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The power of pleasure

Many people associate the enjoyment of pleasure with its side-effects: feeling our waistband tighten after too many sweets or a hangover after too many beers, which leads us to associate pleasure with fallout. Add a “nothing good comes easily” mentality and you have a formula for self-denial. Yet that which comes easily sometimes is good. Pleasure sustains us. Without it, we lack motivation to eat or reproduce.

The quest for satisfaction is so intrinsic to our humanity that it is wired into the brain’s neural network. Admittedly, too much of some forms of instant gratification — alcohol and drugs, most obviously — can and do destroy lives. Yet, for most, a glass of wine is an enhancement to life rather than a detriment. Approach is what’s important. The pleasure gained from gobbling junk food and nights of promiscuity can be transformed into sustained enjoyment: savoured food and soulful passion can enhance any life.

Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus divided pleasure into categories: “higher” pleasures, which involve the mind (intellectual and aesthetic), and “lower” pleasures involving the body (food, drink and sex). Though more than 2000 years old, Epicurus’s view is still widely agreed on, with some adding truth and beauty to the list.

Today, many intellectuals and segments of society regard higher pleasures as just that: superior. This demands reflection and critical thinking. Higher and lower pleasures are connected. Without meeting the physical/survival needs of food and sex, it’s excruciating to focus on loftier goals. Fasting for spiritual reasons is admirable, but involuntary starvation affects the very mind needed to enjoy higher pleasures. But when we seek lower pleasures as a path to full involvement in higher ones, we feel no guilt as we revel in life’s banquet of offerings.

Tantra exposed

Hinduism’s ancient Vedic religion/philosophy, Tantra, believes in pursuing the lower pleasures. While other religions and spiritualities practice Tantra, the Hindu system of Tantra is the originator. Summarising Tantra, scholar Dinu Roman says: “In the Tantric tradition, yoga (union with God) is simultaneous with the passionate living of worldly delights, leading to the state of enlightenment through the supernormal powers, called siddhis, which are obtained through practical application of these special procedures.”

The practitioner’s goal is to access and channel divine universal energy for material or spiritual ends. These may be intertwined, as enlightenment and earthly success are both honoured. As is the sensual. Tantra’s delicious disciplines include yoga, visualisation, chanting, singing and sexual rites. Tantra also places great importance on the Pancha Tattva (Sanskrit for five truths), which are rites that honour all fundamental desires. The Pancha Tattvas are wine, meat, fish, parched grain and sexual union. These may be literal and/or symbolic. Wine can stand for God-intoxication and sex can be represented by dancing. Meat-eating is the act by which the devotee dedicates all actions to the Lord. The ultimate aim of Pancha Tattva, the destruction of all sin, heightens the sacredness of this practice.

Despite its diverse elements, many in the West equate Tantra only with spiritual sex. Yet sex is just one aspect of Tantra, known as Maithuna (pronounced my-thu’nah). Maithuna is a transcendent experience. “Sexual union is thus a form of meditative discipline with profound psycho-mental and spiritual effects,” explains Roman. Merging the physical with the ethereal, Maithuna culminates in total love. Tantra’s view of bodily pleasures is one we can learn from. Satisfying primal desires can be a spiritual experience.

The key is our approach. According to Tantric scripture, a devotee can only have sex with his wife and the Tantric scriptures forbid even thinking about sex with anyone else. Rather than equating sex with “sin”, Tantra equates sex with spirit. According to Roman, what manifests as sexual libido is actually “the soul’s ardent yearning for spiritual perfection”.

Tantra’s enlightened view of sexual desire and expression teaches us that our body’s yearnings deserve to be honoured. The body holds an inherent dignity in pleasure that outweighs mind-created shame. Tantra allows us to see that, spiritually, gratification competes with denial. Both reveal our spirituality as long as we express them mindfully.

Extended bliss

Have you ever felt totally content with where you are in the moment? If so, you have experienced mindfulness. As a psycho-spiritual concept, mindfulness is vague and its exact definition arguable. One description agreed on by many, though, is by the renowned author and teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” This acceptance aids serenity. If peace is pleasure, then mindfulness is pure ecstasy.

