Joy Unlocked: Understanding the Structure of Pleasure
To understand the human condition, my go-to is the extensive work of Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. His narrative on pleasure-seeking as the driving force for human action is a must for anyone wanting to understand the root of their unease and find peace in a world that gives everything but. This essay gives an overview of Krishnamurti’s explanation on the structure of pleasure and his solution for attaining joy and peace that truly sustains.
Most of humanity is stuck in an unending loop of pleasure and pain. No matter what we do to induce good feelings and joy, the “down” reliably follows:
- Caffeine fiends and enthusiasts of other stimulants complain about crashes following energetic spikes. This is akin to the depressive lows after high sugar or alcohol intake.
- Post-coital Dysphoria (PCD) is the feeling of depression and anxiety as the body returns to baseline after the extreme levels of mental and physical stimulation from sex
- The modern human’s use of social media subjects them to algorithms engineered to provide instant gratification, inducing spikes in dopamine and hooking an entire generation to cheap hits of pleasure. Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and others take advantage of the same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.
Beyond the biological, dopamine-induced cycles of ups and downs, Pleasure can be broken down into four stages: Perception, Sensation, Contact and Desire.
To understand this, lets dissect a scenario many of us can relate with. You’ve been hiking up a cliff for many tiring hours and finally reach the top. The view clears up and it suddenly reveals the vast ocean below. For a moment everything stops and you’re gripped by the might and beauty of the ocean’s presence (Perception). There can be no smell more captivating, the breeze that envelopes you feels like the love of this giant beauty and your body reverberates with the sounds of the thrashing waves below (Sensation). Your anxieties, insecurities and desires dissolve. Everything is perfect and should be just the way it is. In a flash, a thought arises that tells you to preserve this moment (Contact [with thought]). You want to experience it again and share it with your friends upon your return (Desire). As you reach for your camera and start looking for the perfect angle and light for your shots you’ve lost the sense of bliss and a different quality of experience emerges. Thought has entered your perspective and begins to judge, compare and bring the desire to “have it again in the future”. Your mind has infiltrated your experience and turned joy into pleasure. It fills you with the desire to hold on to this blissful moment. The future takes over your experience of the present. This state of your mind allows back in the anxieties and troubles you managed to escape from for just a moment. Desire to repeat and perpetuate the joyful experience brings forward its contrasting pain.
To sum up — the search for pleasure and relief eventually brings forward its direct contrast: pain and discomfort. It seems that there is no sustainable source of joy if everything that placates negates itself in equal (and sometimes larger) measure. Our intrinsic desire for pleasure drives us to its direct opposite.
According to Jiddu Krishnamurti, in order to free ourselves from this bind we must understand that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. By accepting pleasure we must also be ready for its counter effect. Once we realize this we can reach towards a deeper, more sustainable source for the same. He contrasts “joy” from “pleasure,” The latter arises from our thought patterns, whereas joy is experienced from a state of oneness with the moment you’re in.
You cannot think about joy. Joy is an immediate thing and by thinking about it, you turn it into pleasure. Living in the present is the instant perception of beauty and the great delight in it without seeking pleasure from it.
— Jiddu Krishnamurti
Activities that ground you in presence quiet mental noise and reveal a type of beauty that comes from being “in the now”. It goes beyond seeking pleasure and is a state of embracing everything that there is without positive or negative judgement. We see this quality of being in our pets all the time. Animals embody this message and can serve as anchors, grounding us and revealing a pocket of space and peace in our daily lives. These are moments experienced when parents see the beauty in their child’s smile, or a walk in nature that fully immerses you into your surroundings, or when an artist enters a state of timelessness when honing their craft. It’s such moments meditators train their minds to achieve regularly and is the only sustainable source of the joy and peace we seek. In this space we break free from the endless waves of satisfaction followed by disappointment, euphoria followed by depression.
Society is gripped by the never-ending chase for pleasures and euphoric highs, which inevitably induce discomfort and pain. These rapid bursts of dopamine are now being used by corporations to manipulate our actions, burying us deeper in unending cycles of pleasure and pain. Simply understanding this feedback loop should lead one towards a more pristine form of joy. Infinite joy comes from activities that ground the mind into the now, quieting thought and revealing the beauty of the moment. Consciously and proactively filling our days with activities conducive to this state of thoughtlessness is the secret to endless bliss, negative side effects not included.
So if you understand that where there is a search for pleasure there must be pain, live that way if you want to, but don’t just slip into it. If you want to end pleasure, though, which is to end pain, you must be totally attentive to the whole structure of pleasure — not cut it out as monks and sannyasis do, never looking at a woman because they think it is a sin and thereby destroying the vitality of their understanding — but seeing the whole meaning and significance of pleasure. Then you will have tremendous joy in life. You cannot think about joy. Joy is an immediate thing and by thinking about it, you turn it into pleasure. Living in the present is the instant perception of beauty and the great delight in it without seeking pleasure from it.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti (Book: Freedom from the Known)