Tuning in to Our Pleasure Radar: Creating a Self-Pleasure Inventory
What gives you pleasure?
For many of us, answering this seemingly simple question can be challenging.
When I first moved to Vancouver in the early 90s, escaping my dysfunctional family and the cold winters of Montreal, a naturopathic doctor told me I was the most stressed 25-year-old she’d met. It had been a big leap to leave home and move across the country. To mitigate the anxiety I was feeling as I settled into life on the West Coast, I took a page out of Gail Sher’s book Wishcraft and made a list of activities I loved to do that brought me pleasure. In my journal from that time, I created a grid and filled it with “Twenty things you like to do.” The first item on the list: have an orgasm.
Years later, I would augment these written lists (which I had taken to hanging on the fridge or in other places where I could see them regularly) with visual collages, pasting cut-out images from magazines onto poster board that represented those pleasures I wanted to nurture and cultivate.
Pleasure. A multisensory experience. A medicine that when taken in the right doses, can calm our nervous system and regulate our emotions. Giving ourselves pleasure is a necessary element of self-care, mental wellness and spiritual nourishment.
However, some of us may belong to a religious tradition that interprets pleasure as bad, wrong, sinful or anti-awakening. Or to one that tells us, believing “all things are impermanent,” not to cling to pleasure but appreciate and enjoy it while it is here, then let it go once it has passed. While those of us who practice Tantra, Jhanas or Soul Making Dharma, are encouraged to view pleasure as a path to fulfillment and peace.
Depending on our conditioing or inherited beliefs, our ability to experience pleasure may also be limited or compromised. We may not be able to identify what feels good to us, nor feel comfortable talking about it and/or sharing it. It may even feel dangerous or risky to admit to what gives us pleasure because of shame, guilt, unresolved trauma, histories of intersecting oppressions and epigenetic legacies.
Fortunately, we can learn how to give ourselves permission to experience pleasure, to recognize it when we are feeling it and to savour it, so we can receive all of its benefits.
To do this, we first need to tune in to our own pleasure radar. How do we do that? Let’s take a page from the principles of Writing Alone Together, a book I co-authored on the pleasures and benefits of journaling in a group.
I invite you to perform an experiment. Choose one thing that you are certain gives you pleasure. Feel free to start with having an orgasm, or something subtler, like sipping a cup of tea, another favourite pleasure of mine, or sitting in the sun, my husband’s favourite.
Principle 1: Grounding in the Present
Learning to recognize pleasure starts with listening to how something feels in the moment we are experiencing it. Ever since I was a girl, putting music on and letting myself move my body whatever way it wants has been a source of pleasure. The feel of limbs and torso, head and neck, thighs and spine finding their own rhythms is oh so yummy. As are the connections between feet and floor, eyes and environment. More recently, through meditation, I have learned to draw my attention toward the places of pleasureful energy in my body, to keep focusing my attention there, and to amplify the pleasure by imagining it circulating throughout.
Principle 2: Slowing Down and Paying Attention
As you are partaking of this pleasure, pause and pay closer attention to what is happening in your body. Notice the particular feelings, sensations, and thoughts. Washing the dishes by hand is a pleasure because the hot water relaxes me and calms my body. (Plus I am usually listening to music when I do it, or sometimes I sing). Looking at the ocean, standing in the sea— here on the west coast it’s too cold for it to be pleasureful, for me, to swim in—and drinking water with half a lemon squeezed into it first thing in the morning all have the same effect.
Principle 3: Developing Intimacy
Notice the relationship between you and the activity and/or objects of your pleasure. When it comes to food, pleasure arises for me in the time devoted to the alchemy of preparation and serving, especially when it’s with organic vegetables and fruit, spices and herbs. I savour the promise of self/other nourishment as much as the sensuality of the sights, smells, touches and tastes of the meal.
Principle 4: Trusting Your Own Experience
Oh my, how delicious. For me, masturbation is all about the slow and gradual excitation. Seeing the time with myself as precious and self-caring. I get to witness my own desire and follow through as I open emotionally and spiritually, while relishing the play, fantasy and mind/body-blowing climactic release.
Principle 5: Unleashing Creativity
For me, the act of writing freely and spontaneously is exhilarating. Spinning words into webs of story and dream and imaginary worlds stimulates my mind and lights my heart up. Whether I am writing by hand, or on a keyboard, it’s a hand, finger and wrist dance. All of which makes the letters dance. This inscribing is also pleasureful, and then there’s the rereading after, as I savour the play of words in my mouth and mind and ears.
Now I encourage you to try some of these activities for yourself and write about what you notice. How do you recognize it as a source of pleasure? What happens in your body? What sensations, thoughts, feelings arise?
- Tune into your ability to be present in your body in the moment and how you feel as you do so, using somatic practices like dance, yoga, walking and meditation.
- Tune into your experiences with water, whether swimming in it, bathing in it, drinking it... or other liquids.
- Tune into your experience of cooking and eating, and also gardening, tending the soil, weeding, planting, harvesting.
- Tune into your personal preferences for your own sexual pleasure.
- Tune into the experience of writing, or other forms of creativity.
Now that you have a sense of how these pleasures resonate in your own body, heart and mind, you can apply this experiment to any other experience. No matter what type of activity you engage in, to get the most pleasure out of it, enter into it with a sense of curiosity, openness and play. Let it be a process of exploration and discovery.
Each time you try out a new activity, ask yourself: What does my pleasure radar say?