Worldly Pleasures?

by Christopher Lovejoy on April 28, 2013

Historically, in many circles of influence, pleasure was given a bad name.

At dining tables, ancient philosophers explored, examined, and exercised the notion that “eat, drink, and be merry” is the best you can do. In little cubbyholes, religious ascetics harbored the notion that worldly pleasure invites the devil into the heart of your soul.

Nowadays, spiritual seekers everywhere insist that pleasure, worldly or otherwise, is your birthright.

With all of these conflicting points of view, who is right and who is wrong? Or is there even a right or wrong to be had where the pursuit of worldly pleasures and desires is concerned?

Must the risk of constant indulgence and shameless excess compel us to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Or can pleasure be rescued from those who would repress it into extinction?

Tao Te Ching, Verse 35

As verse 35 makes clear, Lao Tzu was not a hedonic sage. He was not one to indulge worldly pleasures, not one to seek passing fancies.

Rather, he counselled, rather emphatically, that all of the pleasure you could possibly need or want can be found through your appreciation of, and your participation in, the Tao.

All seekers go to them
who keep to the One.
They flock to them
and receive no harm,
for in them they find
peace, security, happiness.

Music and dining
are passing pleasures,
yet they cause people to stop.
How bland and insipid
are the things of this world
when you compare them
to the Tao!

When you look for it,
there’s nothing to see;
when you listen for it,
there’s nothing to hear;
when you make use of it,
there’s nothing to exhaust.

Edited slightly to enhance flow and to reflect more inclusive language

Ref: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao

As is the way with Oriental thought, much is left to implication.

My Impressions of the Verse

When we think of pleasure, we oftentimes think of food, money, and sex; we think of eating, drinking, and being merry.

Where pleasure and desire are concerned, a clean, clear distinction can be made between pleasurable and enjoyable.

Pleasurable is purely biological; enjoyable is purely psychological. Having sex is pleasurable; making love is enjoyable.

All seekers go to them
who keep to the One.
They flock to them
and receive no harm,
for in them they find
peace, security, happiness.

The phrase, “keep to the One”, is our key to understanding this part of the verse.

To keep to the One is to see pleasure and desire through the eyes of enjoyment and to find enjoyment through pleasure and desire.

This requires that body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit are aligned consistently and harmoniously to the Way, to the One, to the Tao, where peace, security, and happiness reside.

Intuitively, many know this to be true for them: that the laws of creation can be discovered and observed, the fruits of which can be enjoyed.

Those who keep to the One are highly regarded and regularly sought after for these reasons.

Music and dining
are passing pleasures,
yet they cause people to stop.
How bland and insipid
are the things of this world
when you compare them
to the Tao!

This portion of the verse requires some careful interpretation.

Music and dining, in and of themselves, are passing pleasures, whenever pleasure is treated as paramount and enjoyment is bypassed, causing people to exit the flow found with the One.

That is, they abandon themselves to the music with Dionysian fervor after stuffing themselves with rich food and getting drunk on good wine.

What Lao Tzu is saying here is that if you make a habit of divorcing your pleasure from the Way, reducing desire to urge and impulse so that you miss the experience of enjoyment, the things of this world will (eventually) seem bland and insipid.

Pleasure and desire have their time and place with the Tao as and when the restraining influence of enjoyment is given its due.

When you look for it,
there’s nothing to see;
when you listen for it,
there’s nothing to hear;
when you make use of it,
there’s nothing to exhaust.

The formless Tao is invisible, inaudible, inexhaustible in all of its beauty and bounty.

For this reason, a spiritual alliance with the Tao requires discipline, which comes from and through satisfying a biological need for pleasure in tandem with fulfilling a psychological desire for enjoyment.

A fixation on the senses just won’t do.

Implications for Personal Fulfillment

Pleasure, desire, enjoyment: how might we best view them and treat them as we go about living our lives?

The missing ingredient here, the one that links pleasure with enjoyment, biology with psychology, is an attitude of gratitude.

Gratitude is a quality of thankfulness, of gratefulness, a readiness to express appreciation, a readiness to respond in kind.

When we infuse what we already have with gratitude, the need for pleasure is informed, a desire for enjoyment is inspired.

When I return home from a jog after facing icy winds, the adversity I faced stimulates a readiness to express appreciation for the warmth in my home, for the warmth, flavor, and aroma found in a mug of hot cocoa, informing my need of warmth, inspiring a desire to enjoy it yet again.

An attitude of gratitude is a disposition to receive and respond to the gift, the blessing, the offer, the favor.

An attitude of gratitude is the rich, fertile soil at the heart of soul from which the seeds of desire can sprout, grow, and bloom in the face of adversity, in response to the satisfaction of need, for the sake of enjoyment.

Without gratitude, pleasure never reaches fruition with enjoyment; desire turns obsessive and compulsive. Indulgence becomes inevitable.

With gratitude, alacrity welcomes adversity, from which appreciation can flow with pleasure into enjoyment by way of desire.

Next up: Obscurity Wisdom (Living in Obscurity)

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This post is one of many in an ongoing series that began here.

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