Our Long, Rich, and Complex History with Pleasure

Sep 16, 2020

Our Long, Rich, and Complex History with Pleasure

Ancient Greek philosophy, the foundation of much of our thinking still today, centered on the question and significance of, “What makes a good life? And What is the goal of the good life?” At the root of their study was the issue of our human struggle between pain and pleasure.

Yesterday, one of my readers sent me a podcast on the history of pleasure that I want to share with you. We live in such an “in the moment” society. An interest in our collective history, seems to be of diminishing relevance. I often think we move forward with little awareness that we have most likely “been here before.”

There’s an arrogance in how we collectively think of something in a certain way or project a future of our lives, as if we’ve come up with these ideas for the first time. But this is not the case. In university, I appreciated the offering that we study history to try to avoid the mistakes of the past, as in - history repeats itself.

I was attracted to psychology because this adage about history is certainly applicable in our personal lives. We all carry our his/her/story with awareness or unconsciously. How we carry it makes a difference.

How long we’ve been talking about pleasure

The podcast illustrates that we’ve been talking for a very long time about the meaning and purpose of pleasure. What’s most curious to me is that we still struggle with the same questions, ambivalences and dualities regarding pleasure, as did the ancient philosophers through history.

Our Canadian National radio, C.B.C., is running a series on The Common Good and did an episode on pleasure and the common good.

The podcast covers a lot of ground exploring the history of our thinking about pleasure. In the discussion, what most interested me was how these original thinkers focused on pleasure in its relationship to pain. It’s so basic – we want pleasure and we want to avoid pain. This is very human. And yet the reality of our human experience is that we will have both pleasure and pain. It’s not possible to avoid pain and yet we can explore what allows us to be with pain in ways so we don’t get lost in it; that it becomes all consuming.

Holding pain and pleasure side by side

It’s a deep and rewarding practice to attempt to hold the experience of pain and pleasure together. They are not in opposition to each other but instead are in relationship and impact each other. In the Unlock Pleasure work, a basic premise is that part of the purpose of pleasure is that it nourishes us, and through that nourishment, we build resiliency.

In our lives, we don’t know when adversity will happen. Who could have predicted that collectively we’d go through a global pandemic and all the stressors and change that would bring? Have you noticed how adversity so captures our attention?

Making pleasure a practice

But if you’ve made a conscious practice of creating pleasure, the habit and the memory of feeling good, will be well imprinted. When that is the case, we catch that propensity to dwell on pain or what’s problematic - worry and fears of the future and the unknown.

When we make the experience of pleasure of equal importance then we’ve learned that pleasure is possible in any moment. It doesn’t make pain or “the problem” go away, but it allows us to hold both at the same time. And our dipping into the pleasure zone brings a sense of perspective and with that comes an ease, confidence and greater wellbeing.

But also important to remember, as the ancients suggested, pleasure’s purpose is simply just to be enjoyed, because it feels good. And it’s good for us to feel good!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject – what has been your experience of the dance between pain and pleasure?





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Madeline combines her experience as a gifted teacher and facilitator with her exquisite sensitivity to guide us into unlocking pleasure. In her gentle way she helps us to make friends with our bodies, softening the places where we feel resistance, shame and pain and learn how to tune into the myriad sensations of pleasure. She embodies her teaching and the expression of her own pleasure is contagious. Madeline creates a safe space to (re)discover that we are wired for pleasure and can overcome the negative conditioning of fear, trauma, and messages of “not good enough”.

Ingrid Schirrholz, – Senior Faculty. Pathwork Vermont, Burlington, Vermont