Paying Attention to Pleasure

Following up on my post What Do You Want?, I think it’s important to think about how we think about pleasure. Our relationship to pleasure is the foundation that shapes how we decide what we want and how to talk about that with someone else.

I doubt that it’s a surprise to anyone when I say that US culture is deeply ambivalent about pleasure. On one hand, we’re obsessed with “feeling good.” We talk about sex all the time, and we often want to make discomfort and pain go away. On the other hand, we’re still influenced by the idea that we have to work hard now and defer pleasure for later. Or that we have to earn the right to experience pleasure. Or that pleasure isn’t to be trusted. And so we (both as individuals and a society) bounce back and forth between repression and rebellion, never coming to a place of balance.

It seems to me that we can cultivate a healthier relationship to pleasure if we can learn to make it a priority without letting go of our other needs. There’s a middle ground to be found and one way we can do that is to make pleasure a priority. I’m not suggesting that you should make it more important than, say, taking care of your family or paying the bills. But we don’t have to make it less important than them either. Instead, what if we can make pleasure one of the various things that we value? In each moment, we can decide how much attention each one gets without permanently setting any of them aside.

One way we can do that is to practice pleasure. There are all sorts of pleasure and in her book The Pleasure Zone, psychotherapist Stella Resnick lists 8 different kinds:

  • primal pleasure
  • pain relief
  • elemental pleasures (play, laughter, movement & sounding out)
  • mental pleasures
  • emotional pleasures
  • sensual pleasures
  • sexual pleasures
  • spiritual pleasures

Odds are that you’re more practiced at some of these than others. And think what that means- you have new ways to experience pleasure that you’ve never tried before! What an amazing opportunity that is!

Making room for pleasure can be tricky. After all, there are still chores to do, people to take care of, and all sorts things that get in the way. There’s only so much time in the day and life gets full. But it’s not nearly as hard to give pleasure some space as you might think. Can you take 5 minutes, or even 30 seconds, and do something that feels good? Can you try something that’s a bit different from your usual pattern? Is it really so hard to stop and smell the roses?

You may find that once you start doing this, new pleasures open themselves up to you. It’s not that they weren’t there before. They’ve been waiting for you to notice them. And once you do, you’ll probably find new pleasures in sex. Paying attention to pleasure is part of stepping out of the goal-oriented sex that stifles connection. Paying attention to pleasure lets you discover new ways to experience sex. Paying attention to pleasure makes sex a lot more fun. Paying attention to pleasure helps us to be fully present in our bodies, in the moment, and in relationship to other people.

If you find this scary or challenging, check out Resnick’s book. For that matter, even if you think you’re pretty good at experiencing pleasure, it’s worth a read. No matter how much practice we have at balancing pleasure and the other parts of our lives, things change and there’s always something new to learn. And her book is a great place to start.

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