Are You Numb to Pleasure? How to See Life with New Eyes

The key is we have to see everything in life, even our health, as a gift.

Posted Jun 25, 2015

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Success can seem so wonderful. We’re high on a cloud for having achieved what we aimed for and feel everything else in our lives should be great. Unfortunately, success can have a downside. When we succeed financially, we might start possessing more things, and they can start to possess us. We expect or need them to provide a sense of contentment. To keep from letting them rule our lives, we need to put several ideas into practice.

  • We have a variety of experiences to keep one thing from ruling our lives.
  • The variety includes simple pleasures.
  • We appreciate everything we have and enjoy all we do.

Let me use food to illustrate this. When I moved to California, I got into the habit of eating gourmet pizzas. I didn’t pay attention to how they tasted; I only cared about going to what everyone considered the best pizza place in town every time I ate. After a while, even the best began to lose its appeal because now there’s the best of the best and the best of the best of the best. When we get try to get the best, without thinking about whether we are enjoying them, we are chasing after what someone else has decided we should have. And that doesn’t satisfy us in the end. We lose the pleasure of life.

We need to learn to say yes to enjoying what truly gives us pleasure and seeking that experience in the simpler activities. We should maintain that childlike approach to living because when we move up the ladder of success and start eating fancy foods or living in nicer places or driving more luxurious cars, those activities or possessions might not give us the pleasure we expected. This is a subtle change that happens. Those things we choose become requirements. We feel we have to have those things—they’re part of our achieving that success—and so we lose out on their enjoyment. People start getting so used to having rich things that they feel they need them, without enjoying them anymore.

When someone is very hungry, as I was in college when I had little money, going out to a fast-food place once a month becomes a great pleasure. You enjoy yourself. The food is great, and I remember when I ate it I really enjoyed it. Food never tasted so good. Now, I still try to cultivate pleasure when eating. I allow myself to eat rich food only on weekends and eat raw foods during the week. I really enjoy my food. It’s a great balance, and that’s what we want to work towards so that if life along the way does take away those rich things from us, we will be okay.

Let me use another example. Sometimes, I work with clients that do very well financially and have many expensive possessions, even several beautiful homes. But sadly, they get used to all they have. After a time, those things do not make them happy anymore; those possessions are just requirements for their level of income. Still, these people might think, “I need a home overlooking the ocean, and then I’ll be happy again.”

If we’re not careful, this can happen to us on a lesser level. We can get used to things we have that should be considered blessings. We forget to be grateful for what we have and, instead, start looking for what more we should get. And then, if these things we do have go away, they can cause us a great deal of stress, anxiety, and suffering. So the key is we have to see everything in life, even our health, as a gift.

Think about when we’re hanging onto something so tightly. We have to have that first-class seat in the plane; we have to have that four-thousand-square-feet home; or we have to have a luxury vehicle. Then when we do get it, we’re holding onto it so tightly that we’re not even enjoying it. We think we need things just so we can feel okay, and then we miss out on the gift they are in our lives.

If we enjoy traveling, we might have started off staying at inexpensive motels. Then we moved up to hotels and maybe even progressed to luxury resorts. That’s great, but it’s sad if the luxury resort becomes something we have to have just to feel content. Instead, we should see staying there as a blessing. Then, we’re not only successful but also really enjoying it in the present moment. It’s about seeing what we do have for the blessings they are. Life is a blessing.

When we define happiness, we have to keep it very childlike. If we see things with raw, beginner eyes, we will be able to enjoy life. When we say that we have to have certain things in order to be content, we are setting ourselves up for suffering because they will not always last. If, instead, we can say we’re going to enjoy staying in palaces but also enjoy staying in a tent when we go camping, then we can enjoy every single experience because we’re ready for and willing to enjoy anything. Then this spectrum of life becomes something that is beautiful, no matter what life gives us.

So why do we get so easily attached to things and feel we need them in order to feel content? This happens for two reasons:

  1. We enjoy the physical sensation they give us.
  2. We care what others think about us, our possessions, and our actions.

First, our physiological sensations tell us what feels or tastes or sounds good. It feels nice to lie on a fluffy bed. Salt and butter and rich cream taste so much better than raw carrots and greens with no seasoning on them. An expensive car runs smoothly and almost soundlessly. Of course, there’s truth to those statements, but the freedom from attachment to them comes from saying we don’t need them. We’ll go camping, or we’ll stay at a luxury resort. Either is okay. We’ll see both options as a gift. But when we get used to these things and, for instance, say rich food is better and we want only it, this can bring with it some negative consequences.

