Table for One: Why Pleasure Matters
Spring has arrived in Paris, and I find myself standing alone at a tremendously busy intersection in the trendy Marais district. I look around and witness a neighborhood packed with crowds of people on foot. Live street music fills my ears with an exuberant noise. An aroma so delicious that it engages me like a lover in a sensual feast envelops me. It threatens to overtake me.
Normally, this type of a moment would have been shared, as I’ve spent much of my adult life in a committed relationship. But this day is different. After a daunting twist of fate a few years ago, I now find myself utterly on my own.
Being alone is definitely a mixed blessing. Am I too old for this? Or, dare I say too young? I resist, often falling into a type of victimhood because being alone is not the choice I would have made for myself at this point in life. It can often feel like a pity party for one.
So, to avert this pity party, and to further my progress in “enjoying the moment” alone, I’ve taken my own advice and headed into the heart of that which makes me uncomfortable. I am on a solo trip to Paris—my medicine of choice. It was a seed thought from two years ago that brought me to this moment, standing paradoxically in a large crowd, but totally on my own.
The next day, as I stand on this same but less crowded corner, a small piece of deliciously seasoned red cabbage tumbles from my pita sandwich onto my hand. I am grateful it didn’t fall to the ground. The taste is so irresistible, so pleasurable; I carefully finish chewing my current bite, and discreetly lift my left hand upward, and lick the savory piece up into my mouth. I make an audible, albeit discreet, sound groaning with delight. Heaven.
As I consume the sandwich, I feel a sort of joy, or pleasure, not often felt. A feeling of lightness and of possibility fill my body. Joy, or pleasure, flow through me, and I feel satiated. Not only because the food is nourishing my physical hunger, but perhaps because of some deeper hunger being satisfied: my craving for being fully in the moment.
Pleasure. It’s such a glorious thing, right? Yet, it is also complicated. My conservative upbringing taught me to distrust pleasure as naughty. Is it wickedly selfish to want pleasure?
The Pleasure Principle is a term coined by Freud to explain our desire to feel good. It’s a major motivator for us as small children, and according to Freud, we learn to slowly let go of the immediate need for pleasure as we mature, learning that there are many times we must put off immediate pleasure for a more long-term gain.
Was it catechism class that taught me that pleasure is best delayed or avoided? Small pleasures were okay, but great pleasure was to be distrusted as selfish.
Whatever the cause, I’d like to speak on behalf of pleasure itself, because I know you desire to feel pleasure as well. In my humble opinion, the world would be a richer, happier place if each of us knew how to engage pleasure more fully.
Though we often equate pleasure with sex, feelings of pleasure, like the experience I had standing alone eating my pita sandwich, are known to stimulate endorphins, and these little gems of chemicals are pain killers. They stop pain more systemically than a pill.
Feeling good also actives the parasympathetic nervous system. This means our bodies soften, our heart rate slows down, and we relax into the moment.
Stress and anger strain the immune system—they are incompatible with health and well-being. So, enjoying pleasure increases your ability to be in the now and savor all that is good in life, and sends a signal to your brain that yes, life is indeed worth living.
So, why not explore something pleasurable? Take a drive through the countryside. Savor a favorite meal. Give your partner a neck and shoulder massage and delight in the connection you have. Or, just close your eyes at your office and take a 5-minute breath break, going deeply within.
I might suggest that whatever you decide to do, allow it to take you at least slightly outside your comfort zone. Perhaps a delicious dinner out by yourself? Let yourself imagine.
I take the final bite of my beloved falafel pita sandwich. For this last bite, I have carefully saved the perfect balance of falafel, veggies and sauce, and the mixture of flavors fills me with delight. My body and my mind are in pure pleasure, fully in the moment, and I feel utterly alive and filled with gratitude, even though I am totally on my own.
Being alone cuts out needless chatter and distraction. It’s a mixed blessing indeed, and one that I would not have wanted to miss.