In most religions the pursuit of pleasure is frowned on. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama preaches what may be considered the opposite, that our happiness and joy are nothing short of the very meaning of life.
So how do those of us who are trying to pursue a spiritual path reconcile the strange notion that our own personal happiness and pleasure are at the core of everything?
According to visiting religious scholar and professor Alan Wallace, the answer is in the Greek word eudemonia. The direct translation is “deep, lasting pleasure” as opposed to hedonic pleasure; or commonly translated as “human flourishing”. It was a concept much valued and practised in ancient Greece, not just in modern-day spirituality and Buddhism.
Hedonistic pleasure is fleeting. We recently went on our trip around Italy and Sicily — one of the most magical journeys I’ve had, full of delight. But I don’t remember much without looking at the photos. All those little details, the colours, the chocolate in Noto, my first glimpse of the cliffs of the Amalfi coast, fade when new daily preoccupations force memories out the way. So I’m left craving for more, already planning another trip.
It’s the same with hot sex, wild parties or a great meal: magnificent at the time but leaving one craving another hit, another shot into the veins of dopamine, the reward chemical that keeps us high on life. Hedonic pleasure is like pouring water into sand, and creates addictive and often unkind behaviour in order to get one’s fill — unlike eudemonia, which lasts and is a state of completeness.
It’s also aimed at enriching others. For instance, in spiritual traditions like some forms of Tantra, sexual practices with a special consort aimed at reaching higher states of consciousness (via passion) are encouraged. It’s infectious, and the couple’s happiness is a cup spilling over with joy to others. A Tantric saying is: “As I receive pleasure, the whole world receives pleasure through me.”
This year, since I returned from my teacher in India, I’ve started to feel eudemonia for the first time and to some extent have stopped craving validation, attention, greater and greater success, to feel whole.
So how does one get it? By clearing space. By ridding oneself of toxic thoughts and toxic relationships, and preparing an environment for new growth. It’s like pruning a garden. It’s not easy to do because there are a lot of people who need “trimming” or lopping off; a lot of beliefs that have to be pulled out like weeds. But when the garden is cleared, it will flourish and provide nourishment for one’s soul and for others. No, it doesn’t happen quickly, but wonderful to start tilling the soil.
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