Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of March 19, 2012

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(The Path of Purpose: Part 4 of 9)

We are wired to seek pleasure, to get the right neurochemicals produced in our brain. So our biology imposes on us the purpose of seeking pleasure. The endless variety of ways we do that can be categorized into physical, psychological, and spiritual pleasures. To better understand pleasure, we first look at its counterpart, joy.

What are the differences between pleasure and joy? Clearly, there’s a difference in duration, with pleasures being short-lived, while joy lasts, even to the point of creating an undercurrent of joy that stays with us at all times. Part of this is due to their causal differences. Pleasures arise from some stimulus to our senses. When the stimulus ends, so does the pleasure. We enjoy the cake as long as we’re tasting it, the sunset as long as we’re seeing it, the fragrance as long as we smell it. But when the stimulus goes on for too long or too often, we get saturated with it or habituated to it and the pleasure wanes: too much cake too often and we lose interest.

Joy, by contrast, is uncaused. When our heart, our mind, and our conscience are clear enough, joy arises naturally. We meet life with a predisposition to joy. Pleasure depends on what our senses bring us; joy does not. Pleasure is in time; joy is in eternity.

One way that joy comes to us is as a byproduct of spiritual practice rightly pursued. Although deep meditation can be sublimely pleasurable, our purposes matter. If we meditate for the pleasure it brings us, then we will have that pleasure. But we will miss the broader purposes it serves and the deeper realms it can open. So in meditation we learn to allow the pleasure, to welcome it even, but without chasing it. We seek to go ever deeper and, as we do, the pleasure also increases. But we do not let it mask the deeper realms it arises from; we do not let the pleasure deflect our quest.

The practice of presence also brings pleasure, for it makes us alive, awake, and alert to our senses. It makes our ordinary moments extraordinary, even the simple and unexpected pleasure of being in our body. Again though, in practicing presence, pleasure is a byproduct, not our purpose, which concerns developing our soul and serving the spirit.

Our purposes reflect our will. If we practice for ourselves, our will limits itself to our own small domain, our pleasure seeking. Ultimately this proves to be an inadequate motivation to sustain our spiritual work over the long term. But if we practice to serve and to raise the level of our being so that we can serve more effectively, layer upon layer can open to us. The deeper levels of the spirit are all about will. So our intentions, including why we do what we do, shape our spiritual work directly.

We know that many of our physical pleasures are healthy and many are not. We know that some healthy pleasures overindulged cross into unhealthiness. Yet some of us too often allow ourselves to indulge in unhealthy pleasures or overindulge in otherwise healthy ones. So we look to develop a more mature approach to living, wherein we relish our pleasures, yet we do not allow them to run our life. As in all things, we seek moderation and balance in our pleasures. Delicious food, for example, is meant to be savored and enjoyed. And that savoring itself can help enable us to stop eating when we’ve had enough. We enjoy our pleasures and then we let them go. Moderation not only offers us a more pleasurable life, but also diminishes the negative consequences for society of our collective overconsumption.

Psychological pleasures include appreciation of relationships with people and with animals, ideas, humor, drama and adventure in real life or in the movies, novels and poems, fantasies and daydreams, engaging in creative acts and acts of kindness, and more. As with other pleasures, balance is needed and overindulgence leads to negative effects. For example, we can be so caught up in daydreams of winning the lottery that we neglect the practical steps necessary to actually change our financial situation. We can be so busy watching people relate to each other on TV that it interferes with our taking the time to relate to people in reality. We can be so devoted to one set of ideas that we lose interest in what others are doing or, worse, we take offense at anyone who disagrees with us. And of course, there are many forms of unhealthy psychological pleasures, such as gossip, schadenfreude, the satisfaction of greed or acquisitiveness, self-aggrandizing power, and accepting flattery or subservience.

For this week, please look at the role of pleasure in your life. Are there any imbalances, overindulgences, or unhealthy habits that you need to address?

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