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Balance: The Line Between Pleasure & Self-Indulgence

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

As a midwife, often I hear my colleagues share that #cravings are associated with some sort of deficiency. For example, a craving for crushed ice is often thought to be related to low iron. Functional medicine practitioners will often associate cravings to imbalance, such as yeast overgrowth when craving sugar, or a dip in serotonin when craving salty chips mid-cycle. There can be a sort of all-or-nothing mindset in wellness groups, but many times, I suspect when wellness is one's general state of being, these cravings are more a hint that not enough indulgence has been enjoyed.



Consider that when someone adheres closely to a #vegan diet, it is a fairly constant mindset. They may have incredible conviction and this may certainly be a motivating way of life for them, but for many, this choice will require some restriction or even significant sacrifice. In time, this may cause cravings and maybe one believes they have fallen off the horse, which may ultimately be given into entirely.


This doesn't have to be about just food either, this could be any sort of exercise regimen, going to church, or even love itself. We get in a routine and commit whole hog. When we don't allow ourselves grace however, and sort of stumble, allowing a little indulgence, it may be that we were so limiting in extending grace that we may overindulge a bit to regain balance. Then guilt and shame present, and so we rewrite our narrative; we change courses entirely. What we probably needed though, was more grace from the onset. Potentially allowing yourself permission to indulge will help you better maintain balance, so that restriction doesn't require overindulgence to reset balance.


There is a viewpoint in yoga, "Both the good and the pleasurable approach a person. The wise choose the good over the pleasurable." While I don't disagree, I've become a huge fan of indulging in regularly scheduled and purposeful #pleasure. We don't have to choose a bare concrete floor rather than a cushy rug, or complete celibacy verses intimacy which is honoring to oneself. Transformation doesn't require that you move outside of what is comfortable. It may require a new comfortable, a new pleasure.


Recently I shared a book review for Eat, Pray, Love by Gilbert, and in here the author beautifully articulates the difference between pleasure and entertainment. Coming home from a long day's work and lounging on the couch in front of the television is an exhaustion that offers energy only enough so that entertainment can be funneled into you. This is not pleasure. Painting, playing golf, practicing yoga, or learning to dance would be intentional pleasure. When we haven't sufficient time or energy to engage in pleasure, we are working beyond our purpose.


Shakti


One of the more intriguing tantric yogi ideals is that the body, the sense, and the brain are instruments through which spirit - or consciousness - takes pleasure in itself. When you see life this way, enjoyment becomes a way of honoring the divine. A famous Tantric verse reads, "Some people think that where there is yoga there can be no enjoyment, and when there is no worldly pleasure, there can be no yoga. But on this path, both yoga and worldly enjoyment come and sit in the palm of the hand."


Discipline


Certainly bringing together any practice such as yoga or eating vegan requires discipline, but worldly enjoyment can certainly be integrated into this practice and still honor these principles. This may look like having a client seek help with his obesity and chocolate addiction and recommending they offer themselves tiny pieces of chocolate and to chew on them slowly, really being mindful about this experience. Make it sacred. Disciplined.


Pleasure is an emotional need we all have; it makes us feel alive. Whatever we practice, it should bring us joy. Without pleasure - a diet, a relationship, work, or meditation - will eventually fall away unless you take pleasure in it. Yet, if well balanced, we don't have to live with a work hard, play hard mentality. The hills and valleys need not be so steep or so deep.


Designed for Pleasure


Our brains are wired for pleasure. Food, sex, and aerobic exercise all trigger the pleasure centers, sending chemicals such as a #dopamine and #serotonin to the cortical area where the brain recognizes that something you're doing is good and should be continued. When we are healthy, the higher brain chooses pleasures that are conducive to the survival of the individual and the greater community. When we are out of balance, living in a more unhealthy state, we can become hijacked. Stress, environmental toxins, medications, lack of sleep, or even epigenetics can tip us from our center.


Many of us are somewhat conditioned to take pleasure in less healthy habits, such as food, drugs, alcohol, pornography - none of which are good for our overall well-being or that of our community, not to mention Mother Earth. Unfortunately, pleasure stimulates our brains in a way that causes us to believe we are on the right track - it feels good, therefore, my body needs this.


While these more intense addictions deliver a powerful punch to the pleasure centers in our brain, there are more subtle options as well, such as yoga, pranayama, and #meditation. These practices also elicit feelings such as empathy, gratitude, and love - especially for oneself. The dopamine surges the brain experiences as rewards are actually stronger and last longer when the thoughts and actions that set them off are eudaimonic - that is, kind, peaceful, generous, and good for life itself.


