When I was rather small and pondering the meaning of life, I came to the conclusion that the answer might be “the most pleasure for the most people”. Coming from an atheistic household, and not being inclined towards spiritualistic answers, this answer seemed almost inevitable.
However, as I grew up and grew as a person, I discovered that sometimes physical pleasure rang hollow, such as when I felt outwardly high but deep down not really at peace. And sometimes not-exactly-pleasurable activities like work could feel fulfilling. Perhaps this required a redefinition of the meaning of “pleasure”? Something that encompassed more spiritual sorts of fulfillments like peace and inner harmony?
That was part of the solution, but in the end it needed a bit more than that. What I eventually learned is that pleasure isn’t the meaning of life. Pleasure points to the meaning of life.
For instance, a very simple, obvious pleasure is eating. It’s fairly easy to understand that eating is pleasurable to us because our bodies want to encourage us to do what we need to do to survive. In this sense, pleasure is an indicator that you are doing something that is in harmony with your greater purpose.
If you opt for hedonism, you can overeat, or focus overmuch on unhealthy but stimulating foods, or you could even go the Roman way and make yourself vomit just so that you can repeat the pleasure again. This increases the amount of pleasure you experience but in my mind takes you away from the meaning of life. It’s sort of cheating the system which your body has put in place.
But if you’re sensitive, I think you can listen into your mind-body-spirit and realise that there are other signals pushing you away from doing these things. Overeating or eating unhealthy foods causes your body to feel heavy and unpleasant. Ultimately, doing these things is short sighted even for someone who thinks physical pleasure is important.
Then again, forcing yourself to vomit might relieve you of these problems, and supposing you’re okay with the experience of vomiting, you might not experience any excessive discomfort from this practice. I think though, that if you’re even more sensitive, you might still notice some part of you saying, “This is wrong, this is not what you’re supposed to be doing”. Not in a judgmental way; more of a feeling that something is missing.
Your mind-body-spirit is a complex entity, and it’s sending you all sorts of different signals. If you focus on just the body, you might never notice the signals your spirit is sending you, and hence, you might feel unhappy without knowing why. Worse, you might even have a hollow life and never even realise you’re unhappy, due to the fact that you have no idea what happiness really looks like.
Since I came to understand pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness, fulfillment, unfulfillment, satisfaction and dissatisfaction as signals, I stopped seeing them as goals in themselves. If you think about it, if you’re making a cake, do you consider someone saying “this tastes great!” as success? Or is success of your goal found in making the cake, no matter what signals you receive regarding it?
These signals point to something inside of me. Some purpose or directive. Some of these directives are really easy to understand: pleasure in eating tells me that my body requires nourishment. Others are more complex; spiritual satisfaction often only comes from expressing a higher purpose, such as being of service to others, or teaching the spiritual lessons which I have under my belt. I actually use the signals as part of how I discover what my purpose is; when I go down one life path, I feel restless and uncomfortable, and when I go down another path, I feel at peace and in harmony. I can use these signals to calibrate my life path and actually discover who I am.
It’s very tempting to add in a mention of my experiences as a trans person here. Contrary to what some think, knowing your true internal gender (regardless of your bodily configuration) is not always easy. For me, discovering it was the result of many different signals. I felt restless and uncomfortable while living as a man, though it took me a long time to discover why. Little things, like putting on the right clothes or experimenting with being addressed by others in a certain way, gave me feelings of harmony, pleasure, and “rightness”. This allowed me to calibrate how I was living until… surprise! It turned out that I was living as a woman.
Another example I find valuable is that of drugs. When I took MDMA, and managed to supercharge the effect through meditation, I had one of the most pleasurable nights of my life; full body orgasms, continuously, for hours, under my complete control. Yet, I don’t believe that the pleasure in itself was absolutely meaningful. It had some meaning; it allowed me to see through certain illusions; it helped me develop spiritually. In that way the drug experience was a fulfilling one. But if I took MDMA frequently for no other reason than to have orgasms, I believe that I would experience a deep sense of hollowness and would feel lost. Consequently, I have gone almost four years without trying MDMA again, and only intend to do so with very specific goals in mind.
