We are often taught that we have to chase pleasure. We may believe that the harder we work to get our desires, the more we will be able to experience pleasure. Many of us end up working ourselves into the ground, resulting in health challenges, relationship problems, and other difficulties from overworking and chasing pleasure. It often ends up looking—and feeling—like quite the opposite of pleasure!
The ancient Vedic spiritual tradition teaches that there is another way to approach the pursuit of pleasure, proclaimed as one of the four goals of human life.
We were meant to enjoy life, not just endure it. The Vedic approach to pleasure is two-pronged: developing your self-control muscles, and viewing pleasure in a spiritual way.
Develop Your Self-Control Muscles
It may seem counterintuitive, but abstinence brings enjoyment in life. The more you can restrain your senses, the more you will be able to enjoy the same sensual experience when you do choose to indulge in it.
Imagine, for example, that you love vanilla ice cream. You crave it for days or even weeks, and then you finally get to savor its sweet taste. The first ice cream cone is incredible. But then you may feel like having another. And then one more. And so on. By the time you get to the eighth ice cream cone, the ice cream may not taste so great. By the ninth or tenth cone, you may be repulsed by the same object that brought you such immense enjoyment at first!
To develop your self-control muscles, it helps to abstain from your favorite sensual pleasure for one week and channel your energy into creating something (art, writing, or crafting something with your hands). When you can channel your energy into creative expression, you can experience increased inspiration, enthusiasm, imagination, insight, and the ability to sustain the creation of beautiful artwork, poetry, or music. You start to connect with a deeper source of pleasure that emerges from your higher Self, independent of anyone—or anything—else.
Pleasure, according to the Vedas, is something that ultimately exists within you. We often think that we need another person or certain objects of the senses (like ice cream) to experience pleasure, but there is a deeper kind of pleasure that lives beyond your senses. When you deeply connect with your higher Self as the source of all pleasure, you can become the master of your mind and senses, regulate your sensual enjoyment, and maximize the amount of enjoyment you gain from what you indulge in more sparingly.
The Vedic spiritual tradition presents to us a guilt-free and shame-free experience of pleasure that we can most purely experience when we are not full of desire and cravings for it. One sign of spiritual growth per the Vedic tradition, in fact, is that you don’t crave more pleasure when it naturally comes your way.
Something you can do to embrace the pleasures of life is to do so within healthy limits. The best limits are those you set for yourself based on personal conviction for the “why” behind them. This process of creating well-defined boundaries around your pleasure helps you take ownership for your enjoyment so you can enjoy your chocolate cake, versus your chocolate cake enjoying you (as what happens in all kinds of compulsions).
So, if you love chocolate cake, can you figure out how to still enjoy it but not suffer while consuming it? Perhaps that means limiting it to a once-a-month treat. Or, if you really have trouble weaning yourself off it, can you figure out how to reduce your daily or weekly consumption of it to an amount that won’t harm you? The more you can practice letting go of your desire for your favorite sensory pleasure, the more you will actually be able to enjoy it when you do so moderately, and with self-control.
Look at Pleasure in a Spiritual Way
In the Vedas, there are four goals of human life: dharma (morality), artha (prosperity), kama (pleasure), and moksha (spiritual liberation). The Vedic spiritual tradition teaches us to look at pleasure in a spiritual way by seeing it in the context of dharma and moksha. This means that pleasure should always be contained within morality and experienced free from the pressure of desires or cravings.
Once you’ve developed your self-control muscles through abstinence, then channeled your energy into creative pursuits while setting self-defined limits for your experience of pleasure, the next step is to see pleasure for what it is.
At this stage, possession and enjoyment of sensual pleasures don’t define your renunciation. Real renunciation means seeing worldly pleasures as transient and ephemeral, even as you enjoy them. This way of looking at pleasure is realistic. It does not involve obsession or chasing anything or anyone. In fact, according to the spiritual laws of life, the more you let go of something, the more it shall come to you, naturally and organically.
“…according to the spiritual laws of life, the more you let go of something, the more it shall come to you, naturally and organically.”
In the Vedas, there are two examples that illustrate the power and paradox of renunciation in action. One is of Sage Durvasa, who is said to constantly—and freely—eat food, and yet he is known to be on an eternal fast. The other is Lord Krishna, who spent time with many milkmaids but is also known as an eternal brahmachari (celibate). Both of them saw partaking in their pleasure as transient.
When you can enter a romantic partnership, enjoy the pleasure of new friendship, or delight in that piece of chocolate cake while knowing that all of these can come and go and that who you are as a spiritual being is not dependent upon them, this is moksha, spiritual liberation, in practice.
Often, when we finally get the pleasurable object of our desire, it is accompanied by a fear of losing that very object. Constantly remembering the transience of worldly pleasures greatly mitigates this gripping feeling and frees us from grasping or clinging.
This spiritual way of looking at pleasure sets you free. It ensures a happy life, full of transient pleasures you can freely enjoy, without getting consumed by the chase, or feeling better or worse with or without something or someone.
Questions and Practices to Reflect on Pleasure
Writing has a potent way of building your conviction. To build your conviction to practice self-control and see pleasure for its transience, you can reflect on:
What desire occupies the maximum headspace in you?
What do you think about a lot?
Write down what kinds of adverse consequences could possibly result from you achieving the object of your desire, particularly if you have already or could easily go to excess with it.
If you really want to eat sweets, what kind of negative effects could result from overindulging in them? If you really seek a romantic partner, what could desperation cause you to overlook in the other person that may end up detrimental to you later on?
What is a core wound that pursuing your desire may be playing out for you? Is there some pain that pursuing pleasure helps you avoid feeling?
Is wanting to excessively consume chocolate cake something you are doing simply out of habit? Or is there some kind of pain or uncomfortable feeling that eating chocolate cake may be helping you avoid? In terms of a romantic partner, is there emotional pain you’d rather avoid addressing that makes having someone else in your life to love and pay attention to especially appealing?
Figure out how to still enjoy what you already enjoy, pleasure-wise, that ensures that you will not suffer as a result of your desire.
If you love chocolate cake, what is an allocated amount you can safely consume without hurting yourself? Can you balance it by being more active? In terms of a romantic partnership, are there certain values and qualities of character that you can set as your north star to discern whether a future partner matches them? Can you practice and embody these values and qualities yourself to help magnetize someone else who can reflect them back to you?
What higher ideal can connect you with the “why” behind your personal limits when tempted by desires for pleasure?
An example of this is one of my personal ideals: “My body is my temple.”
While enjoying what you most enjoy, savor it completely. Keep your mind in the present moment, without traveling back to the past or anticipating the future, while reminding yourself of the transience of this experience.
While you are eating your chocolate cake, or while you are dating, try to focus on the enjoyment you feel in the moment. At the same time, remind yourself that “this, too, shall pass away” as a way to remind yourself not to miss the full experience in the now.
I wish you much enjoyment as you build your self-control muscles and look at pleasure in a spiritual way!
**By Ananta Ripa Ajmera