An Ode to Pleasure
The muse of Pleasure is dancing around me.
There has been precious synchronicity with how it’s been unravelling and reweaving me in this Self-Directed Masters, so I will unpack it slowly and indulgently – allow this pleasure to suffuse my life and relationships, and deepen into an ethos guiding personal and systems transformation.
I’ll begin in a space that brings me a lot of lightness and pleasure – personality tests. It’s usually a private indulgence (like taking a really spicy selfie) but I’ll allow myself to be embarrassed and share it here.
One of my favourite tests is Enneagram. I’ve probably done the test 10 times and I always get Archetype Number 7: the Epicure/Enthusiast. Mostly, it’s very on point; I love to play, laugh, and take intense enjoyment in everything that life has to offer: “Sevens are enthusiastic about almost everything that catches their attention. They approach life with curiosity, optimism, and a sense of adventure, like “kids in a candy store” who look at the world in wide-eyed, rapt anticipation of all the good things they are about to experience.”
The Enneagram aligns each of its nine archetypes with a core fear and desire: The Enthusiast’s desire is to be satisfied and content, and her basic fear is to be unfulfilled, deprived or trapped. This is the part that I often want to reject. Other enneagrams have desires like “to feel love”, “to be uniquely themselves”, “wholeness” and “mastery”. I have this ingrained bias that the desire for satisfaction is shallow and selfish – perhaps even hedonistic. How can my life’s desire and purpose not be towards some Greater Goodness, but merely towards fulfillment?
More recently, I came across the Gene Key test, which integrates some combination of the I-Ching and Astrology into an intricate profiling of my underlying “genetic patterns and beliefs” (Side note: I’ll avoid using the term pseudoscience but I get a little annoyed about the liberal use of scientific terminology). The results are based on birth time and location, but yielded similar results as the personality test: my deepest Purpose in life is to transform the Shadow of Desire in order to manifest the Gift of Lightness. The highest vibration or fullest realization of this purpose – what they call the siddhi – is Rapture.
*Oh.* Rapture. A word denoting intense pleasure, ecstasy and passion. I’m blushing.
I know I’m not alone in the light embarrassment around celebrating pleasure and sensuality. Besides with the few fiercely sex-positive friends, and the disappointingly apolitical affirmation of #selfcare, pleasure rarely comes up at dinner table conversations or zoom calls. Perhaps the current of my shame runs deeper due to Catholic guilt and Chinese prudishness in my childhood upbringing, but it’s also part of being raised in a Euro-patriarchal society that undervalues or hides away the embodied yin of reception and sensuality.
I’m also hyper-aware and vigilant about the shadow side of pleasure, and the proclivity towards addictive indulgences in the numbing, annihilating pleasures of youtube binges, reality tv shows, and junk food. I’ve thought a lot about this annihilating pleasure-seeking in my Master’s research “Unconsciousness by Design”, exploring the drivers of addictive technologies and toxic architectures of desire. With most addictions, the subject or focus of the addiction is not something inherently bad, like video games, online social platforms, or weed. It’s not even in what I do – it’s how I do it.
While working on my research, I was obsessed with the book Addiction by Design by Natasha Schull, an anthropologist who spent a decade studying machine addiction and the industry of gambling in Las Vegas. What surprised her when speaking with slot machine gamblers was that they weren’t playing to win (in fact, most of them didn’t want to win a jackpot because it might mean they would have to stop), they were playing to keep playing and stay in the “machine zone”: a space where one’s entire self and body disappears into de-objectified flow state of perfect contingency and reliable feedback. Imagine a machine that enables you to distill all the overwhelming complexities and anxieties of life – a shitty job, a shitty marriage – to the clear certainty of one clear, single action in front of you: press the button. She compares this addictive desire to annihilate one’s sense of self to Freudian ‘death drive’.
In our avoidance of pain, we seek anesthetization from life.
