Albert Pocej

Addiction to Pleasure


How tricky has our relationship to this basic human drive become? 

Wikipedia defines pleasure as “…a broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or worth seeking.” Merriam-Webster offers a simpler  perspective: “A state of gratification.”

Since time immemorial, people have largely misunderstood this primal drive, especially its most tantalizing expressions of sex, food, and drugs. Entire religions, laws, and philosophies have built their bedrock of morality in attempts to curb or control this basic impulse deeply embedded in us. But if we break it down, what does it really mean to gratify our urge for pleasure? 

When we do something that is naturally life-affirming, such as hugging a loved one, eating our favorite snack, or climaxing at the peak of a love-making session, we receive a flood of endorphins, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters from our brain, which then signals the rest of our body to sing together in ecstatic unison.

The pleasurable action then becomes hard-wired as a good thing in our memory, and the neural pathways associated with that action become stronger. This makes us more likely to engage in that act in the future.

But like every other thing in life, our bodies and brains are set up to maintain optimal balance. Not only do we have the ability to experience pleasure, but we all know how capable we are of feeling pain. Both signals are important for our survival and growth, and both are inextricably related to each other: the way we experience one depends on our experience of the other.

Pleasure and pain exist together on a paradoxical continuum, but are not necessarily in opposition. Rather, pleasure and pain sit at the opposite ends of a never-ending seesaw, and as one goes up, the other generally goes down. Movement cannot occur without the weight of either thing; both are necessary to maintain the experience of the seesaw.

This is not to say, however, that we can’t experience pleasure and pain at the same time, or that some (or maybe all?) of us experience at least some form of masochistic gratification from feeling pain.

For instance, sore muscles the day after we conquer a gym session is what confirms the quality of our workout. Many of us welcome this familiar pain, and though muscle soreness itself is not physically pleasurable, we are able to re-wire the meaning of this painful stimulus into a sign of triumph. And that is what gives us a sense of gratification, even if the initial stimulus is negative.

Often times, the contrast of one from the other is what our souls crave. It is that ineffable rush of the rollercoaster of human experience as it inches towards the top, suddenly drops, and jettisons across loops of emotion and the topsy-turvy chaos of daily life.

But what happens if we experience too much of either pain or pleasure signals, or over-do both?

Maybe this question can be answered through a simpler question: What happens when we eat too many sweet things all at once? We all know from childhood that too much sugar taxes the tongue in a mildly terrifying way…

Keeping this image in mind, let’s go back to our relationship with the positive end of the seesaw.

Our modern relationship to pleasure looks a lot like a child eating too many candies all at once. Her tongue becomes raw, and after a while she’s no longer able to enjoy the sweetness at all. She’s then tempted to eat something sweeter, or to consume a more intense flavor that her damaged tongue may be able to properly register. In that moment, the experience of sweetness has transformed from a pleasurable stimulus to an aversive, painful one.

Now, what does the modern human usually do about this predicament? We often view the initial loss of sweetness as a consequence that must be fixed, but instead of addressing the proper cause (damage from overtaxing the tongue), we, like the naïve child, often intensify the very thing that caused the destruction in the first place.

Many of us in the modern world have lost connection with the natural pleasures of living a balanced life, so we find a temporary antidote through alcohol, food, mindless entertainment, random hookups, or pick-your-favorite-vice.

Now, this isn’t to say that these things are inherently bad for us. But when we do engage in these things, we must be mindful of the why? behind our behavior. 

Humans are hardwired to experience pleasure simply by being alive and aligned with our fundamental spiritual design. The loss of sweetness from the previous example represents the modern disconnect from our most natural state.  But we often fixate on the symptom, whether it manifests as boredom, anxiety, or loneliness, and the “pleasurable” behavior that helps us escape or numb the pain becomes a long lasting, life-denying habit.

Despite the prolonged pain from “eating more and more sweets”, we continue to indulge in more “sweetness” in a twisted attempt at re- experiencing the original pleasure. In the end, the original sensation is no longer enough. Pleasure itself becomes warped into an addiction and it begins to take control over us.

