Why don’t we feel more simple pleasure from being alive and conscious in a fascinating world? That has to be one of life’s great enigmas. We can feel pleasure easily enough when we’re stimulated by art, literature, movies, sports events, relationships, sex, food, alcohol, and racy cars. We have a hard time, though, feeling pleasure from everyday, moment-to-moment experience.
Plain, old everyday moments are often taken for granted. Or they’re overcrowded by worries and considerations, regrets and fears, toils and troubles, and desires and cravings. We chase after stimulation, catching speedy roller-coaster rides while missing the magical-mystery train that thumps out of our station every morning.
Basically, we block access to everyday pleasure because, unconsciously, we’re producing too much displeasure. (I described in some detail how that happens in an earlier post, “Mark Twain’s Mysterious Misery-Machine.”)
We automatically start to feel more pleasure from daily life as soon as we stop producing displeasure. The displeasure is produced when, unconsciously, we recycle and replay old unresolved emotions. Once we turn off this inner misery-machine, we enhance the quality of our consciousness and we can feel a higher degree of moment-to-moment pleasure. We also stop taking life for granted because the quality of our consciousness attunes us to the richness of the here-and-now.
Stephen Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and author, put it this way: “I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.” In this statement, replace the word purpose with the word pleasure. Also, consider Pinker’s use of the word “realization.” The word denotes an awakening to consciousness and an appreciation of it for its own sake.
Often the process of producing pleasure is subtle. We can experience pleasure when we see a tree or when we look at an apple or a bird. Such pleasure can sometimes be quite intense, and it is more dependably available to us through the quality of our consciousness. This quality is enhanced by the cumulative effect of insight and practices that free us from suffering. Rising consciousness produces pleasure in the form of inner peacefulness, enhanced self-regulation, freedom from negativity, discernment and compassion, appreciation of beauty, and knowing of oneness.
Generally, people know little about how to harvest such pleasure. For instance, when I googled the term, “The pleasure of compassion,” I got nothing directly related to the search words. We can link pleasure to all our qualities—integrity, goodness, sincerity, honesty, generosity, and capacity for self-regulation—by registering the pleasure, meaning that we consciously note it and make an intention to continue feeling it. Pleasure is obviously also available through our health, gratitude, wonder, and joy.
To raise our consciousness, we have to keep coming back to how we produce displeasure. We produce displeasure in thousands of ways. Consider, as one example, our feelings on walking or driving past a homeless man. We would be suffering needlessly if we were to identify with the pain he might be feeling: unworthy, rejected, betrayed, or abandoned. When we identify in this way, we’re not producing true empathy. What we’re producing is self-centered; we’re connecting through someone else with what’s unresolved in us. This will produce confusion, anxiety, and guilt. We could also unconsciously refuse to register the existence of the individual, as if he were invisible. But such avoidance would mirror a painful inner disconnect to our self. We are being appropriate when we respond to such situations out of compassion rather than reacting out of guilt or avoidance. Compassion, like love, is associated more with pleasure than with emotional pain. Through compassion, we can experience the homeless man in our heart without any suffering on our part. We may or may not decide to be generous and give him some money or later donate funds to a homeless shelter. Yet our fullest compassion and generosity derive from seeing the man in his complete humanity. We see him in his essence rather than as a projection from our psyche.
Meanwhile, beware of certain nonsense that’s promoted in the media. It’s consciousness that determines our access to pleasure, not, as some neuroscientists insist, biochemical processes in the brain. It is most likely that brain processes in themselves are subject to the quality of our consciousness. For instance, low dopamine signaling may be, in the first place, a condition that develops in those people who, for much of their life, have been unconsciously determined to hold on to their suffering, thereby minimizing the body and mind’s capacity to produce pleasure.
Even if, in some cases, variants in genes turn down the function of dopamine signaling in the pleasure circuit of the brain, our consciousness has the power to intervene on our behalf and to seek compensating healthy (perhaps meditative or spiritual) ways to feel pleasure.
Consciousness, rather than power or wealth, also produces the pleasure of being ourselves and feeling free in ourselves. When we are more conscious, when our openness to life has been enhanced by vital self-knowledge, we are less egotistical, less likely to abuse power or hoard wealth, and more likely to care about the well-being of others. Typically, people who are not working on becoming more evolved and conscious do not pay any heed to consciousness, and they miss seeing its vital role in helping us to fashion a better world.
Enjoy the quality of your consciousness. Refine the rich vein of pleasure in the bedrock of your life.