In the Enneagram results of the Enthusiast, the lessons and growth recommendations are always the same: “Reclaim and accept all of life, the pleasures and the pains, in the present moment”. We’re reading the Tao Te Ching in a gathering called “the thing that turns” and someone asked about whether you have to experience the utmost of suffering in order to experience the utmost of joy. Edwin, a kin member, responded:
“Yes, I do believe that you need to experience suffering to experience joy. But you do not have to seek out suffering or self-flagellation. Suffering is a part of life, and all you have to do is choose to be present with it, and in that, you can be present with Joy.”
To participate and receive life in its totality is both an intensely painful and pleasurable thing – in forms and sensations that can often feel unbearable. During this groundless, liminal time of the pandemic, we’re giving ourselves – our cultural body – the space to grieve the loss of lives and the known, and to feel into the pain, rather than desensitizing ourselves from the suffering. On the flip side of the same coin, can we give ourselves permission to experience joy and pleasure – perhaps in small, everyday ways – as a part of this expanding capacity to hold suffering and grief?
Some of my thinking about pleasure is inspired by the work of Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliot, who promotes the power to find delight in all aspects of experience – even what we push away as the painful or negative parts – in order to receive the fullness of that life has to offer. My shadow is constitutive of the thick, dark dimensions of myself that I subconsciously or unconsciously reject, that my Ego doesn’t want to integrate because it offends or is inconsistent with the narrative of my selfhood. Elliot advocates for owning “this kind of weird underlying desire for and pleasure in stuff that [we] ostensibly hate and feel very frustrated by.”
For example, I’ve long nursed this aspirational story of myself as someone who seeks depth and equanimity, spending her time thinking about Very Important and Serious Ideas to make the world a better place. There is, however, a hard kernel of insecurity at the core of it, that hungers to be taken seriously. It thrives in the shadowy echoes of the words that an eighteen-year-old me overheard on a bus ride: “Cheryl is kind of vapid.” Vapid. A cruel, dismissive label for a part of me that relentlessly shows up because she is part of my whole self: a goofy, enthusiastic Cheryl that doesn’t like to take herself too seriously, who holds her convictions lightly and takes a lot of pleasure poking fun at herself to disarm; who loves to think silly, ridiculous things out loud without the pressure to be smart or right.
This label of “vapid” was the seed of a felt sense of lack – the lack of being taken seriously, of not presenting myself as smart or deep enough. And in following Elliot’s Existential Kink philosophy, I realize that I took some unconscious enjoyment from it. This lack motivated my drive to prove myself, to challenge expectations, and also nursed a kind of delicious, victim narrative of feeling small because I’m too young, because I’m a woman, because I’m too shy, because I don’t have the perfect memory recall of smart-sounding references and quotes. This narrative enabled me to hold back a lot too.
The lack is linked to something else that I want to decouple from pleasure: desire. In Buddhism, desire (Tanha) – which also means “thirst, longing, greed and craving” – is the principle cause of suffering, pain and dissatisfaction. We don’t fully own these desires – they are often co-produced by other forces external to us. I write about the reinforcing cycle of desire in my research here:
In Todd McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire, McGowan argues that Capitalism dominates by mimicking the structures of our desire within the commodities that it sells us, and profiting from incomplete satisfaction. Following Jacques Lacan’s theory of desire, desire comes out of loss, it signals a lack of something that we never had and doesn’t exist. If desire is inextricably tied to lack, and consumption services only to reinforce the lack rather than eliminate it, people become addicted to the “promise” that Capitalism might satisfy this lack. With each social media like comes a fleeting frisson of pleasure that distracts one from this lack, however, this pleasure is momentary, and once again, people try to produce the next hit. Zizek writes that “Desire’s raison d'être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.” By operating off a model of scarcity and “not enough”, desire is never satisfied, it is always a desire for more.
I don’t see desire is a bad thing – in fact, the irreducible mystery of the “other” is thrilling, sexy and drives human connection. But desires sourced from a deep hungry “lack” can be manufactured, manipulated and addictive in ways that reinforce an endless cycle of unsatisfying pleasure-seeking. I watch youtube videos because I just want to turn off my brain and be in a deadened “machine zone” state – even when I get what I want, I just want more, and I feel like I can’t stop. This is the experience of akrasia – this experience of acting against your own better judgment or will. In these scenarios, I am the gambler in the anesthetizing “machine zone”, unable to exercise any meaningful freedom of choice because I am driven largely by unconscious, shadow forces. And as Carolyn Elliot quotes from Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it Fate.”