Pleasure is helpful to our survival on a number of levels. If we want to reach those deeper levels, you really do have to put forth effort - to be fully present, to exercise awareness, to act lovingly, to give up the strings that the ego attaches to experience. This is when we move out of our current comfort zone, and find a new source of comfort. The yogic saying that the wise will choose good over pleasure, essentially means that the wise will choose effort and depth over laziness and superficiality. We will choose good over the merely comfortable when we are living our best lives.


Even Deeper


I've heard it said, that the deepest delights comes from the greatest depths or in a yogic sense, when you get inside the pleasure - through awareness, deep savoring, or surrender - its divine quality becomes apparent. This is true no matter what the pleasure, whether chocolate, lovemaking, a challenging vinyasa, or watercoloring. More subtle pleasures though, do require more mindfulness, greater intention.


Our pleasures can be experienced at different levels depending on what and how we engage, such that a twix bar may be appealing, but not nearly as profound as the taste on the palate when enjoying a perfectly balanced creme brulee, especially enjoyed with someone who has your affection. Both appease the gnaw of hunger and both stimulate the pleasure centers of the #limbic system - though when the ripples of pleasure come from a master chef's flavorful dish or a trusted lover, the higher centers in the cortex experience an even greater delight.


Maximum enjoyment requires maximum attentiveness - the ability to become fully present to a touch or taste or fragrance. The more present you are, even within your own body, the greater your pleasure experiences will be. One must become #embodied. Distraction is the great enemy of enjoyment. This is why as a very busy midwife, I struggled to relax and enjoy a massage. When we become distracted, we begin substituting quality for quantity, reaching for more potent stimulants because we haven't the presence sufficient to fully enjoy our pleasure. This is why alcohol and pornography can be so effective. They deliver quite the punch and rather immediately, with very little mindfulness.


If you are experiencing a pleasure deficit - turn in to yourself. Slow down. Eat your fast food parked in the lot, becoming mindful of every bite. Watch the sunset in silence. When on the mat, listen to your body. Be creative without criticism. Focus on your lover's touch. Mindfulness and being present can offer profound yogic samadhi, otherwise understood as a sort of joyful, physical rapture.


Intimacy


One can't truly be at their best, if they aren't cognizant of their relationships, particularly their most intimate ones. We've all experienced that feeling when we see someone we adore, someone we truly #love. They have a unique specialness that makes you notice everything about them - the way they move, the look in their eye, their smile, and especially their laugh. They hold a unique beauty that draws you to their personhood. This is an intimate connection and can happen with a child, a romantic partner, a friend, a group or tribe, or a pet.


If the practice for deepening physical pleasure is attentiveness, then the practice for experiencing pleasure in a loving relationship is trust and acceptance. The deep pleasure of loving intimacy arises - pay attention here because this is a big one - when you're able to hold your sense of intimate connection with another person even when they aren't meeting your needs. Intimacy with another person begins within you.


One must become aware of their subtle expectations. Working to better understand who you are, how you #communicate and #cope, and what your core desires are can help you better understand your expectations, as well as recognizing that your wants and desires have value; otherwise, we tend to hide these and not communicate them openly. Notice when you are caught by attachment to a particular outcome and when you're hanging on to hurts. These things get in the way of pleasure that intimate love instills. Forgiveness is key: forgiveness for others and forgiveness for yourself. This keeps your heart open.


Creativity


Another important aspect of pleasure is creativity and inspiration. When you are free to explore ideas, movements, words, and music - you are free to feel, to discover yourself, to grow, and to embrace your uniqueness. This connects you directly with your inner self. Many have said when we are creative, we are most in touch with the divine. This happens when you are in a group who are free to express themselves openly, when thoughts differ and even challenge you. Accepting them isn't necessary, but entertaining them is paramount to growth. Asking someone for inner guidance in solving a problem is another way to access these gems which mature us.


Surrendering our fears, doubts, and beliefs that block us from inspiration is step one. Then identify a skill that you can translate into action. Notice and avoid any pride that comes in when you are inspired. Assure the ego that this wasn't from you, but rather, from within you. Inspiration and creativity can be a non-action, in the sense that if one shared that they like to paint as their primary hobby and you were to ask them if they are getting better, they would respond, "I have no idea. I do it for pleasure." This would be similar to someone who enjoys hiking. One would not ask if they are "getting better," because it is recognized that it is the activity, the process that is transformative and holds place for pleasure.

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