A woman named Rita called me recently in a mild panic. She’s a committed vegan who has followed a strict diet for the past five years. But for several months, she’d been craving—and eating—ice cream, pizza and other foods she normally abstained from. She was worried that she was falling into self-indulgence.
My immediate intuition was that her system was seeking balance. If you’re healthy, craving a particular form of pleasure is often a sign that you’ve gone too far in abstaining from it. That’s true whether it is the pleasure of sweets, the pleasure of love or the pleasure of deep practice.
But Rita isn’t the only yogi I know who gets confused about the line between pleasure and self-indulgence. It’s understandable, because yoga traditions are somewhat split on the subject of pleasure. Some of them, especially classical yoga and Vedanta, see a basic contradiction between yoga and enjoyment. This viewpoint is summed up in a famous verse in the Katha Upanishad, a text of Vedantic yoga: “Both the good and the pleasurable approach a person. The wise choose the good over the pleasurable.”
Generations of practitioners have taken this as a call to seek the bare concrete floor rather than the cushy rug, and celibacy rather than coupling. (Perhaps it would be more to the point to interpret the statement as encouragement to choose your early-morning practice over an extra hour of sleep!) Concrete floors aside, there’s truth in what the text says, especially if you substitute the phrase “comfort zone” for “pleasure”. Transformation does require you to be willing to move past what’s comfortable.
But the Tantric authors of the Vijnana Bhairava and the Spanda Karikas—two advanced yogic texts—have a much more nuanced take on pleasure. If classical yoga and Vedanta see the world as fundamentally illusory, and its pleasures as distractions to be transcended, the Tantrikas look on the body and the world as shakti, or divine conscious energy. One of the most beautiful of all the Tantric ideas is that the body, the senses and the brain are instruments through which spirit, or consciousness, takes pleasure in itself. When you see life this way, enjoyment—when experienced with awareness—becomes a way of honouring the Divine. A famous Tantric verse says: “Some people think that where there is yoga there can be no enjoyment, and when there is worldly pleasure there can be no yoga. But on this path, both yoga and worldly enjoyment come and sit in the palm of your hand.”
Of course, bringing together yoga and worldly enjoyment requires discipline. One of my teachers once counselled an overweight, chocolate-addicted student to offer herself tiny pieces of chocolate as though she were offering sweets to a deity inside—and to chew them very slowly. I don’t know whether it worked for that person, but I’ve used the practice for years as a way of enjoying sweets without overindulging. Discipline and a sense of the sacred are key here. But so is pleasure.
Pleasure is the emotional core of our sense of aliveness. Moreover, it is the primary motivator in our lives. As a 40-year spiritual practitioner, I’ve seen this over and over again, in myself and in my students. It’s impossible to stay with any practice unless you enjoy it. Anything you practise just because it’s good for you—whether it’s a diet, a healthy relationship, work or meditation—will eventually fall away unless you can take pleasure in it. Your capacity for enjoyment is the signature of the inherent blissfulness of creation.
From a mystical point of view, your capacity for enjoyment is the signature of the inherent blissfulness of creation. From the point of view of brain science, you are wired for pleasure. The pleasure centres are located in the midbrain, the seat of emotions, and they are designed to fire in response to stimuli that ensure your physical survival. Food, sex, defecation and aerobic exercise all trigger the pleasure centres, sending chemicals like dopamine and serotonin to the cortical area, where the brain recognises that something you’re doing is good and should be continued. In healthy cycles, the higher brain chooses pleasures that are good for the survival of the individual and the greater community. In unhealthy cycles, however, the system can get hijacked by imbalances, whether genetic, stress induced or chemical. This is what happens in our stress-loaded society, where so many of us are conditioned to take pleasure in junk food, drugs and forms of entertainment that are ultimately bad for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our community, not to mention the planet. But the body’s natural tendency is to treat pleasure as a signal that you’re on the right track.
These same pleasure centres are also sparked by a number of more subtle activities, including yoga, pranayama and meditation; feelings like empathy, gratitude and love; and much more. Research suggests that the dopamine surges that the brain experiences as rewarding are stronger and more long lasting when the thoughts and actions that set them off are eudonic—that is, kind, peaceful and generous, and good for life itself. So brain science confirms something else that the sages of yoga understood intuitively: not only is pleasure helpful to our survival, but it also has multiple levels. There are relatively superficial layers of pleasure, and deeper ones. You get to deeper levels of pleasure only by making an effort—the effort to be fully present, to exercise awareness, to act lovingly, to give up the strings that the egoic self attaches to experience. And paradoxically, this often demands that you move past the merely comfortable.
