Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
11 Aug

The Pleasure Principle

Last week a friend of Carrie’s was over for a visit, and I overheard a bit of their conversation while I was in the kitchen. She’s a new mother with all the stresses and string of obligations that come with it. On Saturday she’d gone for a massage – a gift Carrie had given her some months ago at her baby shower. She’s normally a very relaxed, low-key kind of person, but she was surprised at how much she had changed in the course of a few months. “It took me half way through the massage,” she said, “just to stop all the mind chatter – the list making, the reminders, the planning, the questions that never seem to stop running through my head these days.” She was finally able to let go after the therapist worked out some of the shoulder knots. “By the time she started on the legs,” she said, “I was a wet noodle.” Her experience got me thinking about the tension we all carry around with us and the tendency we have to get bound up in it – mentally and physically. A lot of Carrie’s friend’s angst revolved around doing all the right things for her child’s health and well-being. Even our efforts toward living a healthy life can give us grief. What set it right, in this case, was a massage – a luxurious, indulgent, sanity-restoring massage. I think we neglect this appeal to our detriment: the pleasure principle has something to teach us about health.

A few days ago I ran across an article called “Health Now: A Provocation”. The author critiques “health nuts,” as he calls them, for wasting “epic measures of energy” on their “futile” interest in the “banal” “maintenance of biological life” – their own specifically. Our country is apparently “full of people” on this crazed “quest” for longevity in and of itself. Apparently, anyone with more than a cursory interest in enjoying good health must be a wretched, small-minded killjoy. The pattern, too, infects the fabric of our society. According to the author’s musings, we’re a nation populated by obsessive freaks frantically stair climbing away from our own mortality and – in vexing contrast – the merry, “fat” Falstaffs (his reference) who baffle us. There’s some quality, eye-rolling condescension for your day.

As much as the “provocation” provoked me, this particular article on that particular day got me thinking about something. First, I’m going to take a wild guess and speculate that few of us here live the way we do for some perceived chance at immortality. We likely value the “life” healthy living will put in our years, however extended they will be. We enjoy the energy, the vitality, the sheer physical power and potential of being healthy. (Then there’s the looking good naked part.) But many people have told me, too, about another dimension of their Primal journey – intuitive perception of their bodies’ needs and sensitivities, heightened sensory experience, and especially a reacquaintance with corporeal pleasure.

There are many pleasures inherent to Primal living: a good red wine, a partner’s intimate touch, that post-workout calm, a great night’s sleep. There’s the feeling of the sun on your face, your feet in the wet sand, and your hands in the cool dirt. It’s the thrill of pedaling down a rugged dirt trail and the peace of floating on a quiet lake. A couple of weeks ago, for me, it was tasting the best shrimp of my life – grilled perfectly tender and flavorful in the shell with a mango-citrus dipping juice. Eating with my hands, sitting on the beach, enjoying the company of my wife and friends, I relished the full moment as much as that enticing platter.

Part of Primal living for many people involves claiming their physical selves – their physical health but also the physical experience of the world – from a new vantage point and deeper level. Some people start from this premise. Others find it along the way. Upon going Primal, people discover what previously held them back from living fully and richly in their own skin.

Too often in our society we cultivate an antagonistic, dysfunctional relationship with our bodies. We joke about how little activity we can perform in a day or brag about how long we make ourselves run ragged on the treadmill. Whether we live in abject denial of our bodies’ needs or aggressively set out to tame our health and shape our physical shells, however, I think there’s something off in our efforts.

There are, of course, many reasons behind the distance. Sometimes it’s a reflection of a negative body image or a grappling with our upbringing. Other times it’s the vestiges of a long-term illness. Still, the tendencies are often less personal. We’re busy residing in the rational, even virtual world of modern day life. In this age, we pride ourselves on our cerebral mode of living. We’ve entered a technological mode of existence, a virtual space to enact our lives. We’ve “evolved” into a new realm that no generation before us could even envision. What’s the trade we’ve initiated? As John Conger puts it, “The victory of an over-rationalized life is promoted at the expense of the more primitive and natural vitality.”

In an overly intellectualized existence, we diminish the sensory and kinesthetic dimensions of our lives. In the process, we abandon something essential to our humanity. We’re evolutionarily designed to move and to experience the world through the acuteness of our senses. We’re adapted to feel pleasure from the exertion of natural exercise, from time outdoors, from intimate socialization, from creative pursuits and contemplation. The body, as obvious as it seems, isn’t some archaic vessel to tame or dismiss. Our bodies are more than shells to be adequately fed, sufficiently groomed, and otherwise tolerated while we attend to what really matters in the world. Our bodies require more than this, and they offer far more in return. Not only is there little to gain in locking horns with physiology, I think it kind of misses the point of living. Pleasure is a significant part of this loss.

Likewise, we too often dampen our experience of pleasure with guilt or distraction. As a result, we end up skimming across a minimally gratifying surface in our physical lives. When we give up our emotional inhibitions and clear away our rational hindrances, we can feel our way back to the primitive core of sensation. Experience can reach us there again.

