the beach, or the pleasures of making love. Whenever you have pleasure, you offer it to all beings. This process is sometimes called “universalizing,” and we talked about it in episode 31 of this podcast.
You try and cultivate this idea that the aim of your life is to bring the causes of happiness to all living beings—everyday happiness, but also the deeper forms of happiness like the beneficial states of mind of love and compassion that lead to the happiest, most meaningful, connected and purposeful life we can lead. The purpose of your life is to live for the benefit of all beings, to whatever extent you can, aided by the wisdom of great teachers who can help us learn how to actually pull this off.
When you have the opposite of pleasure, when you have pain, these techniques work equally well. You think, by my experiencing this pain, may all living beings experience no pain; imagining that I free all beings from pain by myself experiencing pain. When I’m tired, I take all the tiredness of all living beings upon myself: may they be free.
Or when I’m lonely, hurt, scared, suffering loss, or even feeling attachment or anger, I take on all other beings’ loneliness, hurt, fear, loss, attachment, and anger, so that they might be free of these. It’s an inner, alchemical process that, of course, doesn’t magically take away the suffering in the world. But if you try it, with persistence you can see that it does erode our own suffering and expand our minds, with a joyful sense of love and compassion and presence for others.
Whatever problem we have, we imagine experiencing it on behalf of all living beings, imagining we have freed them from it ourselves.
And instead of being this small, separate person, psychologically you become all living beings. The great Buddhist saint Shantideva says you can think of all beings the same way you think of the limbs of your body. I don’t just take care of one limb, I take care of my whole body. So why not take care of humanity in just the same way? Instead of taking care of this one being, me, take care of all living beings.
So whatever pleasures life offers you, offer them to all living beings, including the higher pleasures of meditative concentration, of mental states of love and compassion, and your altruistic acts.
Now, this doesn’t change the lower view that attachment is a harmful mental state. You still can see how pleasure can lead to attachment and craving. But you change the perspective. Instead of being centered on yourself, you look at the perspective of being centered on all living beings.
Instead of being attached to the self, you become attached to all living beings. It’s still attachment, but it’s a much better form!
With this perspective, when you experience pleasure, it doesn’t matter quite as much. When you experience pain, it doesn’t matter quite as much. Because you’re not as concerned about you, but more with others.
In the solitary path, pleasure leads to attachment and craving. But on the Mahayana path of love and compassion, pleasure doesn’t necessarily lead to craving because we use the pleasure and attachment on a path of spiritual development that increases our love, compassion, and concern for others.
It’s important to see that these two views are not contradictory. It’s still true that pleasure can produce attachment and craving.
But if you are practicing with this mind of love and compassion, more concerned with others, you use these feelings to increase your love and compassion for other beings. Because according to this view, there’s no other way to be happy, to perfect our own capacity for happiness and joy, than to care more for others than ourselves.
It’s a reversal of perspective. In the solitary realizer path, you are the center and you want to free yourself. In the Mahayana, you’re not so concerned about yourself and it’s not such a big deal that it’s a lot of work and seemingly insurmountable, because you just do your best at every moment. Most of the practice is mental, thinking that the purpose of my life is to bring all other beings to happiness. And instead of caring about myself, I practice caring about others.
In several Buddhist texts that I deeply admire, they express this same sentiment: that all happiness comes from caring for others and all pain comes from being centered on yourself. But don’t take this on faith, as the Buddha himself advised. We can decide for ourselves whether this is true. And if we do find that greater happiness comes from caring for others, we can think about whether we have the courage to expand our mind to this selfless, more altruistic, expansive way of thinking and living.
How to have courage that expansive love and compassion are possible
These aspirations to think and live so altruistically can be overwhelming and maybe seem impossible. So there are a couple of things my teachers have suggested to remember to help you enter and stay in this path.
The first is the idea that our minds are fundamentally pure. That when we probe beneath the illusory ego, when we are able to free our minds from the hallucination of an independent, partless, unitary ego self, we can experience this open, spacious, pure aspect of our mind—a more fundamental aspect of our mind—that’s always there beneath the surface.
Where is the ego? If we search for it, we find the construct of our memories, our habits, our life experience. The construct appears to be there all by itself, not arising from something else. It seems solid and separate.
But through meditation on the dependent origination of the self, of the self’s emptiness of existing separately, we can experience a pure mind that’s freed right now. This pure mind finds the ego is not there, the mind as a separate unchanging entity is not there, nothing is there ultimately as an independent, partless, separate entity.
This clear, knowing aspect of our mind is already there underneath these grosser, illusory aspects of our mind. With an understanding of emptiness, we can pass through the ego, like when you fly above a solid layer of clouds to find the clear blue sky. Right now we see only the clouds.
So when pleasure is mixed with this deeper, interdependent understanding of our mind and the mind’s innate goodness, it’s no longer ordinary pleasure. Pleasure doesn’t produce attachment anymore because it’s mixed with emptiness.
So whatever sensation you have, try and see the experience of pleasure you have as mixed with emptiness, as interdependent, made of parts, not separate, labeled by the mind. Try and always remember the interdependent nature of pleasurable things like food, clothes, sounds, pleasurable sensations. Try to always see their essencelessness. If you can do that, then pleasure doesn’t produce attachment.
And there’s no contradiction. Neither view is absolutely true, negating the other. On one level of the path, pleasure disturbs our mind, causes attachment and craving. On another, it can be used to generate love and compassion by offering it to all beings. And on yet another, we can see the interdependent, empty nature of pleasure and use it to see how everything is already uncontaminated – this is possible, if we can see things how they truly are.
Thanks for joining me in this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Much of this episode is inspired by the teachings of Venerable René Feusi, a monk and Tibetan Buddhist teacher who I’ve had the privilege to study and take retreats with for many years.
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
Episode art: Composition IX, Wassily Kandinsky (1936)