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 offers a partly  serious, partly tongue-in-cheek critique of “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.

The article got me thinking…. 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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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