They have the potential to lead you to the highest of joys: inhabiting your true Self. By Sally Kempton
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 avoids. She 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’s sweets, love, or 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, especially classical and Vedantic yoga, 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—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 the text, 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—offer 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 Tantrists look on the body and the world as shakti: 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 honoring the divine. A famous Tantric verse reads, “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 counseled 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 ultimately worked for her, but I’ve used this 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.
Driven by Pleasure
Pleasure is the emotional core of our sense of aliveness. Moreover, it is the primary motivator in our lives. As a spiritual practitioner of nearly 50 years, I’ve seen this in myself and in my students over and over again. It’s impossible to stay with any practice unless you enjoy it. Anything you engage in simply because it’s good for you—a diet, a relationship, work, or meditation—will eventually fall away unless you take pleasure in it.
From a mystical point of view, our capacity for enjoyment is the signature of the inherent blissfulness of creation. According to brain science, we are wired for pleasure. Pleasure centers are located in the midbrain, the seat of emotions, and they are designed to fire in response to stimuli that ensure physical survival. Food, sex, and aerobic exercise all trigger the pleasure centers, sending chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin to the cortical area where the brain recognizes that something you’re doing is good and should be continued.
In healthy cycles, the higher brain chooses pleasures that are conducive to 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 well-being and that of our community, not to mention the planet’s.
But the body’s natural tendency is to treat pleasure as a signal that you’re on the right track. Pleasure centers are also sparked by a number of more-subtle activities, including yoga, pranayama, and meditation; these evoke feelings such as empathy, gratitude, and love. Research suggests that the dopamine surges the brain experiences as rewarding are stronger and last longer when the thoughts and actions that set them off are eudaimonic—that is, kind, peaceful, 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—relatively superficial layers and deeper ones. You get to deeper levels of pleasure only by making an effort—to be fully present, to exercise awareness, to act lovingly, to give up the strings that the ego attaches to experience. And paradoxically, this often demands that you move past what’s merely comfortable.
It’s not pleasure that opposes the good, it’s addiction to comfort. This is an important idea that comes from the Mussar school, a system of ethical wisdom training in the Jewish tradition. This idea adds a powerful dimension to the pleasure discussion, one that can help you understand more deeply what texts such as the Katha Upanishad may have been getting at. When the sage of the Katha Upanishad tells us that a wise person will choose the good over the pleasant, he means that the wise 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 delights comes from the greatest depths. When you get inside the pleasure—through awareness, deep savoring, or surrender—its divine quality becomes apparent. This is true whether you take pleasure in chocolate, lovemaking, an energetic vinyasa, or immersion in chanting.
To deeply experience the yoga of pleasure, it is helpful to think of it in terms of five basic levels that range from relatively superficial to extremely subtle: sensual pleasure, loving intimacy, purposeful action, creativity, and immersion in spirit. The subtler levels of pleasure are the richest and the closest to what the Upanishad meant by “the good.” We often understand this intuitively without putting it into words. What we don’t always understand is that one of the marks of subtler pleasures is that they require more effort, more practice. This is also true of sensual pleasures, which can be powerful doorways into subtler levels of awareness—if you are willing to practice them mindfully.
Moreover, these levels I’ve described are not interchangeable, which is one reason why, as human beings, we need all of these kinds of pleasure—each has its own value and its own gifts. But no amount of purely 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. And loving intimacy won’t give you the same kind of pleasure as working toward a meaningful goal or even simply being immersed in a project or task, just as no amount of work satisfaction will give you the particular joy you can get from cuddling with a child. Likewise, none of these pleasures can be exchanged for the joy of creativity—the rush of happiness chemicals that overwhelms you when you experience inspiration flowing through you, whether you’re making art or reimagining the way you live your life. But even pleasure from creativity can’t equate to the profound experience of mystical union, the pleasure of pure being.
Sensual pleasures include the taste of food, the touch of a dew-spangled rose, a lover’s embrace, the sight of an arrestingly beautiful face, or appreciation of a great piece of art. They can be fairly primal or highly refined—a Hostess Twinkie 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 centers 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 coarser pleasures can’t match.
What does it take to deepen sensual pleasure? Maximum enjoyment requires maximum attentiveness—the ability to become fully present to a taste or a touch or a fragrance. The more present you are with the physical universe and with your own body, the greater your pleasure experiences will be.
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 savoring the smell, the touch, the sight of a sensual experience. The Tantric text Vijnana Bhairava offers this practice: As you’re eating a ripe peach, or watching a sunset, or being aroused by your beloved’s touch, focus on the sensation of pleasure within 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.
When I see someone I love coming toward me, something opens or turns over in my heart. It has to do with his or her specialness and with my ability to perceive the unique beauty of their personhood. I call this the pleasure of intimate connection. It can happen with a child, a romantic partner, a friend, a teacher or student, a pet, and even with a group of friends or loved ones.
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. These things get in the way of the pleasure that intimate love instills. 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 energies clear in her family. It goes, I forgive you; please forgive me; let’s forgive ourselves.
In Heinrich Zimmer’s retelling of the myth of Kama (the Indian god of love, desire, and 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, because without a purpose, life has no meaning!” Those words, from the mouth of the god of pleasure, speak to the intense joy of this third level of pleasure: that from purposeful work. Neither physical pleasure nor pleasure from intimate love can substitute for that which you get from meaningful activity, from devoting yourself to a cause or task that you deeply believe in—one 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 ran to the aid of earthquake victims near a beach resort they’d been staying at in Asia. As they threw themselves into the rescue effort, they found that they could sense what was needed in the moment, and every action they took was efficient and harmonious. That 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’d ever had.
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 a 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 life’s universal truths that when you work for recognition rather than for the work itself, you’ll never get real pleasure from what you’re doing. Pleasure comes from your willingness to make an effort for the sake of others because it’s the right thing to do.
Inspiration and Creativity
When you’re in a state of genuine creative inspiration, you’re connected to a greater force. To be creatively inspired is to enter a zone where ideas, movements, words, and 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. “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 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 from 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 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” gifts of inspiration. Experiencing the full depth of joy in inspiration demands that you let go of the ego-driven notion “I did this,” and recognize that creative inspiration comes from the essence—from the Self. The practice for experiencing creative pleasure is non-doership: what Taoism calls the action of non-action.
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 subtle 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 delight: 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 fades—even if only for a moment—and you enter into the state of pure being. The key is letting ego dissolve. Not an easy matter, as any meditator will tell you—in fact, it’s not something you manage without grace. However, even though you can’t force your ego to dissolve, there is a practice that can open you up to moments of pure awareness—any time.
Try it. For a minute, just drop the thought that you are a separate being. Recognize that your body, mind, and emotions all function perfectly well without there being an ego to experience them. Notice what you feel. See if you can taste the rare pleasure of freedom. When the sense of separateness or ego comes back, let it go again. Keep tuning into what remains when your sense of individualism dissolves for a moment. See if you can become a connoisseur of the subtle pleasure that comes from a relaxed ego.
Once you have tasted being ego-free, you can bring that awareness into any pleasurable experience. Each level of pleasure can be an avenue into your true Self if you know how to be 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 feeling good, 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, enjoying the company of a friend, 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 and lean into life’s pleasures, you’ll connect with the true source of all pleasure—the Self.
Stop and savor these moments. Turn your attention inside, and let every pleasure take you to the sacred joy that is your core.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognised teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It and Awakening Shakti. Find her at sallykempton.com.