We all know what pleasure is, but how do we get more of it? This week in Life with Full Attention, an eight week course in Mindfulness, the focus is on pleasure and pain. Firstly, how to temper our reaction to pain and thereby minimise it. Secondly, how to become aware of pleasure when we experience it, so that we maximise delight.
Week 3 contains so many practical exercises that it has taken a month, rather than a week, to put them all into practice. The first step is to start by noticing every time you experience a pleasant or nasty sensation. So when something causes you pain, you try to stop and be aware of the sensation. In Maitreyabandhu’s words ‘we begin to create a gap between what happens to us an the moods we get into as a result of what happens to us’.
One of the exercises is to create a ‘pleasant and painful’ diary to help you catch those feelings early before they harden into attitudes or moods. Catching the feelings turned out to be very easy, but it would have been impossible to write them all down. But what was very helpful was the idea of noticing the feeling, and then pausing, and then trying to decide how to react, rather than just reacting.
‘It is difficult not to react to painful feelings, but it is possible. We can train ourselves to notice them and, counterintuitive as this may sound, relax into them.’ This turned out to be true. Once you have sat and looked at your negative feeling for a few minutes, it seems to lose its hold over you. Sometimes you drift off and think about something else. At other times you can’t decide what to make of this feeling or how to react. So eventually it seems easier not to react at all.
Now comes the fun part, where we get to maximise the pleasant feelings, although curiously, these ones are much harder to spot. As Maitreyabhandu points out: ‘we want pleasure….we rush through our to-do list to make time for it – but in the moment of having pleasure, we often forget to pay attention’. So true! By the time I have drunk two-thirds of a glass of wine I start thinking about a second glass rather than enjoying the one I am already drinking.
In a nutshell, we are distracted from experiencing pleasure by wanting more of it, so the ‘Discipline of Delight’ is to give ‘our full attention to pleasurable sensations while not yearning to repeat them’. Look at me now, for example. I had a good lunch and I am not in the slightest bit hungry. Yet here I sit, looking forward to my free Waitrose coffee and shortbread biscuit. Am I paying any attention to the greater pleasure of writing this article? No.
And this brings our teacher to definition of pleasure. We all know that Waitrose coffee is a trivial sort of pleasure, but little things like that get us through the day, they are little rewards that put us in the mood for work and getting things done. But Maitreyabandhu says don’t confuse these with deeper pleasures: ‘We cannot genuinely enjoy something unless we can abide in it, become wordlessly absorbed in it. In this sense, our richest pleasures tend to be the quieter ones – those moments of genuine and concentrated activity.’
Sadly, the book contains no practical tips which will makes us more disposed to creativity and less disposed to cups of coffee from Waitrose. However it does suggest we create a diary of anticipation, where we try to predict the pleasant and unpleasant moments in the coming week, then later on come back and describe what you actually experienced.
The idea is to see if there is a mismatch between what we anticipate in terms of pleasure and pain, and what we actually experience. You don’t have to do this for very long to see what happens, so it’s worth just jotting down a few anticipated pleasures or unpleasant moments. Look back a week later and the results are fascinating – I won’t spoil the surprise.
At the same time as all of this we are supposed to continue with the Mindful Walk (Week 2) and Breathing Spaces. These are moments during the day when we just stop and take a few deep breaths and close our eyes. ‘The breathing space is particularly useful if you are starting to feel that things are getting on top of you. It’s supposed to be a good antidote to stress and negative states of mind.’ I must say, it’s not easy to do this in an open plan office when your computer crashes, or for that matter in the middle of the kitchen when the children are throwing toys at one another and refusing to eat their healthy dinner.
The Breathing Space is supposed to be ‘an island of calm and sanity in the midst of a hectic day’ but it’s also a precursor to Meditation, where we ‘set time aside to cultivate awareness’ and which we are encouraged to practice every day. I am not going to pretend that meditation is easy, or even that I have managed to do it properly. Trying to sit and listen to one’s breathing without losing concentration is nigh on impossible. But I have managed to get close enough to see that it could be a great experience if you could do it. At the end there was a huge sense of well-being and calmness.
As the book suggests, it’s best done first thing in the morning before you even switch on your phone. As soon as you start receiving emails it is very difficult to get back into the right frame of mind. Secondly, do take the advice about what position to do it in. An upright chair with a back support of some kind is the only way to do it that is kind to your body. Finally, I have found that even attempting to meditate is better than not doing it at all. Just sitting upright and still for 20 minutes seems to get rid of stiffness from lying in bed and when you finish you really feel quite good, keen to move and ready to start the day in a nice gentle frame of mind.