There is a powerful difference between the annihilating pleasure of addiction that numbs you from living – and the presencing experience of pleasure that is deeply and intensely life-affirming. Where desire is related to an Unconscious Lack – an endless hungry loop of wanting something – pleasure is the source of fulfillment and sensual inner knowledge. Where absencing pleasure traps you, presencing pleasure liberates you.
Instead of avoiding or feeling shame around pleasure, I want to be fully present with it. When I decide to tune in rather than tune out, I begin to notice that the field of phenomenological experience is vibrating with subtle frequencies of pleasure, whether it’s during a connective zoom call, or a solo walk on crunchy snow, where blue water and blue sky meet and the crisp air freezes on my eyelashes. When I focus on these vibrations of joy, they begin to radiate, deepen and expand into such intense sensations of fulfillment and abundance that it can bring tears to my eyes.
The sensations of pleasure and pain co-exist in the intensity and tragedy of living. Pleasure is fluid like water, it’s always shifting and moving – it can be deep and full like an in-breath, and wide and expansive like an out-breath. By cultivating my capacity to receive pleasure, I also expand the container for pain.
In her book Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown reclaims pleasure as radical because once we experience the grounding of this embodied inner knowledge, we can’t ignore it. I know and can sense physiologically when I feel good – whether it feels light and giddy or deep and intense. I also know when I am grieving; I feel the heart-wrenching pain of it in my chest, and the way it seeks passage through my body through rivers of tears and vibrations of howling. adrienne maree writes about this true senseful knowledge here:
“It feels right to me” acknowledges the strength of the erotic into true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is the handmaiden which can only wait open, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born. The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.
When I fully own what “it feels right to me”, I enthusiastically drink in experience in ways that are present, embodied, and sensual. I become enraptured by life.
Rapture in Rupture
When the pandemic was globally announced in March 2020, it was a staggering moment of rupture. Everything that was “normal” and taken for granted – our scripts, our patterns, our expectations – collapsed into the anxious abyss of Not Knowing.
Isolated into our individual caves, our sense-making capabilities were impoverished to following rules from confounded authorities attempting top-down order, and what we could meagerly patch together from the hyperlocal experiences of family and friends, and a global wave of cosmic terror that washed over us. We were facing a Lovecraftian virus that was alien and Mysterious. In the first couple of weeks, I was genuinely terrified – all manners of apocalyptic scenarios flitted through my mind – but in the fiery licks of that fear, I also felt fiercely alive at that edge. I awaken from a numbing slumber, and discover myself in a blanket of darkness.
Old narratives and institutions that previously felt like impenetrable fortresses begin to reveal cracks from foundations that were shaky from the beginning. Even with the groaning churn of climate collapse, we thought we couldn’t live without those annual carbon-emitting flights to somewhere where we can just turn off our lives for a moment. COVID-19 forced a cut-off from many addictions and the withdrawal period was profoundly painful and punishing. We need to compost these addictions with gentle care – let us not relapse into the same annihilating patterns of the past.
It’s almost been a year of continued isolation, and new patterns of grounding, centering, and care have started to re-stitch our lives together. A question begins to cast glimmers of light in the dark forest: where do we go from here? I don’t want to turn back. I refuse to turn back. I’ve started walking away from something already, and I would rather fold into the inky terror of the unknown than go back to the anesthetizing security of a deadened state.
With my heart rate racing and my body trembling in the dark, there is something glimmering in the terrifying resolve to walk away: Pleasure.
There is a potent pleasure in fugitivity and being lost. And pleasure, not fear, is what makes me pause, come alive to my senses, and know my surroundings. Suddenly, I notice I’m not walking away, I’m moving deeper underground. I’m crawling into the dirt and soil under the looming, gleaming, cracking structures, and entangling myself, my limbs, my hair, my fingers with the roots and the mycelium. I notice in the throbbing warmth of this ground that I am not alone, I am surrounded by living and breathing community. Human bodies and other more-than-human life forms are singing and twisting and dancing in yearning, glorious joy around me.