So, what is the antidote?

The first and hardest step, is acceptance. Accept the fact that we are naturally wired to seek genuine connection. Accept the fact that we did not get this natural connection, and pursued temporary placeholders to pleasure.

To take the first step towards this kind of acceptance, we must observe and hold our thoughts, intentions, and actions without judgment.

It will help to know that our addiction occurred as an inevitable side effect of living in a broken, hyper-aroused society. Addiction is a normal response to a culture of instant gratification. Being an addict means you are a normal human being in an abnormal society.

So we muster up any bit of compassion we can find, and apply it to the throbs and wounds of our hungry souls. We accept our state, as fully and honestly as we could. We slowly learn to be kind to our thoughts and feelings, and develop a healthy relationship to our current self.

It might be helpful to know that our final addiction is not something we actively chose. Addiction is the consequence of a complex string of habits, physical hardwiring, and external factors – a collision of societal, emotional, and chemical conditioning. And much of it is a collective, inter-generational problem that’s much bigger than us.

But, we can definitely recover by addressing and owning our individual responsibility.

To begin, we can start with a simple, step-by-step process:

  1. Define the crisis point:
    • Addiction to pleasure, which warps into unnecessary pain.
  2. Surrender to a will greater than our individual self. Acknowledge that we are powerless when disconnected from our Source. Some may call this Spirit or God; others may use a different name.
  3. Find and Connect to a Community. It could begin with just one person. Addiction thrives through shame, guilt, and self-deception. We are powerless when we are isolated. Having connection to a supportive, trustworthy community will help bring honesty, compassion, and strength into our experience.
  4. Understand the Root of the crisis point:
    • The addiction formed because we over-did an impulse that we’re naturally designed to do.
    • We’ve discovered genius ways to numb or escape the signals that tell us when we’re off-balance.
    • The body signals we receive then become ineffective, and we are unable to decipher when we’re hurting ourselves.
    • When we stop escaping our pain through temporary pleasures, we begin to reconnect with these signals and move towards greater balance.
  5. Feel the experience:
    • Allow ourselves to feel the pain, anxiety, or emptiness that lies beneath our addiction. We start to notice the emotions and feelings that come up.
    • Allow ourselves to also feel any strength, resilience, or hope that is present, no matter how small.
    • Then ask: Where do I feel this?
      1. Find the physical points in our body where we experience these emotions.
      2. Develop a relationship to these points in our body. These are our Points of Access.
  6. Absorb the lesson:
    • Breathe into our Points of Access.
      • Literally inhale, breathe into these parts in our body, and imagine the life force activating each Point of Access we’ve identified.
      • From one Point of Access to the next, ask what is being taught to us.
        • Listen.
        • Write down the lessons if needed.
  7. Call to Action:
    • Re-connect with more natural forms of pleasure
      • Do a random act of kindness.
      • Find things or activities that make us feel truly alive and nourished, rather than shameful or depleted.
      • Stay connected to a loving community, and to our Source of greater will.
    • Re-wire
      • Command every cell in our body to work in unison. Our biology is primed to follow what we deeply believe. Our bodies will literally change to fit what we tell ourselves. This is another way to understand how prayer, intentions, or meditation has a tangible effect on us.
    • Restore
      1. Be okay with making mistakes. As Anne Lamott teaches us, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” We will never be perfect, and we will always be a work in progress. All of us.
      2. This goes full circle back to our first step: Acceptance
      3. As often as we can, remember the lesson, find the space within where peace and strength reside, and reinforce that feeling.
      4. Rinse and repeat

All in all, our addiction to pleasure can be properly navigated and turned into a tool for greater awareness. If we can use this experience of separation to motivate ourselves towards our most natural state, we may experience the pleasure, intimacy, and joy we were originally designed for.

Cheers to tasting Life’s nectar once again =)

Sending love to All.

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