General Considerations and Personal Reflections:
Here are some personal reflections. I offer them in the spirit of dialogue and exchange, and look forward to hearing your thoughts about, and experiences with, this principle.
The more I work with the principles the more I’m struck by just what a rich resource they are. One thing that has become increasingly clear to me is the benefit of looking at the principles as riddles, or clues to a puzzle, rather than morals or rules. This approach leads to a dynamic meditation which helps me construct a style of life that embodies a very particular mental direction. This particular principle provides us with a wonderful opportunity to consider again how the principles need to be understood as a whole.
This month we consider the pursuit of pleasure and its consequences, next month the pursuit of any end. This month we consider how we can approach the pleasures we desire in a liberating and satisfying way — restricting ourselves in a minimal way (i.e. “If you do not harm your health enjoy without inhibition”). Later we’ll take a broader approach to what actions are “allowed” (e.g. “If you do not harm anyone you may freely do whatever you like”). And we’ll discover a way to advance on our goals without pursuing them and without enchainment (“If everything you do is realized as an end in itself you liberate yourself”).
I believe it was at a meeting last year that someone asked me why I thought that, “pursuing pleasure would enchain me to suffering”. It struck me then, as it still does, as a very good question. After all, isn’t one of the most basic facts about all living beings, that we move away from pain and toward pleasure. That seems to be a matter of definition. And why shouldn’t we obtain pleasure and avoid pain. It seems like a great idea. In mulling over the principle I couldn’t help but note that that the principle isn’t saying that pleasure is bad or to be avoided. Nor is the principle focused on the value of the pleasure I’m pursuing. It doesn’t say you “are allowed” these pleasures but not those, except to say, “If you do not harm your health enjoy without inhibition…” Later in the next principles it will add further clarification about this point, eg. “If you do not harm anyone…” and “…treat others as you wish to be treated.” But this principle itself puts the focus more on the approach to pleasure, on the act, i.e. the pursuit, rather than on the object being pursued. So here it seems it’s not a matter of what turns you on but on how you relate to that pleasure.
Some philosophers call it the paradox of hedonism which Wikipedia explains this way: “…constant pleasure-seeking may not yield the most actual pleasure or happiness in the long run—or even in the short run, when consciously pursuing pleasure interferes with experiencing it.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_hedonism
Here’s Victor Frankl’s take on this idea from his book Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.”
And here’s my take: In practice, we seem to confuse pleasure and happiness (and desire and fulfillment, and pain and suffering, etc).
Full Definition of PURSUE transitive verb
1: to follow in order to overtake, capture, kill, or defeat
2: to find or employ measures to obtain or accomplish : seek <pursue a goal>
I think we can agree that to pursue something is not to encounter it, or enjoy it, but to have it as something to be obtained or accomplished. It is in front of me, as something to be reached, something that calls me or drives me or demands my attention. Almost by definition I’m locked into, dependent on or, enchained to it. If I don’t get it I’ll be unhappy, or disappointed (at best). My expectation is that if I reach the object of my desire I’ll be happy or satisfied (at least). But is that what happens? Certainly not in my experience. Consider this an invitation to compare it to your own.
When I think about the desires I’ve pursued it’s pretty clear to me that either my attempt to attain what I sought is frustrated, or I attain it and find myself dissatisfied and stuck with the consequences. Think of that tempting cake from last week’s story (or whatever it is that entices you). The problem isn’t eating it, or not; it seems to me that the point is that my internal state is enchained to a cake! It feels very differently when I “enjoy without inhibition when the opportunity presents itself.”
Don’t believe me? The experiment is easy to do. Put it to the test in your daily life. Personally, I’d say that the results of my more than 40 year experiment is that it has proven true in the most wonderful and unexpected ways.