The experience of pleasure has played a key role in human history and development. Pleasure is crucial to our desire for sex, food, friendships, community, and appreciation of nature and our environment. Pleasure is the template for happiness, joy and meaning.
In general pleasure has guided us towards things that insure our survival such as sex and food, and fosters our desire for friendship, community and appreciation of nature and our environment. Displeasure and pain on the other hand guide us away from things which endanger, injure, poison, disable us or restrict our quality of life.
Pleasure is at the core of our ability to both survive and to thrive. Throughout human history pleasure has led us towards life affirming behavior, while pain has averted us from life threatening and destructive events.
Non-sentient and even molecular life seems to have mechanisms that promote pleasure and survival and avert pain and extinction. The vestiges or precursors to pleasure are visible in the reflex reaction of a cell’s shrinking back from a dangerous or foreign substance and gravitating or incorporating a life affirming stimuli or substance.
While the pleasure/pain economy has been very efficient, it is by no means an infallible or perfect mechanism. Adaptations to dramatic or novel changes in the environment can trick the pleasure mechanism or cause it to fail in its ability to avoid or adapt to life threatening situations and events.
Our pleasure and pain economy does have a learning curve and since it is structured in our nervous system and body often takes generations to successfully adapt and incorporate new tastes in pleasure and pain. Just as our immune system takes time to adapt to a new germ, virus or bacteria to which we are being exposed.
We have pain and pleasure thresholds, in which both have acceptable ranges. We have all had the experience of a pleasurable experience being taken to excess in which the pleasurable experience crosses the threshold and becomes unpleasant if not painful.
Pain too often has a threshold that once passed we either lose consciousness or our body discharges powerful anesthetics into our system. Yet, our threshold of pain often provides us a warning system that offers us opportunities to improve our health or widen our capacities. The pain involved in exercise and physical exertion are often guide posts we can use that if we stay inside the thresholds we improve our abilities, immune system, or over all health.
Our conscious selves can change at a far greater speed than our organic selves, and to a large extent our pleasure/pain continuum is dominated by our organic selves. This ability for consciousness to grow and change at speeds that greatly surpass the organic self can lead to our conscious self duping or causing our pleasure economy to fail or give false signals.
Many substances and experiences which stimulate the pleasure response have a long history of being life enhancing or replicate the chemicals the body produces to have us feel pleasure, joy, connection, etc. Yet, our conscious abilities allow us to alter, distill, manipulate, modify, combine and increase the frequency and dosage of these substances and events which can result in our developing unhealthy and even life threatening compulsions and addictions. This fact has led us to over react, to mistrust or sometimes vilify our bodies pleasure signals.
This tendency of conscious mind to subvert and pervert our pleasure/pain economy has resulted in our devaluing or fearing pleasure and our organic self. The long history of human existence has been filled with much pain and suffering which has also induced self-conscious beings into sometimes choosing anesthesia over pleasure. This desire to over come suffering by becoming physically numb and emotionally detached is at the core of every major religion and spiritual practice.
Sense and Self-Consciousness
Through the instinctual, reflexive and ever evolving pleasure/pain mechanism (dynamic) our sensorial organic self (body) was able to be guided to make increasingly successful life affirming decisions. Over the course of time these decisions not only insured the survival of our species though successful adaptation, but created increasingly complex and rich experience.
Our sensorial world of pleasure and pain induced ever increasing awareness of our inner and outer world. Senses such as taste and touch had pronounced internal components. Our skin through the sense of touch was a major way in which we took in and interfaced with the world. Yet, an internal sense of touch put us in contact with our visceral selves. This is the sense of satiation and completion from food and water, or the warning pain of a head or stomach ache.
The sensation of taste occurs in our mouth and is felt inside our body. While we occasionally experience a taste in our mouth, the sense of taste is generally activated by the taking in of life from the outside world.
Smell is very associated and a companion of our sense of taste. While we experience smell inside our body we are very aware of its external origins and in fact we feel that we are smelling the rose as it exists outside of our nose and nostrils. Similar to smell we hear noises from the outside even though we experience them internally through the ear. Yet, we often can hear noises from inside the body such as our breathing, heartbeat, growling stomach or even creaking bones. In this manner of internal awareness hearing bears a strong resemblance to our sense of touch.
