The Uses of Pleasure
January 31, 2024

When the Buddha called his path of practice a middle way between the extremes of indulgence in sensual pleasure and indulgence in self-torment, he didn’t mean that it was going to adopt a neutral feeling-tone. He was offering a different kind of pleasure and a different way of relating to it. The different kind of pleasure is the pleasure of concentration. It brings the mind and the body together, with the feeling of pleasure as the glue.

Try to be aware of the breath. First try to find some spots in the body where you’re really sensitive to how the breath feels. Try to breathe in a way that feels nourishing there: gratifying, satisfying. Then from there, think of the sense of ease spreading throughout the body and your awareness, which is actually already there in the body, connecting to that sense of pleasure.

The image the Buddha gave is of a bathman. In those days, they’d knead water into a powder of soap to make a kind of dough that you’d rub over the body. Nowadays, we can think about making bread. You knead the flour and the water together so that the entire lump of dough is saturated but not dripping. In the same way, you want to have a sense of ease going through the body.

Think of every cell in the body breathing in, breathing out, all together in harmony. As the Buddha said, try to settle in and indulge in that for a while. But, be very careful how you indulge. It’s very easy to start wallowing in the pleasure when it gets really good, and then you drop the breath, your mindfulness goes. That means that the cause for the pleasure will go, and then you’re back where you were before. Or you just drift off into a sleepy state, or into delusion concentration, where everything is very still, very pleasant, but you don’t really know where you are. That’s a sign that you indulged too much in the pleasure, because actually the pleasure is there to serve a purpose: It’s part of the path, and everything you do on the path has a purpose, has a use.

So what are the uses of this pleasure? One is to give the mind a place to rest. When you’re doing your work of analyzing what’s going on in the mind, there come times when the analysis gets dull. The traditional image is of a knife. If you use it again and again and again, it’s going to get dull. You’ve got to stop and sharpen it—although here the sharpening is different from the way you’d sharpen a knife outside. You sharpen the knife of your mind by getting it very still, and let it rest for a while. Then you can get back to work.

As you come out of the stillness, you may begin to notice things as the mind picks up its activities, and that’s an important use of the stillness. It gives you something to compare, a background, so that you can compare: Notice, when the mind is thinking, what is it doing? What is it picking up? Why? What’s the allure? What sparks a particular emotion, a particular thought? When you’ve been still, it’s a lot easier to see these things.

It’s like listening for the noises of the mice in the walls here. If you want to hear where they are, you have to be very still. You can’t be humming to yourself. When you’re still, things stand out.

Then you use the pleasure as a kind of food. That’s one of the analogies the Buddha gives. The practice is like defending a fortress. You’ve got mindfulness at the gate, you’ve got the soldiers with their weapons, and the soldiers and the gatekeeper need to be fed. So you feed them with the concentration.

But primarily you want to learn how to be with the pleasure and not be overcome by it. This the Buddha calls being developed in body. When we think of the phrase, “developed in body,” we think of somebody with a lot of muscles. But that certainly isn’t what the Buddha had in mind. Why he called it this, I don’t know. He says it’s the ability to be with pleasure and not be overcome by it. This is one of the skills you’re going to need to deal with the results of past bad actions. It’s easy to understand that it would be necessary to learn how to be with pain and not overcome by it, in case your past bad actions yield in pain. Well, if you’re going to be overcome by pleasure, you’re going to be overcome by pain. The two go together. So the skill of concentration is learning how to be with the pleasure and not get overcome by it, so that you can use it properly. This means keeping your focus very carefully with the breath and learning how to make yourself alert enough so that you don’t start drifting off.

It’s usually good, once you’ve developed a sense of well-being that comes from the breath, that you spread it around to be very active in moving your attention around the body, knowing whether there’s tension here, tension there, releasing it here, releasing it there. That way, you learn how to relate to pleasure in a new way. Usually we relate to pleasure just as something as we want. When we get it, we gobble it down.

But here you learn to use it. This is where the middle way gets special, because you’re going to be learning how to use both pleasure and pain. Pain, of course, you use as a topic of your analysis so you that can see the four noble truths. As you use pain, you have to be learn how to use pleasure so that you have a good place to back off when dealing with the pain gets too much. You’ve got the pleasure to depend on. And relating to the pleasure and pain in a new way helps you to step back from them, to see them as tools, when they’re useful, when they’re not. This way, you don’t just go for the pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, wherever you can. You get more discerning.

There’s that passage in Ajaan Lee where he says you want to get to the point where you can think of pleasure and pain as words that people speak in jest. You don’t take them all that seriously. We tend to be very serious about our pleasures. We need to see that the pleasures even of concentration, the pleasures of fabrication, have their limitations, so that we can get past them, because we are practicing concentration, as the Buddha said, for the purpose of letting go. All the factors of the path have that purpose. You develop them, you use them, and then you let them go.

So it’s the same with the pleasure here. You learn how to develop it. You see that it has its uses. You also see that it has its limitations. And it’s that willingness to observe the mind and observe its relationship to pleasure that allows you to see those limitations and to go beyond them.

We work on those skills of metacognition. We’re learning how to observe the mind from a certain distance. And you’ll find that your relationship to pleasure and pain is a really big issue in learning how to get a sense of distance. There are a lot of things in the mind that we can observe very easily, but we’re not very good at observing our relationship to pleasure or our relationship to pain. So the practice of concentration, when you make it right concentration—in other words, with a lot of alertness and mindfulness and ardency—is a skill for understanding your relationship to pleasure and pain and to weaken their hold, so that you can find something better.