Of course, this isn’t a justification for shallow hedonism. We’re more than bonobos with smart phones and clothes. We live a more nuanced life than that. One kind of pleasure can’t stand in for another, but the unchecked pursuit of one can assuredly undercut the potential for others. We’re all grown-ups. We get it. That said, there’s something stingy about unmatched rationality. Living Primally, after all, is rooted in the conditions of our ancestors’ existence. Theirs were lives of the physical (eventually) guided and enriched by the adaptations of reason and thought – adaptations that came into being to favor physical survival. The sensation of pleasure is inherently bound up in that process, at once a catalyst of our species’ evolutionary success and an essential principle behind our individual vitality.

Living a life rich with healthy pleasures (e.g. flavorful and satisfying food, vigorous play, luxurious sleep, etc.) continually reorients us in this relationship with our physical selves. What comes of it in time can be a kind of trust in the body, an intuition about what feels healthy for us, and perhaps a more open experience of pleasure. We taste our food more. We notice the subtler sensations during and after a sprint. Our senses become heightened with time outdoors. We reconnect with pleasure and reignite something in our humanity – a more elemental way of encountering both ourselves and the world.

How has Primal living affected your relationship with your body – your experience of physical life? What role does the “pleasure principle” play in your concept of health? Thanks for reading today, everyone.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I just want to say how much I love coming home after a long day (had my final today) and sitting down at my computer and finding such a beautifully written article. I have often felt like this but have not known how to articulate it. You really have a gift and I appreciate that you take the time to share it with all of us.

    Melissa wrote on August 11th, 2011
  2. Today’s piece really resonates with me and I’m really enjoying reading everyone’s comments.
    I’ve been eating primally for nearly 2 years. Clean eating lifted a fog and gave me a clarity I’ve not known in my adult life. When I found a breast tumour earlier this year, I know it was the new clarity, stillness and connection to my body that allowed me to find it. Even though it had probably been growing for 5-10yrs, my body guided me to find it with odd sensations, that in my old way of living I would certainly have ignored. And most importantly, eating, exercising and sleeping so well now gives me the calm and strength to manage the ongoing treatment. I actually think I’m the happiest and calmest I’ve ever been!
    To go back to eating crap food is unthinkable now and I am so thankful for this new way of life.

    Caroline wrote on August 11th, 2011
  3. A while after reading this, when the library I read it in closed, I set off to do something pleasurable. I decided to make my way along the edge of the town’s river, which is basically a nature obstacle course. After falling into the approximately knee-high river while trying to cross it with a low tree I ended up taking off my shoes and creek stomping, stopping to climb appealing trees. It was fun and felt good.

    Animanarchy wrote on August 11th, 2011
  4. What I love about your posts, Mark, is how often they veer from the specific, the technical and the scientific to such a literate and evocative attempts to express the almost ineffable spirit of your ‘Primal’ approach.

    I appreciate the way that you recognize how quickly following the ‘new Primal rules’ can become as psychologically limited as the conventional lifestyle approach is physiologically limited, if it’s approached with the wrong mind-set.

    Any approach – even Primal – can become a rigid system, or fixed straight-jacket of conditioned responses and habits, rather than a way of living that frees us mentally and emotionally. (Clue: if you’ve spent the last 6 weeks building an Excel file that details your lowered daily carb-intake you may have adopted the facts but not the spirit of Primal!)

    For all the private success I have had with improving my body (my blood-sugar levels used to be all over the place), I am aware of just how much further I need to go before I can feel my highest potential everyday. And that means addressing the mental side, or the ‘mind-body’ connection.

    To me this means having a mind that’s truly in touch with own body means letting go of our conditioned quests for success, correctness and approval; it means moving our attention away from our restless inner-chatterings; and, instead, being in communion with the myriad of bodily sensations that our body is open to if we are able to engage with our environment on a moment-to-moment basis.

    It means the full use of our senses and paying unfiltered, un-analytic attention the people and location immediately around us. It means looking and listening to see things as they truly are, and not through the filtering lens of our own petty wishes, wants, judgments and preferences. At least that’s the way I see it.

    I believe the first step on the quest, for me at least, is learning how to properly RELAX, fully, under almost all circumstances; not that Sunday-lethargy, bummed-out in front of the TV ‘relaxed’, but alive and attentive to things as they happen and moments as they unfurl.

    Massage seems like a pretty good start if you have a willing masseur/masseuse!

    Olly wrote on August 12th, 2011
  5. After reading this at my office in the countryside, I immedietly went outside and walked/ran through the woods for 5 minutes before returning to my desk exhilerated. It was a lifechanging experience.
    Thank you Mark

    Hamish wrote on August 12th, 2011
  6. Great post! I credit a big part of my former obesity with this disconnect between the value I placed on my body as an intellectual, and the value that it actually has on my mental health. Though I am of normal weight now, it is still a daily struggle to maintain a healthy mind-body connection. Every time I realize how much I enjoy a fleshly pleasure (going for a run, playing with the kids, feeling air on my skin), it recalls my attention to how much BETTER I feel in all aspects of my being when I am taking care of my body.

