The Pleasure Principle

Many meditation teachers emphasize finding pleasure in our experience, both on and off the cushion. Ajaan Geoff, a monastic teacher from the Thai forest tradition, instructs his students to find pleasure in the breath as a means for increasing concentration. The neuroscientist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson encourages people to notice moments of pleasure throughout their day, noting the brain’s “negativity bias” and how paying attention to positive experiences can rewire it.

Culadasa, a neuroscientist who has practiced in both the Therevadin and Tibetan traditions, describes in The Mind Illuminated how, although every part of the mind desires happiness, its various parts become divided over how to achieve that goal: “One part of the mind may want to meditate while others want to ponder, plan, or fantasize. These different “minds” share the same goal — personal satisfaction and happiness — but because your expectations [about meditation] have been disappointed, they disagree on how best to achieve that happiness.”

Unfortunately, one part of the mind cannot simply force the other parts to concentrate. “The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice…. a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation. Notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable, or when the mind is focused and alert…. Savor a fleeting sensation of physical pleasure, the satisfaction of following a whole breath-cycle, or the sense of accomplishment that comes with just sitting down and making the effort to meditate. As these pleasurable feelings grow, relish and encourage them so they grow stronger still.”

I have largely ignored this advice for most of the fifteen years of my practice. Focusing on pleasure feels like cheating at best, or more fundamentally, like delusion — purposely distorting reality instead of seeing things as they are. The problem with my logic is that it assumes that experience is inherently unpleasant, so that noticing pleasure somehow misses the “real” experience. My doom-seeking mind tends to highlight the negative instead of to, as the song says, accentuate the positive (apparently, as Hanson suggests, my mind is typical).

But the truth is that in every moment there are countless facets of an experience, some of which are pleasant, some unpleasant, some neutral. In meditation we are constantly choosing to bring some aspect(s) of experience to the foreground and let others fade into the background. What these teachers suggest is that it is skillful to allow the satisfying aspects to the fore, as long as we are not suppressing the unsatisfying ones. All facets of our experience are still known in awareness, even if they’re not where we focus. “By making meditation satisfying and enjoyable, the part of the mind that wants to meditate can get the other parts to stop resisting and join in,” Culadasa explains. The outcome is one of the main goals of meditation: unification of mind, which is just the activity of the mind’s various parts harmonizing. This is not liberation — it won’t, by itself, achieve wisdom — but a unified mind is fertile ground for insight. And unification is much easier to achieve if we settle attention on what is pleasant and satisfying at the moment.

(Note: the image is Rene Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James).)

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