Our sense of sight is the most abstract and spatial of our senses. While many of our other senses directly affect and alter our real inner world, our sense of vision gives depth to all the other senses by having them orient all experience in the highly articulated world of the outside environment.
With our keen sense of vision we can plan, take evasive action, manipulate, prepare and imagine in ways which no other sense can come close to replicating. The closest rival does seem to hearing and is often the most developed sense of any one deprived of good vision.
Our sense of smell became less valuable to us as we became bipeds which stood erect and vertically open to the world rather than on all fours and being focused on the ground beneath us. So while the growing richness of our senses increased our awareness of our environment, changes in biological design such as our becoming two footed runners and observers of our horizons probably had a greater impact on the development and predominance of our self-consciousness (mind).
There appear to many factors that led to our amazing level of self-consciousness and intellectual acuity. A few of the factors would include the already mentioned standing erect, along with opposable thumbs and the evolution of the brain especially the neocortex. Our ability to articulate and unfold self-consciousness is difficult to imagine occurring without the accelerated growth in all forms of symbolic language especially that of words.
Moderns have difficulty imagining quality experience devoid of thought, or quality thought devoid of language (words). Yet, it reasonable to assume that man started off with a very small vocabulary similar to how children learn spoken language today. One would think that a very restricted vocabulary would have a difficult time producing a large volume of thoughts and that their occurrence was not the continual stream that we moderns have become accustomed to experiencing. I personally have a recollection of early childhood where events, play and fantasy dominated and did not seem to be so thought and word dependent. Also, our translations of the writing of ancient greeks (and others) are filled with examples of citizens who expressed surprise and discomfort for even the most mundane of thoughts and emotions usually denying any ownership of them and viewing them as coming from outside or a gift from the gods.
As sensorial awareness become richer and self-consciousness expanded due to factors such as brain and language development the emotional and psychological life of men was born and became increasingly dominant. The emergence of self-consciousness made us aware of the passage of time and of our having a personal history. We increasingly went from a body responding and reacting to external and internal stimuli to a consciousness planning, anticipating, hoping, regretting, feeling, desiring and searching for meaning in what we did and thought.
Conceptual and Physical Pleasure
The sensorial body is generally locked in the here and now. The pleasure pain mechanisms helped guide this body towards life affirming behavior and experiences and away from harmful or life threatening ones. The birth and development of self-consciousness aided the body in its goal of survival by giving it more options to alter and modify its environment, while expanding its abilities and resources to defend itself and acquire life’s necessities.
Self-consciousness and its rich emotional and psychological life developed its own pleasure and pain system which guided its desire to survive and flourish. Pleasurable emotional and psychological states such as loyalty, attachment, love and self-care were balanced by painful one’s such as mourning, anxiety, and anger which often aided in personal survival.
The mind and thoughts kinship with the sense of sight aided in its ability to imagine (images) and envision the possible and thereby assist in its altering or influencing the immediate environment. The ability to harbor and access the past, see the present from a global perspective, and anticipate the future gave self-conscious a tremendous advantage in the ability to survive and successfully adapt to one’s surroundings.
Self-consciousness was able to not only assist the sensorial body, but also to invent, create and imagine pleasures beyond the scope and design of the sensorial body. When pain and suffering became too great the mind was learning how to cope with, escape or even transmute suffering through imagination and belief.
The desire to escape pain and suffering through the creative powers of the mind became a vital component of the belief systems, myths and religions of almost every culture on the face of the earth. This overcoming of pain and suffering could be accomplished through salvation, revelation, enlightenment, a promise of of life after death, or esthetic practices of emotional detachment.
The overcoming of pain and suffering by transcending the body and its vulnerable sensorial world has been on the ascent for many centuries. The body and its world of successful functioning through pleasure and pain has been supplanted by an abstract world of belief and mind over matter.
Yet, abstract pleasure is not as rich as sensorial pleasure and self-consciousness combined. An imagined juicy peach is not as satisfying and pleasurable as eating a real peach. While imagined pleasure can be beneficial it truly cannot replace our very real needs for food, water and air.
