Pleasure, you would think, should be a very simple thing. Those pleasures that are most satisfying should take front-center stage of our minds, hearts and stomachs. They should chase the lesser pleasures into the shadows of the curtains and offstage.
But it doesn't work that way. Strangely enough, the stupidest pleasures make the most noise and deepest pleasures are the quietest. It's those inane, trite pleasures that enslave us, that leave no satisfaction, that even end up hurting us and destroying us. It's those that ring so loudly that the real pleasures can't even be heard.
Deep Pleasures, Dumb Pleasures
What are the deep and real pleasures?
Almost always, those pleasures you barely notice.
Being comfortable in a place you can call home.
Watching your kids succeed at something you were really lousy at.
Having someone by your side who loves you and believes in you no matter how badly you may mess things up.
Planting a seed in someone’s heart, and watching it grow.
Giving, and watching those you gave to become givers themselves.
Then there are the ultra-deep pleasures shared with us by an infinite Creator, through an infinite Torah:
Doing a mitzvah with the joy of knowing that, “Hey, I was just chosen to serve the Creator of the Universe!”
Absorbing some Torah wisdom and, after much struggle, really getting the endless depth of it.
Teaching that wisdom, and then discovering your students get it better than you.
Standing before the Master of the Universe and giving a personal “thank you” for all these pleasures and privileges and more—especially for the privilege of getting to say a personal thank you before the Creator of All Things—oh, what could be a greater pleasure! I mean, I don't even know how to create an electron, and here I am standing before this Awesome Creator and giving thanks that I get to breathe!
Okay, maybe you don't get it. We each have our deep pleasures.
The point is: How absurd could life be, that these pleasures are so easily washed away by the noisy, crashing waves of inanities that provide no more than a brittle plastic, disposable, cheap imitation of the real thing, only to leave pain, heartbreak, addiction, embarrassment —whatever, we've all been there, each in our own way—in their vacuous wake?
We can be sitting there in our home on a wonderful Shabbos day where all those deep and satisfying pleasures of life surround us—and that gnawing demand for some stupid potato chip that's not currently available, or the thought that someone else might be having more fun doing something else won't leave us alone.
And we’re talking about pleasure! Pleasure runs everything. As it says in the ancient Book of Formation, “Nothing is higher than pleasure.”
And your therapist agrees. It’s called the pain-pleasure principle. It runs our lives.
In sum: Life can be real dumb.
Pleasure In Control
But there's gotta be a way out. Perhaps, if we try to understand what's going on with us, perhaps then we can find that door.
What’s going on with us is that there is more than one of us. There's layers upon layers of personalities. The layers that experience the deepest pleasure lie most deeply inside. The layers that are most easily fooled lie at the surface.
And there's the crunch: It’s those outermost, peripheral layers that have the most direct access to the console for controlling hands, feet, palette, kishkes, hormones, and all the rest.
Who's at the surface?
The majority of cells in your body don't even belong to you. They are parasites that live principally in your gut. Most, we hope, are friendly. Many are not.
Whatever—they are the ones making demands. There's a neural network in your stomach, colon and small intestine with about as many neurons as a small cat. Those foreign investors down there have claimed rights to all consumer demands. They send signals to the brain, “We neeeeeed chocolate! Neeeeed! Understand? As in get it now! NOW!”
Sure, the brain could override that signal. You tell me: How often does it do that?
In the brain as well, it’s the simplest, stupidest parts that have the first say. In his book, “Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman describes how the brain is wired for “amygdala hijack”—a situation where powerful stimuli trigger a raw emotional response milliseconds before any input from the higher-thinking neocortex can kick in. Only milliseconds—but still enough time to hijack the rest of the brain and fire the whole body into action. Most often, real stupid action.
Now that sheds a whole new light on the words of the Zohar, that describes our self-destructive impulse as “an old and foolish king.” Old, because “it always has the first word.”
Then there's that area of the human body packed with parasympathetic nerves (those are the ones that transmit sensations) about which the Talmud says, “Feed it and it starves. Starve it and it is satisfied.”
But, of course, being human, we feed it as much as we can. Even though, with a little starvation, it would be much more satisfied from the same pleasures.
That’s related to love. Love is weird. It only works when you give it. Deeply. When you connect at a place that is so personal, so private, that the bond can never be broken. That is love that satisfies.
And we give all that away for a quick fix, far too often with nothing in return. Zilch. Ripoff. Just baggage. Bad baggage.
In Control of Pleasure
Here's a prescription. Take it or leave it. It’s not easy. Nothing good in life comes easy. But it’s doable:
Find a quiet place and a quiet time. Sit still and meditate on the deep, quiet pleasures of life. The ones your soul came here to receive. The ones you will take back with you when you leave this body after 120 years or as many as you may be blessed with, may they be a lot and really good.
Visualize those treasures, those ultimate souvenirs of life. Home. Kids. Friends. Companions. Your mitzvahs. The Torah wisdom you’ve gained. The times you thanked G‑d from your heart.
Focus and return focus as long as your mind can keep returning to focus. Fan their flames, turn up the dial and amplify their signal.
You won't need to battle against all the other distractions. Self-control will come much easier. Just let those impulses knock on the door, and ignore them until they go away. Then let the deep waters of those everlasting pleasures inundate them into oblivion.
You will feel less pain. Pleasure carries you beyond pain.
You will have a pleasurable life. How else do you want to spend life?
Sacrifice the stupid pleasures on the fiery altar of deep, inner passion.
Fight pleasure with pleasure. Live the good life.