We can take drug addicts as an example. People do drugs like heroin and crack because it makes them feel wonderful, but we don’t do them because we know their great positive feelings come with great negative consequences. Addictions are very destructive, overwhelming the person to have the drug’s pleasurable sensation over and over at any cost. In studies when rats have parts of their brains stimulated in a positive way, they want that stimulation nonstop. They can die from starvation, as long as they have the sensation.

Although we may not have drug addictions, we sometimes act as if we are addicted by focusing on a single activity—and then needing a higher and higher level of that—to bring us pleasure all the time. For example, always indulging in food pleasures can cause us to become obese or get illnesses, such as diabetes or gout. When we need certain things to feel pleasure all the time, we lose out on truly enjoying life; we are focusing on acquiring more and more of that one pleasure and are not appreciating it and not enjoying anything else in our life. We have to find a balance in enjoying all that life gives us and not demand only more and more of one pleasure.

When we’re balanced, we do a lot better. I have a sweet tooth and especially love chocolate, but I eat it in moderation and balance that indulgence with a healthful diet otherwise. Fruits and vegetables fill many of my meals, and I enjoy them as much as the chocolate. Eating a variety of foods lets me remember how good food tastes when I switch to a different one. Even chocolate all the time loses its pleasure. It’s about balance.

There’s really nothing wrong with having material things, staying in nice places, or living in nice homes. But the key is we must see each as a gift, be thankful when we have it, and be okay when we don’t. Having the variety allows us to appreciate the different experience—different from the one we just had—even if we’ve done it or had it before. The contrast between them lets us see the more recent experience almost as if it’s new. Even heroin addicts get this trick: they will often quit heroin for a week or two before returning to the habit, just so they can feel the high, the rush of the seemingly first time of doing heroin again. Though we’re not heroin addicts, the idea is that it’s important not to have only one thing all the time.

We need to work towards balance and seeing everything as a blessing, saying to ourselves, “I’m glad to have this now. Is it good for me in the long run?” If it isn’t, then we focus on having it only some of the time to avoid becoming addicted to this one pleasure. If we become used to things, we start missing out on the pleasure that we have been given from them.

Second, letting others influence our decisions is an equally powerful reason for our attachment to things. We care about what other people think, so we get that nicer car. Unfortunately, by focusing on others’ opinions, we’re giving them power over our happiness. And that has nothing to do with our enjoyment of what we are getting; it has to do with asking ourselves, “What will other people think?” When we care too much about what other people will think, we are going to suffer. Freedom comes from living life because we just want to. If today we want to live in a palace and tomorrow we want to rent a small apartment and go work for the Peace Corps, that’s great. But we have to do it because we really want to, not because of what others think about it.

A fellow I knew illustrates this idea. He bought a very expensive car, but after about three months, he told me that he got used it. It was just another car. He kept it only because of the accolades he would get from other people who were so impressed with it. But the car caused him a lot of financial stress. So it didn’t bring him any pleasure; it only brought him the pleasure of giving other people the chance to be impressed by it.

That’s sad, but many of us have the same attitude about things. We get them not so much because we enjoy them but, instead, to impress others. We become puppets to other people’s opinions of us. Those puppet strings need to be cut. If we want to have nice things, eat at gourmet restaurants, stay in luxury hotels, or so on, there is nothing wrong with that, but we shouldn’t be doing it to impress others. Otherwise, we are depending on their praise and approval, and people’s opinions change all the time. We can go up and down in the opinion polls of others very quickly, so it’s best not to pay much attention to them. To impress others is never-ending.

It’s best if we do things just because we enjoy doing them, rather than because we’re trying to impress the world. If people like what we’re doing, that’s great, but we’re not swayed by their opinion. If circumstances change, as life does change, we can also change. We won’t be swayed by people’s negative opinions of us when we don’t live in that nice house anymore or if we don’t have our fancy car. So, as much as we don’t let others control us when we’re doing well, we also don’t let them control us when we’re not doing well in their eyes. We just do things for the sake of doing them and because we want to. Then we’re free! We’re free to flow with life. When it’s a good day, great. When we’re not doing as well, it’s still great. It doesn’t matter, because there’s always something beautiful that we can be with.

We can have the most amazing life, if we live in the present moment without being attached or focused on the future; not being stuck in the past, just living in the now and seeing everything with those beginner eyes. The beginner eyes see everything as gifts, as something new that we’re going to be with every time.

If we see everything as new, we really enjoy our time with people we care about, we enjoy the food we eat, and everything else becomes so much more enjoyable. We won’t care about what other people think, and we will allow ourselves to adjust to life’s changes and go with the flow. We can flow with the beauty of life. We can love the gifts we’ve been given, no matter what comes our way because there is always something beautiful.