This life-affirming pleasure is what I follow. This feels right to me.
Designing in the Wild
What drives us to design what we design, or create what we create? We can motivate change through guilt, shame, and obligation, through the exhausting weight of the innumerable critiques of what is broken in our complex systems. We can sit in rooms mapping out all the problems, innovating around what we “ought” to do in systems change. Trudge along in circles, repair the cracks.
When we exhaust ourselves with all the complexity, we can also design and create things that help us escape it all. We have entire industries and sectors that design for “what people what”, that construct seamless desire-paths – the perfect UX! – towards the pleasurable outcomes of ease and convenience and annihilating entertainment.
Uh oh, it looks out we’re addicting people. Uh oh, it turns out we’re deepening inequity. Uh oh, it turns out we’re killing the planet. Fix it. Fix it. Fix it. Fix it. Back to the war room and the sticky notes and the innovation.
I want OFF this gleaming treadmill! Let us run in the wild!
Following pleasure towards systems transformation
Last week, I was at a Collective Presencing book club meeting centred around the question: What is worthy of “taking a leap”? What becomes possible when we all choose to follow our life’s purpose?
Put even more simply: what will you do even if you weren’t getting paid for it?
While listening to others, I let the warm pleasure of satisfaction seep and travel through my body until I felt full. I realized that, even in the pain and confusion of the pandemic, I’m experiencing a profound sense of fulfillment that I’ve never felt before. The Coronavirus is a destructive, tragic Goddess, but she also forced a pause, a break, a space for a painful withdrawal from annihilation. She gifted me this Self-Directed Masters, and the permission to follow the breadcrumbs of what makes me curious and gives me pleasure, to let myself be drawn to what enlivens me. As Ria Baeck writes: “True wealth as an abundance of life force.”
Reclaiming pleasure as a life-affirming force of poiesis is radical – it transforms from the roots. The danger of cultivating a relationship with the regenerative pleasure of fulfillment and satisfaction is that we sample the inner knowing of the deep capacity for joy in our bodies. And we will no longer compromise for an empty doppelgänger of it – whether it’s obligation or addiction, a shallow surge of dopamine that dissolves as easily as it shows up. There used to be a time where I would desperately think about ways I can best “sell” myself for a job, but now I take pleasure in turning down a contract because I know it does not enliven me.
I am also deeply aware of the privilege I have to access such an abundance of pleasure in following my soul’s calling. I feel grateful to be in a field of work that values and compensates my worth, to be in a dual-income partnership that enables us to make choices out of love rather than fear, that I have a safety net of family support and Canadian health care. But I genuinely believe that experiencing both pain and pleasure is not predicated on an abundance of material wealth, but the generosity of consciousness.
We have the opportunity to redesign and build new systems that dissolve a noxious belief that scarcity is what drives human development and purpose. We can equitably redistribute access to the basic needs of food, housing and care that communities need to survive and flourish, and capacities (whether income-based or not) that enable choice. We need to reimagine social safety nets to be trampolines, that can lift and empower individuals to find and create meaning.
So how do we reclaim deep, life-affirming pleasure in how we might live with the trouble, and unfold with the mystery of our wicked meta-crises?
Life is short. Let us not continue the endless cycle of escaping to utopian destinations, but root ourselves sensually to the present. Let us take slow, indulgent time to get our hands dirty in the soil, cultivating the beautiful possibilities that grow from the earth that we stand on.
What is pleasurable is sustainable. Pleasure is regenerative.
By sinking into the hot, steaming bath of this “Ode”, I sooth the muscles of guilt and scrub away the shame that clings to pleasure (maybe I’m still embarrassed writing this; but if I have to be totally honest, there are tingles of pleasure in embarrassment ;) ). As adrienne maree brown says: “Pleasure activism is us learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet.”
Rather than seeking heaven after death, let us create rapturous lives and deaths in the abundance of this beautiful, damaged planet.