It’s not pleasure that opposes the good. What opposes the good is our addiction to comfort. This is an important idea that comes from the Mussar school, a system of ethical training in the mystical Jewish tradition, which I first learned of from the spiritual teacher Marc Gafni, who also introduced me to the idea that pleasure has levels. This idea adds a powerful dimension to the discussion of pleasure, one that can help you understand more deeply what texts like the Katha Upanishad may have been getting at. When the sage of the Katha Upanishad tells us that the wise person will choose the good over the pleasant, he means that the wise person will choose the good over the merely comfortable. In other words, the wise person will choose effort and depth over laziness and superficiality.
In the yogic sense, the deepest pleasure comes from the greatest depth. It’s when you get inside the pleasure—whether through awareness, deep savouring or surrender—that its divine quality becomes apparent. This is true whether you are taking your pleasure in chocolate, lovemaking, an energetic vinyasa or immersion in chanting.
The subtler levels of pleasure are the richest, and the closest to what the Upanishad meant by “the good”.
To deeply experience the yoga of pleasure, it is helpful to think of pleasure in terms of five basic levels, which range from the relatively superficial to the extremely subtle—sensual pleasure, the pleasure of loving intimacy, the pleasure of purposeful action, the pleasure of creativity and the pleasure of immersion in spirit. The subtler levels of pleasure are the richest, and the closest to what the Upanishad meant by “the good”. This is something we often understand intuitively without being able to put it into words. What we don’t always understand is that one of the marks of the subtler pleasures is that they require more effort, more practice.
Moreover, these levels of pleasure are not interchangeable. This is one reason why, as human beings, we need all of these kinds of pleasure—because each has its own value and its own gifts. But no amount of sensual pleasure—good as it may be—will give you the experience of deep loving intimacy, which is why it ultimately doesn’t work to make sex or food stand in for love. (In other words, when you feel lonely, call a friend instead of reaching for a piece of cake!) In the same way, the joy of loving connection can’t substitute for sexual pleasure, though it certainly enhances it. Loving intimacy won’t give you the pleasure of working for a meaningful goal or even the simpler pleasure of being immersed in a project or a task, just as no amount of work satisfaction will give you the particular joy you get from cuddling with your child. None of these pleasures can be exchanged for the joy of the creative act—the rush of pleasure chemicals that overwhelms you when you experience inspiration flowing through you, whether it’s in making art or re-imagining the way you live your life. And even the pleasure of creativity won’t give you the profound pleasure of mystical union, the pleasure of pure Being.
Distraction is the great enemy of enjoyment. Sensual pleasures include the taste of food, the touch of a dew-spangled rose or a lover’s embrace, the sight of an arrestingly beautiful face or a great piece of art. They can be fairly primal or highly refined—a chocolate muffin appeals to a coarser part of the palate than a perfectly balanced crème brûlée. But both appease the gnaw of hunger; both stimulate the pleasure centres in the limbic system—though when the ripples of pleasure from an expert lover’s touch or a great chef’s flavourful dish reach the higher centres in the cortex, the appreciation they stimulate may cause shivers of delight that the coarser pleasure can’t match.
What does it take to deepen your sensual pleasure? The practice for maximum enjoyment at this level is maximum attentiveness—the ability to become fully present to a taste or a touch or a fragrance. The more present you can be with the physical universe and with your own body, the greater your pleasure.
Distraction is the great enemy of enjoyment. When we’re distracted, we’re liable to substitute quantity for quality, reaching for another helping or another stimulant or a different body because we haven’t been present enough to fully enjoy what we have. So, when you’re feeling a pleasure deficit, great masters of this subject recommend turning your attention inward and entering into the savour of the smell, the touch, the sight of a sensual experience. The Tantric text Vijnana Bhairava offers a practice: as you’re eating a ripe peach, or watching a sunset, or being aroused by your beloved’s touch, focus on the inner sensation of pleasure rather than on the phenomenon that has triggered it. Let the sensation expand. When you can be inwardly focused and completely present with any form of sensual pleasure, it can open the door to a profound yogic samadhi, a kind of joyful physical rapture.
The Pleasure Of Intimacy
When I see someone I love coming toward me, something opens or turns over in my heart, something that has to do with his or her specialness, and with my ability to perceive the unique beauty of each one’s person-hood. This is the pleasure of intimate connection. This connection can happen with your child, a romantic partner, a friend, a teacher or student, a pet and even with a group.
If the practice for deepening physical pleasure is attentiveness, the practices for experiencing pleasure in loving are trust and acceptance. The deep pleasure of loving intimacy arises when you’re able to hold your sense of intimate connection with another person even when they are not meeting your needs. The yoga of intimacy starts, like all forms of inner yoga, with awareness. Become aware of the subtle expectations you bring. Notice when you are caught by attachment to a particular outcome, and when you’re hanging on to hurts. All these things get in the way of the pleasure of intimate love. This is why forgiveness is one of the great yogic practices for keeping your heart open. One friend of mine works with a sort of mantra that, at least in the short term, helps her keep the channels clear in her family. It goes: “I forgive you; please forgive me; let’s forgive ourselves.”
