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Pleasure as Medicine

My grandmother who is 96 years old and retired tells me time and again: “Laurel, I’ve never been as busy as I am now. Life is so complicated now-a-days.” She’s not talking about her social engagements, she’s referring to the endless stack of papers, household work and protocols it takes to simply live in the world right now.

Life has gotten much more complex and nuanced in the last decade. As a single woman developing my own clientele and business, I feel these pressures on my time and attention more than ever. The to-do list is impossible, and to help me make decisions on how I focus my time and attention I’ve made myself a list of my values and priorities. On that list of values, though squeezed and pressured for air time, is Pleasure and Enjoyment.

My last blog was on Pain and so I naturally thought – great, I’ll write about Pleasure next. Not so easy! Especially when I stave off seemingly more important things in order to carve out time for Pleasure and Enjoyment.

Yet, it is fundamental and part and parcel to our humanness.

Unpacking Historical Baggage

Pleasure is a hot topic these days. Entire books have been dedicated to it over the last decade or so. A collective voice, seemingly recent, is trending towards pleasure as a good thing. At a superficial layer, it’s easy to agree that pleasure is good, yet to live and act as such is counter-cultural. We are rewarded for working hard, accumulating intellectual knowledge, status and sacrificing ourselves for the greater good. Only in some sub-cultures are we encouraged to slow down, trust our bodies, and enjoy a life of sensation. Historically, pleasure has a negative association in our Puritanical roots. Think of Adam and Eve and the temptation of flesh – this version of the story, assuming flesh to be negative and separate from God, is told over and over again. I daringly say, that version is cultural and rooted deeply into our collective subconscious mind.

Re-Encountering Pleasure

Let’s do some free association. What images, memories, feelings come to mind when you think of pleasure? Is it positive or negative or both?

When I free associate cultural images with pleasure what comes up is: food, vacations, and women’s bodies. Culturally (in the U.S.) pleasure is associated with escape. Just look at our marketing ads (food, sex appeal, and tropical delights). When I zoom out, I see it portrayed as something externally sourced; a favorable sensation stimulated from another object or person. There’s a twinge of sinning in its shadow. Overindulgence. Entitlement. Deserving. For that reason, and perhaps others, it’s something that we’ve tried to control. Pleasure is to be enjoyed in measured amounts; hence we control it (at worst) and deliberately measure and dish it out (at best). Thus we maintain tight control of our own bodies, women’s bodies, our food, our physical touch, our sexuality -- our pleasure.

When I think of my own personal pleasure, it’s positive and brings a smile in my heart. The feel of cool breeze on my skin as the sun’s rays shine down, the sight of peony petals gently weighted around the center stamen, the sound of giggling playing children, the smell of jasmine blooming along the street, the taste of a tree-ripened peach dripping down my chin.

What is congruent with both my cultural overview and my person experience, is that pleasure comes from our sensate experience. It’s of this world, of the earth, of our bodies. How could it be otherwise? However, we can say the same thing of pain; it’s sensate and of this world. So what distinguishes the two?

Simply put, our preferences. One we like and one we don’t. At their essence, both pleasure and pain are sensations we experience in our bodies. Have you had that experience of not knowing whether something is painful or pleasurable, the sensation is simply so intense? That’s exactly it, it’s intense sensation that goes beyond our known preferences.

Pleasure & Massage

Last week a regular client came in. We both knew that working on this one particular, sensitive, and tight area of her body would give her pain relief, yet would be uncomfortable. Life had already been uncomfortable enough for her recently. She wouldn’t enjoy the massage, nor would she be able to relax if we worked on that area. When we spoke about it, we decided to skip the area all together. Why? She came for enjoyment, for pleasure. What’s even more true: she came to receive a massage as a form of preventative healthcare. A way for her to be in relationship and conversation with her body – to check in & live into her body. Not to fix or change it, nor to escape from it and check out. This is a subtle but radical standpoint.

In my work with bodies, there are two primary ways to affect pain or discomfort. One is to lean into it, open towards it, breath, and see if the sensation moves and releases. It’s best done without an agenda, and with considerable care and sensitivity, right on the edge of discomfort so there is openness and relaxation creating space for sensation and energy to move. This is my primary mode of working in massage; it’s effective. It also dissipates any fear and closure we may have towards our own pain, freeing our mental energies for other things.

What is also true is our cells, our bodies, hold memory. If we experience physical pain in a certain area, that pain creates a pathway, a habit or groove, and it becomes a solid accepted part of our lives. If we experience a new sensation, or movement, and it’s repeated enough, our cellular memory shifts, and thus we shift. Experiencing a pleasurable sensation is enough to shift our experience and our reality. We are imprinting a new memory (or a remembering) in our cells.

Which leads me to the second and less common way to affect pain or discomfort: experiencing pleasure or the absence of pain. It’s subtle and requires our willingness to find the places that don’t hurt, the places that feel good, and to magnify them. It rewires our experiences on a more neurological level. Sometimes pain becomes fixed because we expect it to be there; it’s habituated into our bodies. So we must change our minds to change our bodies. This is where pleasure can be most effective and helpful in healing and changing pain. Craniosacral therapy fits into this category.

Both work, both are great, and it takes discernment and listening skills to know which method to use at any particular time.

Pleasure as Medicine

So what would happen if our everyday lives were woven with pleasure? No longer a commodity, an overindulgence, a reward, nor something outside of us to seek after. Something we trusted as a good thing. Pleasure – inherent to our humanness, a part of our bodies, our memory, and our relationships.

This is a long-shot of a thesis, yet I’m inclined to say, pleasure is our current medicine. I believe this may be the medicine for our collective cultural starvation. It may be the mindset that shifts our orientation towards preventative healthcare (rather than our current symptomatic healthcare). It may heal our relationships with our bodies, as a place to enjoy rather than control. It may lead to less consumption and overspending, as we take in and absorb our sensate world as nourishing and enlivening. It may heal our relationships to others, as we would know enjoyment to exist inside ourselves allowing us to touch into ourselves as whole and complete – freeing up space to connect with others beyond our own needs and wants. It may be just the thing needed to reclaim joy and spiritual fortitude in our lives.

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