Being in the now allows full experience of sensations. When we stretch, we can feel the path of tension travel out. When we inhale, we can feel the breath embrace our lungs. Eyes become touched by the sun, and eardrums massaged by the beat of our favourite songs. We feel fully, completely alive. Yet the goal of mindfulness is not to heighten or extend pleasure. Mindfulness is meant to cultivate neutrality — an acceptance of all emotions and experiences. This calming effect extends to the unpleasant emotions, with results that can cause us to smile.

Recently, scientists used neurology to pinpoint the exact way mindfulness eases the emotional impact of negative thoughts. They found that putting emotions into words, especially without judgment, soothes their negative charge. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), American University of California psychologist Matthew Lieberman and colleagues conducted brain scans to illuminate which parts of the brain “lit up” when meditating. Study participants were shown pictures of faces and asked to label them either “Harry or Sally” or “angry or fearful”.

The study participants who chose to assign emotional-descriptions to the faces showed activation in their right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex region, which thinks about emotions. In addition, their FRMI results revealed a calming of the amygdala, the reactive part of the brain responsible for setting us in panic mode.

Next, participants were asked to answer questionnaires designed to determine how “mindful” they were. Those who answered more mindfully had more dramatic activation of their right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex region and a calmer amygdala. Essentially, the more mindful the person, the better they were at reducing negative emotional reactions. Without these dark forces to compete with, it’s far easier for pleasure to light its way through our lives.

The pleasure diet

Most of us eat the same food day after day, not realising we’re not noticing what we eat. If we compare our cumulative cups of coffee or tea to the number we remember enjoying, we’ll see quite a difference. Memorable culinary pleasures are limited and the problem isn’t what’s on the plate. Sadly, memories of enjoying a cosy cup of coffee don’t include the routine second cup we make and drink on auto-pilot. They’re more likely to include that first cup we had to have late when life interrupted our caffeinated wake-up. Yet we don’t have to risk caffeine withdrawal to savour each sip: the magic comes with bringing awareness to the experience. This is called mindful eating.

As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describes: “Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. It has come from the whole cosmos for our nourishment.” This spiritual approach to eating creates bliss with each bite. The secret to enjoying food’s banquet of pleasant sensations is to stay connected to each morsel. With each moment, allowing breath to invite and expand consciousness allows us to actually feel what we’re eating.

“When you are truly here, contemplating the orange, breathing and smiling, the orange becomes a miracle. It is enough to bring you a lot of happiness,” says Hanh. “You peel the orange, smell it, take a section, and put it in your mouth mindfully, fully aware of the juice on your tongue. This is eating an orange in mindfulness. It makes the miracle of life possible. It makes joy possible.”

In addition to sanctifying food, eating mindfully is a serene approach to dining. This in itself can enhance the taste of our meal. Stress reduction plays a crucial role in our enjoyment of food. Research published in the 1998 journal Biological Psychology found that stress “appeared to selectively increase sensitivity to saccharin’s bitterness”.

Another good reason to relax and slowly savour your food is that it will help you get to and maintain a healthy weight. Multiple studies have shown that slower eating results in dieters achieving greater weight loss and that this same mindful approach also leads to less risk of obesity. A 1996 Japanese study profiled 3737 male and 1005 female civil servants. The study considered subjects’ rates of eating, their past and present BMI and their monthly calorie intake before concluding: “Our results among middle-aged men and women suggest that eating fast would lead to obesity.”

Laughter’s healing power

If the sound of your own laughter isn’t music to your ears, it should be. After all, it’s playing a healing symphony. According to Dr Ron Berk of John Hopkins University, humour and laughter decrease stress, depression and blood pressure while increasing pain tolerance, creativity, memory and lifespan. Humour is essential. It is woven with healing in a fabric that unites us all. Laughter distinguishes us from other creations. In fact, aside from apes, we humans are unique in being able to express genuine laughter.

