When I put a restriction on myself, I’d better be fully on board with it. I perform a psychological pas-de-deux when giving things up or taking things on, in which my Better Judgment and the Pleasure Seeker must both give proper tension. If Better Judgment is too forceful, Pleasure Seeker leaves the dance-floor and sets the gazebo on fire.
By all means, I clearly articulate the rationale for the sacrifice or discipline to be undertaken:
- I will eat fewer treats, because those are resources that I don’t need.
- I will take shorter showers, because it’s not just fresh water but boiler energy I’m wasting when I stand there, spacing out.
- I will free-write for an hour every day, because thinking is not the same as writing, and if I wait for a saleable story I will always be starting cold.
But then I have to enter the dance with Pleasure Seeker, resolve’s undertow, who doesn’t care about the future or the big picture. What I’ve noticed is that pleasure lives in the beginning and the end of a expected pleasurable experience, and displeasure is front-loaded on the initiation of known challenges.
Pleasure Seeker doesn’t know how to count higher than 3 when I am eating bites of treats. I have received the wisdom from ladies’ magazines and Thich Nhat Hanh that I should be present for every bite, and that I will eat less if I slow down to really taste it (guess who said which), but in my experience there’s an awareness loaded onto the first 3 bites that unfocuses in the middle and re-engages only when there’s about 3 bites left. Pleasure is activated by novelty and scarcity. Too much treat is a burden, and if I’m in the moment in that middle zone, I often have to admit to myself that I’m not really enjoying the pleasure.
A hot shower is the baldest, deepest healing pleasure I know of (with two exceptions). But never is that pleasure more acute than that first step-in, and then the moment when my hand hovers over the dial, wishing I could just stay. When I tried taking shorter showers, Pleasure Seeker rebelled. Five minutes wasn’t long enough for me to wash everything. I felt frazzled and denied. I move slowly; ‘tis a fact of my life. But then I remembered about the middle chunk, and how pleasure isn’t really happening in the middle.
There are three products out there that I will advertise for free. They are such clear life-improvers, and particularly waste-reducers. The product I’m thinking of now is the low-flow shower head with the on-off switch (plumbing aisle of your hardware store). I can’t wash myself faster, but I can turn the water off for that middle section where my conditioner sits and I scrub my limbs. The on-off switch holds my temperature steady. Then I can have two sublime experiences of the hot water beginning to flow over me. This is the flourish of the dance between my intentions and my urges, where not only am I using less, but I’m getting more pleasure out of what I do use.
This footwork toward giving things up can be reversed when I’m trying to take on a new practice. The inverse of the pleasure of a first bite is the distaste of trying something harder than just hanging out. I don’t feel like going for a run! I don’t want to write, I want to keep reading bum-out articles online! I set the bar much lower than my ability, secure in the knowledge that after the yuck beginning, the middle has its own unthinking momentum.
If I only oblige myself to write for an hour, and it can be anything, often an hour passes and I’m really getting somewhere, with lots of full paragraphs to pluck from later. If an hour passes haltingly and I’d rather dick around than write, I’ve fulfilled the bargain, and don’t need to scold myself. Days when asana practice seems daunting, I’ll just consent to stand on the mat for 5 minutes of spinal warm-ups, a simple trick to get me past the beginning and into the middle, where my body knows what to do without having to listen to the loud voice of Better Judgment. And if all I end up doing is what I said I would do, then the partners can still meet tomorrow without resentment or debts outstanding.
To be clear, these are the definitive First World Problems. But it’s for that reason that I want to take them seriously. We are oversupplied with treats and distractions. The only regulatory mechanism in place is our so-called willpower, this pas-de-deux. It’s because we are surrounded by material surplus that we struggle so hard to find a meaningful relationship between pleasure and discipline. And while a chocolate chip cookie and a hot shower are both immeasurably small matters, bringing conscious consideration to the small matters is the training ground for bringing consciousness to our big jobs.