And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. 
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed. 
-Kahlil Gibran

Admittedly, I’ve been a pleasure seeker for a lot of my life. I would even go as far to call myself, at times, a hedonist. What was life if not to be enjoyed? For much of my life, I sought out delicious foods, beautiful clothing and jewelry, rich and novel experiences, travel near and far, pastimes, friendships and relationships, all in the pursuit of pleasure. Prior to becoming a meditator I was not much for stillness (that was called sleeping), and aside from the necessary work that had to happen so I could afford all my desires, everything was about fitting in as much pleasure as I could. 

The time in my life I’m referring to was about a decade where I had a good paying job, no kids, and only a couple of relationships that came and went. I had no real household responsibilities; I was renting and was paid enough to afford a cleaner. I realize now (as a mother of a 5 year old) just how much freedom I had in my choices. I had the ability to choose pleasure whenever I could, and given how hard I worked in those years, I felt it was deserving. It was a work hard, play hard kind of life.

When I began to develop a meditative practice, it started to become clearer to me just how much I was chasing pleasure, how much value I was attaching to it. It was my “raison d’être.” In yoga philosophy the Sanskrit term for this desire fuelled seeking is called “Raga.” It is the “must-haves.” The thing(s) you so desperately want because they will make you feel happy and fulfilled. Raga causes us to endlessly chase our desires – that new phone, outfit, car, job, experience, relationship, followers, “likes” and more. It is the attraction and attachment to the perceived level of happiness we get from having our desires filled. 

While the equation seems simple: seek pleasure + getting what you desire = lasting happiness, the lived experience is much more complex. I was on a treadmill, running after pleasure. Not to be confused with running for pleasure, I was chasing a destination where pleasure abounds. For example, after being alone for several years following the dissolution of a long term relationship, I felt that a relationship would be the antidote to my loneliness and unhappiness. And for a while, while things were new and fresh, it likely was. But when the newness wore off, the happiness started to fade, and I started to seek the next thing that would fill the void. 

When we can’t have what we want – the relationship, the job, the home, the body, the nice things, the vacation – that causes further despair and restlessness. And so, we get back on that treadmill to chase what will satisfy our desire for pleasure. But the problem with that is we are still on a treadmill, running endlessly towards pleasure, with no real destination. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and in Buddhist philosophy, attachment is one of the Kleshas, one of a handful of causes of affliction and suffering, and said to be a primary obstacle to spiritual growth. 

A meditative practice invites us to get intimate with the self, with our desires (attachments) and our aversions. Any transformation starts with awareness. My meditation practice highlighted what I was chasing, and what I was avoiding. From that awareness, actions to make changes ensued. And they weren’t small ones. I changed my job and the whole industry I worked in. I forewent being in a relationship with someone else to exploring a relationship (intentionally so) with myself. My circle of friends began to change. I changed my diet. I changed my relationship with alcohol and caffeine. My time on the cushion illuminated where I was attaching value to pleasure, and where that pursuit was still coming up short. Contrary to being on a path to contentment and fulfillment, my relentless pursuit of pleasure was in fact what was preventing me from finding it at all.

These days, 10 years into a meditation practice, my definition of pleasure has changed. It is not something that will generate a bunch of likes on a social media post, or peak experiences to give rise to instagram worthy photos. It is being able to walk my daughter to school. Finding 20 minutes to meditate on a busy day. Putting my legs up the wall. My two to four squares of dark chocolate a day (any more and I lose the flavour sensation). Or the biggest one that materialized in my month of meditating on pleasure, choosing to walk in the woods instead of teaching a paid weekly class. My work is no longer a means to an end, a paycheck to pursue pleasure outside of working hours. My work as a yoga and meditation teacher provides me with ongoing pleasure and fulfillment, but that doesn’t mean I can’t turn it down from time to time, because that also provides me with pleasure and opportunities to find growth and satisfaction elsewhere. 

Having spent the last month specifically focused on where and what brings me pleasure in my life, I was surprised to find all the places it existed. It wasn’t abroad, on a retreat, at an event, or a new restaurant, or at the bottom of a bag of new clothes. It was my daughter’s giggles, the joy of being able to walk to work, my students’ appreciation for the work I do, the time for a warm cup of tea, the contentment of my very not new 9 year relationship, and yes, still those first couple bites of dark chocolate. 

Being on a spiritual path doesn’t mean giving up all those things you find pleasurable. But it does mean becoming aware of what those things are, and if they are bringing you true happiness and fulfillment, or whether they are simply a distraction or an empty goal. We experience happiness because of a value we attach to an experience or an object. It is subjective. So when we become aware of what those attachments are, we have the power and skill to accept or to change them. 

Ironically, it was from the acknowledgement and release of pleasure-seeking behaviour, that I found pleasure again. Except now the pleasure is not fleeting. It’s not something I need to chase, or buy, or consume, because it is intrinsic, defined by a new set of values that, so far, remains unshakeable.