The Role of Pleasure in Meditation
By: Dr Claus Springborg, September 2023, Copenhagen
In personal and spiritual development, we are often introduced to the practice of meditation. Although there is a vast array of different meditation techniques, a key component in meditation is the capacity to focus one’s attention on a meditation object, and, in this way, diminish mind-wandering.
The difference between different meditation techniques is largely a difference in what object we are invited to focus on. Common meditation objects include the breath, the belly, a chakra, a mantra, a yantra, a candle flame or a visualisation.
Anyone who has practised meditation will know that focusing one’s attention is not that easy. However, the choice of meditation object can greatly help as some objects will support our meditation by offering something akin to a magnetic pull on our attention.
The magnetic pull of pleasure
Something that can greatly help us focus our attention is pleasure. Pleasure has something like a magnetic pull on our attention. It is simply easier to focus our attention on something we find pleasurable.
Therefore, we can enhance the degree to which a meditation object supports the focusing of our attention by consciously cultivating awareness, not merely of the meditation object in general but of the pleasurable aspects of this object specifically.
When, for example, we seek to focus our attention on the breath, it can be a great help to pay attention to pleasurable aspects of the breath, such as the soft sensation of the flow of air in our body or the sense of energy flowing into our body with every in-breath and the relaxation that may accompany every out-breath.
When we seek to focus our attention on a part of the body, it can be very helpful to choose a part where we have pleasurable sensations. When we seek to focus on a yantra or a mantra, it can help to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects of such sounds and patterns.
By choosing meditation objects that are pleasurable to us and by focusing on the pleasurable aspects of our meditation objects, we make it easier for ourselves to focus our attention and turn it away from mind-wandering towards the present moment.
The calming effect of pleasure
Furthermore, when we focus our attention on something pleasurable, it has a range of physiological effects that also support meditation.
Mind-wandering increases when we feel unhappy or tense. Focusing on something pleasurable triggers the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, which contribute to feelings of happiness and relaxation. Pleasurable sensations also have a calming effect on the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear responses.
Thus, focusing our attention on pleasure has effects on our body, which, in turn, diminishes mind-wandering and makes it easier to focus our attention, creating a positive and supportive circle.
Pleasure as a tool rather than a purpose
Lastly, it’s essential to remember that although meditation can be very pleasurable and pleasure can serve as a valuable aid in the practice of meditation, pleasure is not the primary goal of meditation and should not be used to measure our success in meditation.
Meditation is the practice of directing our attention towards a specific focal point, irrespective of whether the immediate experience is pleasurable or not. In doing so, we can learn to experience the present moment separately from the additions of our own mind. This brings clarity and cuts through confusion. If we make pleasure-seeking the goal, it interferes with this simple and direct perception of the present moment and undermines the practice of meditation.
Thus, awareness of pleasure can greatly enhance meditation, and to use awareness of pleasure skillfully, we must be conscious of and avoid the pitfall of making pleasure the purpose of our meditation.
If you like to experiment with the use of pleasure in meditation, you click the link below and listen to a guided meditation.
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