    Misty wrote on August 12th, 2011
  7. A man moved to a new town after living in a another town for a while. As he was moving into his new house, the man next door noticed his new neighbor in the vicinity. With a smile on his face he went over to meet his new neighbor. After a brief greeting and shaking each others hand, the man asked his new neighbor “so how did you like the last town you lived in?” The man replied “oh I didn’t like the people” The other man replied “well you are not going to like people here either”

    Lee wrote on August 12th, 2011
  8. Loved the post, loved the comments. Primal Toad’s “I choose to love people” is going to be a new affirmation for me.
    While hiking in snow covered woods last winter I fell through an ice covered stream. At the time I was thinking my affirmation for that day “I walk confidently through this world”, isn’t that a hoot. There I was my butt in the snow and my legs in ice water up to my knees laughing so hard I couldn’t get out. I then had to slog my way home two miles in squishy cold boots, chuckling all the way. When I told this story to a friend she said she would have been so pissed. My primal lifestyle has helped my good attitude to evolve to a new level. I am grateful to you and your readers for wise advice that helps me travel this primal path.

    Kathy L. wrote on August 12th, 2011
  9. Mark,

    I agree our society often overlooks things like getting fresh air, good sleep, and relaxing down time. I believe there needs to be a balance between the modern world and the primal world where these two lifestyles coexist in harmony and this is how I try to live my life.


    Alykhan wrote on August 12th, 2011
    • I agree. Some modern comforts, luxuries, and conveniences are great and enjoyable but there’s a lot I find odious and pointless about the modern world. I can’t stand being in a building and having one of those electric air refresheners on the wall spraying out chemicals at me. Gets my back up. Makes me feel like I’m under attack, like a bug being sprayed with pesticides. Do humans really stink so bad we need to resort to filling the air with unhealthy particles? Why don’t they just keep some pot pourri around? There’s enough pollution as it is and many of us have to deal with lots of toxic chemicals on a regular basis, for example janitors. Why would we poison everyone in the building’s air with something that (in my opinion at least) doesn’t even smell good, but artificial and sinister? (By the way vinegar is a good alternative to toxic cleaning chemicals).
      In school I’d sometimes go on a “bathroom break” to walk around the halls or even go outside and jog for a few minutes. I bet sitting around so much in school with just a few short breaks and a lunch break takes a toll on all the students’ health. Yes education is important but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be more frequent breaks to walk around a bit or get some fresh air. I think all buildings, but especially public buildings, should have lots of plants growing in them to help filter the air and keep the oxygen content high. Plus the government totally overlooks sleep studies when it comes to high school hours. (Teens generally fall asleep later than other age groups). Apparently today’s society is the most sleep deprived in history. Sounds plausible to me. I was so sleep deprived at one point in high school that one day my math teacher asked me if I’d been in a fight because the bags under my eyes were so dark and pronounced.
      Modern society, by coincedence and design I believe, does not serve to further human potential and improve the quality of everyone’s lives but to cow us and turn us into “functional” robotic slaves who are too (some or all of the following) weak, tired, feeble, helpless, narrow-minded, hypnotized, incapacitated, sick, and mesmerized by smoke and mirrors and boogeymen (I’m sure I missed a few) to be able to be able to work together for the common good and enlightenment of all because economies thrive on negative bullshit and there’s so much corruption in the governments.

      Animanarchy wrote on August 12th, 2011
  10. i am a bodyworker and the primal lifestyle is an amazing compliment to the work i do. Its listening to the body. I am convinced my body is as vast and deep as the entire universe. And when my cells are aligned with nature, i feel joy on a deep and holistic level. The Primal lifestyle is an aid in that alignment. Being free to skip a meal, to take time to play, to feel our bodies and recognize signals, to be barefoot, to forgive. I love it! Thank you Mark!

    Jaclyn wrote on August 12th, 2011
  11. It’s amazing how a great massage can help set things right!

    sarah wrote on August 13th, 2011
  12. Been doing Primal Living for about two weeks now, which makes me a real newbie! Sadly was successful with low carb before (lost 90 lbs about a decade ago), but gained much of it back. What I can say is that somehow, for me, the pro-inflammatory state that Mark describes also plays havoc with the mind/body connection. But in a fat-burning, anti-inflammatory state, I am more aware of my body, take better care of myself instinctively, and have a higher sex drive and greater need for intimacy. Always been a bit of sybarite, so it’s not about ‘hang-ups’ or upbringing. Hard to describe, but I would probably chalk it up mostly to Primal Living down-regulating cortisol (I have a genetic form of pseudo-Cushings), and that in turn makes it easier to live in the present, rather than battling low-grade anxiety all the time.

    Anon wrote on August 13th, 2011
  13. I am an acupressurist and massage therapist and fully believe in what I do–everyone can benefit! However if you walk/run barefoot–please do us a favor and wash your feet before coming in for a session(if you want your feet worked on!) Had a client the other day who always goes barefoot–could not work on her feet!
    I agree with others–I am into healthy living because I love how I feel now not because I am trying to live longer.I also like not having to spend most of my money and time on medical care like so many people I know.

    Debrah wrote on August 19th, 2011
  14. Where is the recipe for the Mango Citrus dipping sauce?

    DeeDee wrote on March 14th, 2013

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