The Pleasure of Absorption in Meaningful Work
In Heinrich Zimmer’s retelling of the myth of Kama (the Indian god of pleasure), the first thing the god says when he is born into the world is “What’s my job? Tell me what I am here to do, since without a purpose, life has no meaning!” To put those words into the mouth of the god of pleasure says something about the intense joy of this third level of pleasure. Neither physical pleasure nor the pleasure of intimate love can substitute for the pleasure you get from meaningful activity, from devoting yourself to a cause or a task that you deeply believe in and that seems to make the world a better place.
Two of my students still remember the sense of magic they experienced several years ago when they came to the aid of earthquake victims near an Asian beach resort where they happened to be staying. As they threw themselves into the rescue effort, they found that they were able to sense what was needed and that every action they took was efficient and harmonious. That total dedication of every faculty to something that felt vitally important not only enabled them to be genuinely helpful but also keyed them into an experience of pleasure as intense as any they had ever known.
The yogic practice for accessing this level of pleasure is to do what you do for the sake of the task itself, rather than for the sake of recognition or approval. The Bhagavad Gita offers us the time-tested formula, which I find myself coming back to again and again: “You have the right to the action itself, but not to its fruits.” It’s one of the laws of life that when you work for recognition rather than for the work itself, you can never get real pleasure from what you’re doing. The pleasure comes from your willingness to make an effort in the cause of something greater than your immediate comfort, and to make that effort for its own sake.
The Pleasure of Inspiration and Creativity
When you are in a state of genuine creative inspiration, you are connected to a greater force. To be creatively inspired is to enter a zone where ideas, movements, words, music flow through you. The pleasure of true creativity comes from the fact that it connects you directly to the Self, to the innate creativity of the universal consciousness itself. God is an artist, says one of the sages of Kashmir Shaivism, and when we are at our most creative, we are the most in touch with the Divine. Inspired creativity can flow in a conversation when all the participants are open to being channels for something to come that is greater than any one individual can access. It can arise when you ask for inner guidance in solving a problem. Or it can come totally on its own, as a gift.
What does it take to experience the pleasure of being inspired? First, you have to be willing and able to surrender to it—to let go of the fears, doubts and beliefs that block you from receiving inspiration. Second, you need to have the skill and patience to translate the inspiration into action. And third, you need to be able to notice and avoid the pride that comes in when you are tempted to “own” the gifts of inspiration. Experiencing the full depth of joy in inspiration demands that you let go of the feeling “I did this”, and that you recognise that creative inspiration comes from the essence, from the Self. The practice for experiencing the pleasure of creativity is non-doership: what Taoism calls the action of nonaction.
The Pleasure of Pure Spirit
The deeper the level of pleasure, the more transpersonal it becomes. The subtlest and deepest layer of pleasure is pure, unmediated communion with the essence, with God, with the inner Self. You might experience this as resting in pure awareness. But you can also experience this very subtlest kind of pleasure as an intimate communion with a very personal form of the Divine. The yoga of devotion, or bhakti yoga, is known for being a path of deep, subtle, mysterious pleasure. It has the sensual quality of the highest type of physical pleasure, the sweetness of intimacy, the selfless commitment of being immersed in something greater than yourself, and the bursting inspiration of true creativity.
The pleasure of pure spirit comes when the separate I-sense dissolves—even if only for a moment—and you enter into the state of pure being. The key is letting the ego dissolve into the presence that is its source. Not an easy matter, as any meditator will tell you—in fact, not something you manage without grace. However, even though you can’t force the ego to dissolve, there is a practice that can give you moments of openness to pure awareness, and you can do it at any moment of life.
Try it. For a moment, just drop the thought that you are a separate self. Recognise that “your” body, mind and emotions are all functioning. They continue to function perfectly well without a sense of there being a “me” to experience them. Notice what you feel. See if you can taste the rare pleasure of freedom. When the sense of “me” comes back, let it go again. Keep tuning in to what remains when the “me” dissolves for a moment. See if you can become a connoisseur of the subtle pleasure that arises when the ego relaxes.
Once you have tasted even a moment of being ego free, you can bring that awareness into any experience of pleasure. Every level of pleasure can be an avenue into the true Self if you know how to get fully immersed in the experience of enjoyment—without the separation that the ego creates. Once you know how to tap into the essential experience of pleasure, you’ll discover that you can follow any experience back to that timeless place. That’s the secret the Tantric yogis point us toward. Whether you are tasting something delicious, or enjoying the company of your friend, or throwing yourself wholeheartedly into a task or cause, or enjoying the flow of creativity, you can make any of these pleasures an avenue into the stillness of true Self. When you turn inward into the feeling of pleasure, that feeling will connect you to the true source of all pleasure, which is the Self.
This is the inner gift that pleasure—any pleasure—offers. You just have to know how to stop and savour these moments of pleasure and let them turn your attention inside, to let your every pleasure take you to the sacred joy that is your core.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognised teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy.