Meditation: Pleasure, Part IV

Pleasure is something we all seem to want, or at least, it is something that you would think, you should want. But somehow, over the years, the word pleasure, or the seeking of pleasure, has taken on this negative viewpoint. The most obvious example of this feeling, is the articles you can read about guilty pleasures. These articles will list about 10 to 12 things, that you should feel guilty about, when pursuing these endeavors . These lists can range from bubble baths, to binge watching TV, and playing hooky from work. Then, there is Freud’s Pleasure Principle. This is the theory, that as babies, we want immediate gratification, and will do anything to get it. This will gradually subside when we get older, as REALITY sets in. The reality is, that sometimes we must wait, a proper amount of time, to receive our pleasurable experience. In some cases, there is this feeling of sophistication when it comes to pleasure. This is when art and museums, are the things that gives one pleasure. Pleasure is one of the few words that is directly associated with sex. That can creative negative thoughts for many. There is this atmosphere of distain, for people that are constantly seeking pleasure. Shouldn’t all of us be seeking pleasure. Maybe, it’s the reason we seek pleasure, that is creating the problem.

You should seek to make every experience a pleasurable one. Some people may say that is just about impossible, but I think it is something to strive for. However, the major reason I think people seek pleasure, is to avoid pain. It is this avoidance of pain, through the use of drugs and alcohol, that can lead to physical addiction. The other detrimental behaviors I wrote about in previous blogs, such as being on social media, the internet, your phone, and video games, may also be due to the avoidance of pain, or painful experiences. Pleasure is confused with avoidance or dulling of pain in everyday life. That good old alcohol buzz may feel pleasurable, but it is nothing more than a blocking device, for what is causing your discomfort. The same thing could be said for products, that claim to create pleasure. It is a tough road sometimes, just to find pleasures, in the simple things of life. This is simply finding pleasure, for the sake of pleasure. Some philosophies believe, that the only way to know you are alive, is to suffer. This may seem to be a little extreme, but it could be true. Trying to avoid pain and suffering, is a fruitless endeavor. It has been shown that avoiding loss, is a very high human priority. People seem to want to avoid losing money at all costs, rather than taking a moderate risk, to make money. Avoidance is giving pleasure a bad name.

You must embrace life for what it is. It is a series of ups and downs. Seeking pleasurable things to make you happy, is never a bad thing. There is so much of life, that can not be controlled. When something gives you joy, appreciate it, and be happy. Remember, there are no guilty pleasures in life, just the wrong reason for seeking them. Look for pleasure when things are going great. When something bad happens feel the pain, embrace it the best you can, and hope for a better tomorrow. Great losses in your life can be the hardest to overcome. Remember the ones we have lost would want us to move on and continue to get the most out of life we have. Pleasure is always worth seeking as it will improve the body and the mind. What pleasure can not do, is minimize or suppress the pain and suffering found in life.

Meditation: Pleasure, Part III

In the first two parts of discussing pleasure, I wrote about how pleasure seems to create problems in our lives, and the chemicals in the body, that seem to be the agents, in allowing us to feel pleasure. In this blog, I am going to look at ways health experts have tried to control these chemicals, in order to treat psychological problems, and improve our lives. They have tried to do this through medications, and a process that is termed dopamine fasting. Both are an ever evolving processes, which you could say is true of anything involving the brain. These techniques and medications, some of which have been used for years, have meant with various degrees of success. Unfortunately, there is a long way to go, before we are really going to know what is going on, in that thing between our ears.

Dopamine fasting is a relatively new technique, which came to fame, about 2018. Basically, it is abstaining from “addictive” technologies, like the cell phone, social media, the computer, and internet gaming. The proponents of dopamine fasting, say it can even help in overeating, and gambling. The term dopamine fasting is a misnomer. Even people who advocate this method, know it does not affect dopamine levels. They fessed up to this, when it was brought to their attention, that there is no good reason to reduce dopamine levels. It does too many things to help brain function, so reducing it, is not a good idea. What they are trying to do, is to avoid overstimulation of the brain. Dopamine fasting is nothing more than some behavior modification techniques. When you read articles about dopamine fasting, they make it sound so easy. If this was an easy thing to do, taking away all technical stimulation for a finite period of time, then why would we need dopamine fasting. You would just set aside a particular time not to be on the computer, your phone etc. All the things that dopamine fasting is suppose to help are not physically addicting. It is a an insult to people that are battling the physical addiction to alcohol and drugs, to use the word addiction for the aforementioned behaviors. It is not easy to stop some of these destructive behaviors, but your body is not going to go into a horrible withdrawal. Dopamine fasting is simply another way of saying find a quiet spot and breathe.

The medical profession has tried to help people, by trying to affect the chemicals of pleasure, with medication. The most common way they have done this, is with medications called antidepressants. Right now, there are at least 22 medications, described as antidepressants. There is no question, that these medications have saved thousands of lives, and have helped people make it through some really dark times. Even though the medical profession doesn’t like to hear this, there is a lot of trial and error, when it comes to prescribing these medications. That is why it is imperative to be acutely aware of how these drugs, or any combination of them, is making you feel. You are the blood work, the MRI, and contrast study, all rolled up into one. There are no good tests, that are able to discern, how effective these drugs are. Hopefully some day, there will be ways to tell just what these drugs are doing, and when they are doing it. In the final part of looking at pleasure, I will look at the feeling itself, and try to figure out why, it is perceived to be, at times such a problem.