Our laughter is creation — spontaneous and unique. When we laugh, we express ourselves without pretence. Perhaps this is why these vocalisations, from giggles to guffaws, are such a release. This release is part of pleasure. The ability to let go and relax instantaneously stems from our souls, which are also spontaneous. Like belly laughter, our souls’ outpourings also speak whimsically and in natural tones.

Regardless of whether the actual sound of our laugh brings smiles or shudders, it works well with other healing modalities. Laughter Yoga — a blend of deliberate and spontaneous laughter, chanting, relaxation and yogic breathing — is proof of this. Since its development in 1995, the use of Laughter Yoga has spread to 60 countries, including Australia, Canada, the UK, the USA and Hong Kong. But it all started in India.

Recently, India has provided more evidence of humor’s healing force. There, researchers studied the effects of Laughter Yoga on 200 male and female workers in the information-technology sector. Each participated in seven Laughter Yoga sessions over a three-week period, with each session lasting 20–30 minutes. The results were nothing to snicker at. After the “treatment” ended, subjects experienced a significant drop in stress and systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Is laughter happy or joyful? Laughter Yoga would, between chuckles, of course, choose the latter. “Joyfulness is the basis of Laughter Yoga,” according to the Certified Laughter Yoga Leader Training Manual. The philosophy of laughter yoga is that while happiness is dependent on wants being fulfilled, joyfulness is unconditional. Whatever our circumstances, feeling good can be trigged by joyful activities: playing, singing, dancing and, of course, laughing. Joy, pleasure and health … Laughter Yoga is something to take seriously.

Inhaling joy

The most traditional spiritual feature of Laughter Yoga is its yogic breathing, also known as pranayama. Pranayama provides both spiritual and health benefits. “Prana means “breath”. Yoga teaches how, through breath control, to still the mind and attain higher states of awareness,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda in The Essence of Self-Realization. Pranayama’s health benefits include easing both stress and asthma. One classic pranayama breath is anuloma pranayama, or alternate nostril breathing, practised as follows: Put your thumb on your right nostril and exhale and inhale through the left. Then, using the ring finger, close the left nostril and exhale and inhale through the right.

Though breathing is essential to yoga, yoga’s most widely known feature is its asanas, or poses. This, the active component of yoga, is meant to open participants to uniting with the divine. There is deep pleasure, not only in realising this aim, but in striving to achieve it. As the mind’s focus turns from temporary external problems to inner bliss, hope is renewed. Physically, the deep relaxation and increased sensory awareness that yoga provides is a direct path to pleasure. Stress numbs the sensual experience; yoga releases this stress.

Yoga’s sedating, pleasure-producing effects have long been known and sought by many an experienced practitioner. For years, these qualities have attracted scientific interest and yoga is increasingly being investigated as a prescription for depression. In a study published in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (13), researchers found that practising yoga increases brain gamma-amino butyric (GABA) levels, which are also increased through pharmaceutical anti-depressants. The study divided subjects into two groups: one group read while the other practised yoga. After only one session, while the reading group had no elevation in GABA, the yoga-users’ rose 27 per cent. Yoga’s benefits for relieving depression only serve to increase happiness and pleasure. For this reason alone, yoga is an asset to any serious pleasure pursuer.

Generosity and passion: the connection

In 2006, neuro-scientists from the US government’s National Institute of Health discovered that the brain reacts the same way to unselfish generosity as it does to food or sex. When study participants were directed to imagine either receiving a large sum of money or giving it away, the brain scans of those who chose generosity activated the same brain reward-pathway as eating or lovemaking. Now, we can update the old slogan: “If it feels good, do it” to “If it feels good, donate.”

Releasing guilt

Toss unnecessary guilt aside. Regret is useless and keeps you from moving forward. The appeal of guilt is that it gives you an illusion of control, feeding into the fantasy that you have complete control over people, your environment and fate itself. This stops you from accepting life and living in the moment. Guilt is only beneficial when you’re considering doing something wrong. Prevention matters; post-blame harms you and helps nobody. It will only trap you in self-hating thoughts and actions, and motivate you to invite destructive people into your life. Expecting yourself and others to be kind to you is a better way to live life.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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