Finding a Nourishing Middle Ground
The friction of my fast-paced hedonist life was leaving me numb and jaded. Whether it was closely embracing eccentric people, substances, unconventional sex, or any bizarre experience, I said yes to everything. I was obsessed with the pursuit of pleasure, feeling the intensity of life surge through me. I was constantly on the move, flying to whatever corner of the world called to me and living with strangers, acting out every impulse. From navigating life at such a rapid pace I did not have time to process all my experiences, and in turn, they held little meaning.
Over the years the same things that used to bring me an abundance of pleasure now felt ritual and did not hold the same flavor. I would attend kinky alternative parties or stay in one of my sugar daddy’s mansions and it felt empty and useless. I felt the same with my globe-trotting and psychedelic exploration, it no longer held the same excitement. I would then put myself in more and more extreme situations to feel alive.
Living in the egoic trap of intensities I was experiencing high waves of ecstasy and would then inevitably crash. The saddest part was when living life in these extreme states of pleasure and the polarity of pain, I began to feel bored with the “normal” world. I did not feel completely alive unless I was being shaken to my core. I believed risk was the spice of life.
I only hung out with people who were as far out as I was because I thought I was too strange for the majority of the population that held a nine to five job. I also felt compelled to use substances because the world turned from color to black and white when sober. I knew I had to fine-tune my taste for life, back to its small virtues, because this is what the majority of life is composed of. I intuitively felt my lifestyle was not sustainable, and pleasure-seeking was leaving me spiritually starved. I decided to be alone with myself and my desire system to observe if fulfilling these desires actually made me happy.
I isolated myself at a vipassana in Thailand, immersed in silence, waking up at 4 am every day to meditate for eight hours a day with no distractions, no connection to the outside world, no phone. Just my mind and my constant stream of thoughts.
In the monastery, I felt that I was trapped in dukkha (suffering) as a product of my desires. The Buddhist way to rid oneself of suffering is to be free of all desire. I sat with myself and constantly questioned each desire that arose within me. I learned that many of my desires actually had brought me profound bliss, although many were deeply vain and solely for a short term rush.
I did not want to be a slave to my mind, and this was what was happening to me. We as humans are ruled and governed by our desires and our fears. I allowed my desire system to occupy so much of my consciousness, and my body was paying the price for it. My body and mind were not friends. My mind would have a desire, and my body always paid the price. I wanted the various aspects of my being to live in harmony, not in constant war.
I considered living in the monastery for a longer time to work on renouncing these desires. After only one week of silence and stillness, I could not pretend these desires did not exist within me. The more I tried to rid myself of them the more I felt the pressure of their existence. Suppressing and pushing these desires away only made them more real.
When I came out of vipassana I was in a state of confusion, I could not find a healthy balance between my spiritual practices and living in the real world full of temptation. I stopped partying and traveling and having sex. For the first time in the last three years, I decided to live alone and explore my inner complexities further. I went from extreme hedonism to living like a monk in solitude. However, resisting all my pleasures and isolating myself did not feel sustainable either.
Beginning to come out of my self-induced isolation I met up with my best friend to catch up. He told me that me rejecting all my desires is as much of a trap as fulfilling all of them. Real freedom lies in consciously choosing. The happy middle we found between renunciation and hedonism is Epicureanism, which involves the concept of choice. That the manner in which we choose builds the foundation of our lives. Epicureanism is a philosophy of a more sustainable, serene hedonism created by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus from around 307 BC.
Like Hedonism, Epicureanism too prizes pleasure as one of the most vital aspects of life. We are living in these physical incarnations for a reason, to use our senses to explore the external world and gratify our senses to some extent, seeking pleasure is part of human nature. The difference is that hedonism is the constant pursuit of pleasure, an overindulgence of gratification. Epicureanism is embracing life’s simple pleasures in a moderate fashion. In doing this you control your desires, they do not control you.
In a letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus states “By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”
The overarching theme is personal choice in what you desire and really observing if fulfilling these desires actually cultivate bliss. Thus, we choose the pleasure or pain we allow to enter into our lives through our decision making and what we allow ourselves to access.
Epicurean argued that the greatest pleasures in life are brought by the elimination of all physical and mental pain. To reach this point of pleasure one has to control their desires because desires are seen as pain. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Ram Dass understood this concept well. He said
Identification with a desire is imprisoning, and yet you have desires. And the question is how you can be involved in life with desires and not be attached to them. What we are talking about now is awareness.
Epicureanism claims that there are different types of desires to be aware of, and the more natural and necessary these pleasures, the more at peace one will be in their desire system. If one’s desires are unnatural and unnecessary and are not intimately tied to sustaining life, then the person will be at the disposal of his own mind. An example of this would be the desire to be famous or have the most expensive luxury car. These desires bring about discomfort because they are not vital for happiness or health. The more vain and unnecessary the pleasures are the more misery one will collect.
This Epicurean belief brought me to living a life of voluntary simplicity, leaving the social myth that more is better. Epicureanism has similarities to modern-day minimalism, believing that the more you own the more it owns you.
From working and living with billionaires in New York City, I have firsthand seen what overconsumption and heavy desire for the material can do to a person. It had created self-indulgent suffering that did not seem interesting enough for me to endure. Now all my belongings fit in one backpack.
Although I was not collecting material possessions, I was steadily collecting experiences, one more outlandish and heated than the last. But, when I dove deep into my hierarchy of needs, I realized that at the root of all of my pleasure-seeking was the need for deep connection. All the partying, sexual escapades and constant travel was for feeling connection and ultimately love.
Epicurus sees friendship/connection as a primal desire that is one of the most crucial to attaining pleasure. Looking back on our human history we came from tribes because we knew we would die without one another, and though our highly individualized society rewards self-reliance, we still need each other. Epicurus believed that relationships provide feelings of safety and security, and without this life would be perilous.
This feeling of safety, of being at home in the world is what most of us desire. So, for me, it is okay to fulfill my desire for friendship, or good food, or even sex. But to do it all with mindfulness, by determining which desires are natural and soul-nourishing. The practice of consciously observing my thoughts and consistently choosing what I allow to enter my space has been tremendously freeing.
From exiting the wormhole of saying yes to all desires and living in intensities, I have become more receptive to the tender small scale facets of life. The less I consume and do, the more my sensitivity to life increases. I can see the beauty in life’s subtleties and the world has become a sweeter place to reside in. My mind has become a sweeter place to reside in too when no longer strangled by all of my desires.
I always thought freedom was rejecting the external systems in place and social conditioning that divorces mankind from our natural desires and inner truth. Now I see that true freedom lies in freeing oneself from the inner trappings of the mind just as much as the confines of the external world.