So following signals, including pleasure and pain, but more broadly concord and discord signals of all sorts from every part of my mind-body-spirit – allowed me to understand who I was, and what my purpose was. I now know that I have a purpose to help the world in its spiritual evolution, because I feel harmony and concord when I walk that path, and pain and hollowness when I don’t. I know I have a creative impulse, because I feel fulfilled when I’m creating, and slovenly and hollow when I don’t. I know I have a social impulse, because of the feelings of loneliness and social fulfillment. And so on. All of these things build up a picture of what sort of creature I am. They teach me both what it means to be human, and what it means to be this particular human named Sophia.
I understand that following the purposes and directives signalled by these different signals is the meaning of life. Doing so certainly makes my life feel meaningful. It banishes existential angst and makes the Universe seem friendly and comfortable for me to live in.
When I make the distinction between pleasure itself and the directive which pleasure signals, I no longer fall for the hollowness that accompanies empty hedonism. I also find that my actions tend to be more intelligent; pure hedonism always seems to have a pendulum effect, with equal pain coming to cancel out the pleasure I experienced, usually as a result of my excess, and sometimes simply as a result of the fact that I’m not listening to my inner being. Sometimes, I feel that the Universe itself sends difficult situations as a sort of “stop sign”, or even a “bitch slap”, if you like, telling me that I’m going the wrong way, and need to turn around. On the other hand, when I’m in tune with the directives of my mind-body-spirit life seems to flow relatively easily, with relatively fewer roadblocks. Things feel harmonious.
I think this has enabled me to understand the Buddhist teaching of not running after pleasure and away from pain. You sometimes hear in such teachings that you should be somehow indifferent to such things, detached from them. Only then, they say, can you be free of suffering.
That never felt quite right, but nowadays, by seeing pleasure and pain as signals I can be detached from them in some way without feeling like I’m being untrue to myself. I no longer run after pleasure in itself, but I know that when I’m being true to myself and following my directives, my life will be full of the full spectrum of positive signals, from physical pleasure up to spiritual peace. And yes, I no longer suffer when I can’t cling to a certain pleasure after it starts to fade; and physical pain hurts less when I know that it’s not my purpose to avoid pain, simply my purpose to follow the directives that pain signals. Sometimes I still do cling to pleasure and pain out of habit, and consequently suffer, but if I just remember the meaning of life then I can detach myself from it again.
As you might know if you follow this blog, I recently had a very painful breakup. Actually, it was this that prompted me to write this article. My understanding of the meaning of life has been with me for quite some time, but through the breakup I had a refresher lesson.
Breakups are usually very hard for me, partly because I tend to cling quite strongly to the pleasure of being in love. When my relationship ended this time, I finally noticed the pattern in a conscious way: I said to myself, “Why is it that I eschew hedonism when it comes to taking recreational drugs, but cling to the high of being in a relationship even when it’s no longer good for me?”
I believe we have a strong inner directive to be social, and to love; and hence, it’s valuable to follow that urge and enter relationships when it fits with your other directives. But sometimes it doesn’t fit, of course, and then you must stop clinging and let go.
My current life has less overt pleasure in it than when I was in that relationship, but I feel a sense of satisfaction with my current situation that suggests that by being less distracted by romance I am fulfilling other directives. I can enjoy this harmonious feeling, and feel good knowing that I’m not running blindly after pleasure, but acting in ways that are in accord with my inner being.
Actually, since breaking up, I had the feeling that I had something to learn from being sort-of single (Well, I have a partner in another country, but we can’t communicate much so it feels a bit like being single). So, I decided to enter the feeling of being (sort of) single consciously and live it fully.
And this seems to have been the result for me; I have learnt to avoid hedonism in relationships. Even when I experience more romance again, I will remember to live according to my directives first and foremost, and experience romantic love as part of that, but not as more than that.
And that’s a pretty cool lesson to learn, I think.