The abstract pleasures of mind divorced from the sensorial body are quite beneficial and often necessary means of our being able to cope and deal with great pain and suffering. Yet, one is currently not in a state of suffering the taking flight into mind weakens our experiences and deprives us of all the millennia of benefits of what our sensorial body has learned of how to survive and flourish. No matter how self-conscious we become our sensorial bodies are what have us successfully live and function in the real world at a reaction speed far faster than we can think and make self-conscious decisions.
Spirituality and The Flesh
The belief that the body is a burden or a necessary hurdle on one’s journey towards heaven, nirvana, or some other form of eternal union is at the heart of many religions and spiritual practices. The belief that some essence called spirit will survive the death of the body, and in the case of reincarnation return again and again in new bodies until perfection is reached, and in the end will end up in a state of union for all eternity is extremely common.
The blissful state of this ultimate union is too refined for the gross sensorial body chained to the world of attached pleasure and pain. This spiritual state beyond pleasure and pain demonstrates the desire if not glorification of anesthesia.
The fear of pain and suffering is greater than the rich joys that are only able to be attained through the sensorial body. The unity and connection often espoused at the heart of spiritual practices is by definition bodiless. It is a unity of spirit or consciousness and not a physical connection or a rich sensorial pleasure such as the peach, but rather only the thought of the peach, or love, or actual connection.
Our sensorial body is very aware of physical connection and our consciousness can find no other analog to use. We should not find this surprising since the process of mind is born from the interaction of environment, body, nervous system and brain. All of our imagining are structured in the real world of the sensorial body, and all our conceptual pleasures of spirituality are structured in that very same rich and abundant sensorial world.
Spiritualists often make the universe as the ultimate source of our connection. The grand universe shows how we are all one. Our concept of universe is very similar to the monotheistic vision of a one god or creator that unifies and is everything. In either case most modern spiritualism emphasizes connection through the unity of the one “uni-verse” (uni meaning one).
I personally find the universe too abstract to be my source of connection. The universe is far too large for me to “feel”. The universe and God for that matter are beyond the constructs of our mind and its capacities for comprehension. The unfathomable dimensions of the universe do not inspire intimate connection, and the fact that the vast overwhelming majority of space is dead and devoid of any life (even molecular) is not warm and fuzzy but actually frightening.
Why would anyone make something so cold, distant, empty and unfathomable the very template and rationale for connection and unity? Why do people so readily seek connection out there, rather than right here? In many ways it replicates our connecting to others via cell phones and internet while ignoring family and friends at the restaurant we are at.
The universe for me is not a great image for unity and connection, but rather an inexhaustible source of awe and wonder. My source of connection is not found way out there, but rather right here. As I noted earlier, our sensorial bodies are intimately aware of the interconnection and interdependency of life.
I take in a bit of the world in every inhalation and return a bit of me in every exhalation. My connection and dependence on the world is obvious in every breath I take. My entire sensorial world full of pleasure and physical challenges is a dance of perpetual interdependence. My body is a host of interacting systems and generally harmonious colonies of microbes without which my life would not
I am fashioned by every interaction I have with another person, and every conversation I partake in. In many ways it is the divorcing and separation of self-consciousness itself which is at the source of our feeling of being disconnected. A sensorial body aided by self-conscious ego is capable of creating a tangible intimate existence. Not just an abstract union but a very real corporeal and rich intimacy.
Spirituality and religion are steeped in abstract language where the goal is radical change showing deep dissatisfaction with mundane life. Spiritual and religious texts goals often involve transformation, salvation and enlightenment, where the goal is the transcendence of mundane life, the sensorial body and the extinction of the individual ego.
I personally want to find better ways to appreciate, savor and intimately engage in life. I do not desire making everything one, but relish in the plenitude and diversity of our lush planet teeming with life. I see little benefit and great loss by trying to reduce life to a singularity. I seek no ultimates, certainties or eternal truths but rather look to embrace and enjoy the endless process of becoming more familiar, comfortable and intimate with my environment and the people who share it with me.