Meditation: Pleasure, Part II

In order to understand pleasure, we have to look at the logistics of how the mind and the body experiences pleasure. Pleasure is created by neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that are released at the end of a nerve fiber by the arrival of a nerve impulse and, by diffusing across the synapse or junction, causes the transfer of the impulse to another nerve fiber, a muscle fiber, or some other structure. The exact number of neurotransmitters is unknown but more than 200 have been identified. Neurotransmitters are different types of protein substances that are manufactured by the body from the foods we eat. Most of the western diets are high in protein, so the body does not have much trouble in making neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitter that has been related to pleasure is dopamine. Dopamine  has a number of important functions in the brain; this includes regulation of motor behavior, pleasures related to motivation and also emotional arousal. It plays a critical role in the reward system.

Dopamine is made from the amino acid L-Dopa, which can be synthesized indirectly from the essential amino acid phenylalanine or directly from the non-essential amino acid tyrosine. These amino acids  are found in nearly every protein and so are readily available in food, with tyrosine being the most common. Although dopamine is also found in many types of food, it is incapable of crossing the blood-brain barrier that surrounds and protects the brain. It must therefore be synthesized inside the brain to perform its neuronal activity. That is not a problem because both L-dopa and tyrosine can cross the barrier and therefore Dopamine is made by the brain, for the brain. Dopamine can cause health problems if an individual has too little or too much in their system. The most common disease linked to a Dopamine deficiency is Parkinson’s Disease. You can measure Dopamine in the blood. Since Dopamine can not cross the blood brain barrier, this is not going to tell you how much Dopamine is in the brain. Until recently there was no way of knowing how much Dopamine was in the brain. Now MIT has developed MRI sensors, that consist of magnetic proteins that can bind to dopamine. When this binding takes place, researchers can continuously monitor dopamine levels in a specific part of the brain. One of the key discoveries was that dopamine did not make neurons more active, but made neurons active for longer periods of time. Unless your are going to be hooked up to the these sensors, no one is really going to know what is happening in the dopamine brain system.

There are other feel good substances in the body. Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin often referred to as the happy hormones, even though only one is a hormone. They are all connected with each other when it comes to pleasure. Endorphins are stored and produced in the pituitary gland. They can inhibit pain mechanisms. You create endorphins when you do something related to exercise that you really like to do. All of these chemicals are involved in the feelings of pleasure and reward and how to get both. When any of these chemicals get out of whack not matter what the reason, we begin to have problems. This can make pleasure seem so confounding at times. Sometimes, it is what we do to bring all this in balance, that can at times make everything worse.

Meditation: Pleasure, Part I

When we think of pleasure, we think of things that make us happy, bring us joy, makes life fun, and results in a feeling of contentment and joy. Pleasure is defined, as a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment. This sounds like a rather simple endeavor. However, not all people agree on what is pleasurable. Pleasure originates in the most complex organ of the body, the brain. There is the disorder known as anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. Another condition, related to a perceived lack of pleasure, is dysphoria which is a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life. There are many opinions about pleasure. Some groups feel that pleasure is something that should not be sought. There are other opinions, that pleasure and suffering are the only way we know that we are alive. There are ideas, that when pleasure is associated with rewards, that this can lead to destructive behavior. There is a feeling that happiness and pleasure are not synonymous. That seeking out a more productive and meaningful life may not be a pleasurable experience, but your life may be more satisfying, and therefore you are happier. By constantly seeking pleasure, one will not pursue contemplation, which does not reside in orgasmic thrills, or sensations of warmth, but in deep absorption and immersion, a state we now call “flow.” And during this state there is neither thought nor feeling. You are simply “one with the music. In other words pleasure can inhibit meditation. I am not sure that I agree.

With pleasure now becoming more complicated, it was only a matter of time, before neuroscience would have to get involved. Neuroscience, at one time, felt that only objective behavior reactions could be studied, and pleasure was a subjective reaction, depending on what each individual felt was pleasurable. With new technology in brain studies, that viewpoint, while still being argued, is in the vast minority today. Today, a neuroscience of pleasure can be pursued as successfully as the neuroscience of perception, learning, cognition, or other well-studied psychological functions. Neuroscience did show the evolution of hedonic reactions. Hedonism is a family of theories that all have pleasure as a central theme. There is this conflict between hedonism and religion. By constantly seeking pleasure, it could ruin your life. However, most religions follow the principles of hedonism, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Trying to get into heaven, and avoiding hell at all costs is one of the basics of Christianity.

Pleasure, which looked so simple, turns out to be one of the most complex and misunderstood mental experiences. There are many things that can give people pleasure. Sometimes these pleasurable experiences can lead to destructive behavior. Why can’t things that are perceived to be pleasurable always be good for us? Why can’t we perceive, that in the long run, what we find pleasurable is causing us harm? How are we blocking things that would give us pleasure, and help us live better lives? Chemistry seems to be the answer. The number and the amount of these chemicals, seems to be the elusive answer to the previous questions. As this is explored further, you may get the same feeling that I have, that science is not all that close to an answer.