Pleasure is not a Dirty Word

An Exploration of the Meaning of Pleasure

In Biodanza we talk a lot about pleasure. But the word has an image problem that we need to address. The word, through no fault of it's own, has come to mean sex, or at least to evoke the idea. To talk about pleasure carries overtones of sexual pleasure, and that, in itself, can seem somewhat lewd - somewhat unnecessary. Even when we don't hear 'sexual' in the word we tend to hear the closely related 'sensual'. But the concept of pleasure has far more to offer.

To be fair we still do find the word with its more general meaning, but increasingly only in set phrases where it can safely pass by unnoticed. "it's a pleasure to meet you!" for example. Or as a response to "Thank you!" "My pleasure".

No one thinks that meeting someone for the first time was a sensual, let alone sexual pleasure. But equally in these phrases the word is cloaked by its formality. Even though it carries its proper meaning when you notice it there it can seem anachronistic.

Does it matter? Can we leave the word to its sensual decline - Showing its ankles occasionally from beneath its petticoats and causing ripples of consternation and excitement?

I think it does matter and here is why. I have a new shower. It seems very nice. it is an electric shower- After you set the temperature you just have to press a button to turn it on. That is all. One button to turn the Shower on in the morning - the same button to turn it off again. Marvelous. The button is nicely concave and a good coin size. In the middle of the button is a warm orange light showing a power symbol. Like this:

No problem there - except - and this is a big exception - the symbol which lights up so nicely is made of a perspex inset. As a consequence every press of the button leaves an imprint in the fingertip, somewhat like having a pebble in a shoe. There is generally only one interaction with the shower unit - to press the one button to turn the shower on and off. As a human/machine interface design it fails in its primary function.

How did that happen? Surely someone during the whole design and manufacturing process pressed that button more than once. So how was it allowed to leave the door of the design studio? Perhaps because no one dared to ask the question "is it a pleasure to use?"

And it is not just a shortcoming of this shower. Look around at the designed environment and ask how much would benefit from the designer process having the questions: "Is it a pleasure to use, to own, to have around?"

I would go as far as suggesting that what distinguishes Apple and Tesla is the willingness to consider pleasure.

But the value of pleasure and the danger of allowing sexuality to overtake the word is far greater.

There is a reason that we talk about pleasure in Biodanza. There is a reason we invoke the pleasures of taking a breath, of holding a hand, of feeling at home, of seeing a smile:

All need is mediated by pleasure.

This runs counter to our normal associations around the word 'need' which typically evokes ideas such as conflict, difficulty, negotiation, desire and longing. Equally the word 'pleasure' misunderstood as standing only for sexual pleasure, evokes its base associations. The moral being is not bound to sensual pleasure, the spiritual being is not bound to physical pleasure.

While these days we seldom think of pleasure outright as 'sin' we are all familiar with that association and its resonances remain. We see the pursuit of pleasure as hedonism and equate that to frivolous and shallow. The word 'pursuit' seems so natural here, as if, in valuing pleasure, we become enslaved to the pursuit of it.

So in stating "need is mediated by pleasure" are we forcing these words together: 'need' and 'pleasure' while they want to repel each other? Or can we find some often missed truth.

Imagine for a moment you were the designer of living things in a complex ecological system - you are God, evolution, or AI designer, as you will. The entities you are creating will have some requirements in order to survive and prosper: eating, maintaining shelter, interacting with other entities and so on. How will you ensure that your newly created entities will do the things they need to do to survive? A simple answer is to 'hard code' behavior. To provide them with the 'instinct' to eat, reproduce etc.. This is all very well, but what does it mean to have an instinct. The word itself has two meanings - the older meaning an 'internal prompting' and the newer - an 'unlearned animal behavior', which is the one we are getting at here. The word itself lives fully in the scientific method. It is an objective description of animal behavior and says nothing about the subjective experience of 'instinct'.

It has often been said that humans don't have any instincts. This, of course, is not true, we are biological beings. So the question becomes 'what is the subjective experience of instinct?' Back in your position as creator, how would you make instinct 'work'? The simple obvious answer is through pleasure. You can ask "Why does a bird sit on its eggs?" and you might be told "instinct," which tells you nothing. A richer answer is because it wants to; because it is feels good; because of the pleasure of it.

Why do we care for our children? Because of the pleasures of love, of play, of closeness and nurturing. Why do we eat? Because of the pleasure of good food. Why do we work? For the pleasure of contribution. Even breathing, though we seldom notice it, is a deep pleasure.

Of course we have other means to meet out needs. We can fight, toil, struggle, demand, compel. But these are emergency backup systems. There for when things have gone wrong.

The purpose of Biodanza is to renormalise the human back to making pleasure the primary system for satisfying needs.

Quite how and why our emergency backup systems have become 'set' as the default in so many ways is a question for another post.