The pleasure principle

What I thought was happiness was only part time bliss.

“The Pleasure Principle,” Control (1986), Janet Jackson

In my prior post “Sense, Sensuality, and Sensibility,” I questioned the idea of labeling any peak experience as “yoga” or “yogic.” In turn, some questioned me: Who am I to judge others’ inner lives while eating oysters or bungee jumping?

Certainly, experience is subjective. Here’s my concern: Yoga is being defined as a big high. As pleasure, thrill, passion, bliss. As climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, winning a race, falling in love, or smelling freshly baked bread. Why define yoga only in conventionally defined positive ways?

While perhaps inadvertent, this attitude bypasses people who are down and out. What if you’re alone, poor, ill? What if you’ve lost everything, or never had anything?

It is risky to associate yoga only with sunny, sensory experiences. If our own lives fall apart, what remains?

Zen nothingness

Brenda P of Grounding Thru the Sit Bones questioned her habit of calling all life activities “yoga.” While she included “both pleasurable and arduous” activities, I’m wondering if we should focus on activity at all. Perhaps due to my exploration of Zen Buddhism, I suspect that yoga and meditation are training us to be very minimalist in our being.

In Zen Buddhism, simply to sit in zazen is the ultimate expression of oneself. Simply to sit. Now, for my personality, sitting still is hard. But the idea that simply sitting is “enough” is quite comforting. When all is lost, when we cannot even walk, eat, or get out of bed, we can still “be.” In the end, that will be our yoga.

While life’s peaks and pleasures might indeed be yogic, consider the following:

  • Hunger Do we (privileged North Americans) really need to slow down and sensitize our tastebuds? Most of us already eat with gusto. We also eat from habit. We eat lunch when it’s “lunch time.” We eat when we’re not even really hungry. We actually need to rediscover that pang in the belly, that animal instinct.
  • Solitude While a love affair or parental bond can indeed feel yogic, solitude is underrated. People fear and somewhat stigmatize solitude (and definitely singlehood). But those at ease by themselves are often the most authentic. Of course, you need not become a monk (or to chuck your entire normal life, as Strickland did to pursue his art in my favorite Somerset Maugham novel, The Moon and Sixpence) to carve “alone time” for yourself.
  • Quiet Modern culture is plugged in and cranked up 24/7. Silence seems to cause uneasiness. We talk to fill the gaps. We’re more apt to classify an engaging conversation as “yoga” than a day at home, uttering not a word. If we talk, we think we’re “saying something”; if we’re quiet, we think we’re “doing nothing.” It might very well be the opposite!

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8 thoughts on “The pleasure principle

  1. Great thoughts and great post. I liked Brenda’s post about this too. I guess for me yoga isn’t the highs in my life, but yoga IS my life. And by that I don’t just mean physical practice of asana. (I sort of wrote about this the other day too.) Yoga is all of it – the highs, the lows. If we learn yoga and then internalize it into a lifestyle, we are living it. It informs everything we do. It informs what we do with our time, how we react to others, how we think – or try NOT to think sometimes. Interesting.

  2. Great post Yoga Spy! I think this is an important reflection on north american culture, which glorifies material possessions and individual achievement. We define ourselves in terms of what we “have”: food, relationships, scintillating conversation.

    Yoga is to define ourselves simply by being. It transcends all that is transient – riches, poverty, solitude, company – and tries to focus our awareness on the Self.

  3. QUIET is one of my main goals. I’m an introvert and I need more peace and quiet than most people. Which is why I hate advertising, especially television.

  4. I’m still working on this (I seem to mull all these things in YOUR comment sections–speaks to the thoughtfulness of your posts), but I think yoga/meditation is the training that allows us to understand the “essence” of things. So that yoga isn’t the thing, but it teaches us to appreciate the thing.

    But like I said, still working on it. Thanks for the link!

  5. I guess I disagree that labeling an experience as Yogic is “defining Yoga.” While studying the Bhagavad Gita recently a teacher reminded us that the gods in their earthly forms, were householders. They had families and homes and belongings, and practiced their yoga. Any experience when we are practicing our yoga could be described as yogic, without attempting to define yoga. That would seem to range from becoming a being of pure light and traveling to other worlds, to cleaning an out-house. Rolf Gates says “The pose is what we are doing, the yoga is how we are being in the pose.”

  6. Hi,

    I agree that your post is very thoughtful and I fully see your point. I am a tantrika and I never did see “bliss” or “ecstasy” the same way that my colleagues do. They often describe bliss and ecstasy as being like a full body orgasm that goes on and on, which I found to be a little discomforting. I told them in one of my training courses that I did not necessarily want to be ecstatic all the time, like in line at the grocery store. I wondered if they were just using those terms to attract business. Eventually I accepted that different individuals have different interpretations, even though yogic (or tantric). To me, bliss is a form of contentedness that originates independently from within, so no matter the current circumstances you can be grounded, centered, and at peace. It doesn’t have to be extreme, or holy. It just is what it is.

  7. Great post, and very much in line with many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately related to yoga. More and more I find I get more nourishment for my soul from learning about living simply than I do from anything I’d read from Yoga Journal.

  8. A friend of mine posted this recently and it struck me as an atomic nutshell of a reminder:

    “All yoga theories and practices are for the sake of liberating the individual from the limitations of the ego and the obscuring power of ignorance.” –J. Carrera

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