The urge to locate and secure pleasure underpins everything we do. Whether grossly sensual, emotional, or intellectual, every activity is inspired by the conscious or subconscious hope for pleasure. Sometimes our desires are exhibited crudely, and sometimes they emerge under the guise of polished sophistication. In any case, I aim to explore this essential subject and inspire you to become more adept at pleasure hunting.
In 2009, lured by the promise of a better work/life balance, great climate, and outdoor lifestyle, I moved to New Zealand from the UK. Inspired by a sense of adventure, one of the first things I did was a sky dive. After all, what better way could a group of friends celebrate arriving on the other side of the world?
I remember the anticipation and excitement we felt on arriving at the centre, early one spring morning. After listening to the instructors, we harnessed up. It was cold but clear, and the beautiful blue sky looked inviting. The sunlight sparkled. A slight frost crunched underfoot, as we crossed the airfield.
When the tiny plane took off, I exchanged nervous smiles with my companions, all fellow medics. As we gazed out of the windows, appreciating the beauty of Lake Taupo, I started to ask myself what I was doing. Naturally, my intelligence started to question whether throwing myself out of a plane at 15,000 feet, albeit strapped to a supposedly competent instructor, was really the best of ideas! Still, it was too late to turn back now. The rather exorbitant, nonrefundable ticket had been purchased. Bracing myself, I prepared for action.
As we climbed higher and higher, the temperature began to plummet. Soon, the air thinned, and we required oxygen masks. Although externally together, I realised we were all alone now. If one of us had difficulty during the jump, what could anyone else do? Extending this realisation further, I contemplated how, ultimately, we all have to take responsibility for our own lives. As it is often said, we enter and leave this world alone, regardless of the social and communal situations we create in between.
A sudden tap on the shoulder snapped me out of my philosophising. The time to jump had come! After final instructions from our leader, the sliding door was unlatched. As the door flung open, the full impact of what we were about to do hit me. My body tensed as I prepared to override every natural instinct. Boom, boom, boom; my heart thudded with each beat. After a quick thumbs up, my friend Ed and his co-jumper moved into position. In the blink of an eye, they were gone, suddenly disappearing from the ledge. A few seconds later, Natalie jumped. Now it was my turn.
Frank, my jump buddy, winked at me as we shifted to the ledge. The view from the open door blew my mind. I could not comprehend what was happening. Time froze. Taking a deep breath, I realised that my only option was to surrender to fate.
Somehow or other, letting go both mentally and physically, I committed, and out we leapt. Whilst rapidly accelerating, I arched into the dive position. The hiss of the cold air was deafening, and my mind couldn’t keep up with what my senses were experiencing. Instinctively, I expected the fall to break at any moment; but it didn’t. This was free fall. After a few seconds, I came to and roared out in exhilaration.
Sixty seconds later, Frank pulled on the parachute. Unfurling, it broke our descent with a yank. As we slowed, I peacefully watched the beautiful scenery, surrounded by the other jumpers above and below. Serene and expansive, Lake Taupo sparkled in the sun. On the horizon, snow capped mountains invoked a sense of wonder. After five minutes of gliding through the air, we touched down and it was all over.
Once untangled from the parachute and gear, I caught up with my friends. Embracing, we congratulated each other with shouts of “Awesome, yeah, yeehaa!” and we recounted our experiences.
So how did I feel now, after such a powerful experience?
Despite the extended camaraderie and back slapping, as the buzz of the jump wore off, I began to feel more and more empty. “Now what?” The question echoed in my mind. I was hit with the realisation that although exciting, such external, temporary activities can never truly satisfy us on a deeper, more meaningful level.
Herein lies the problem with conventional attempts at enjoyment.
Despite endeavouring for and indeed sometimes achieving peak material experiences, be they romantic, sporting, artistic, academic, professional, or otherwise, the taste soon fades. Because such successes are temporary, we are quickly left feeling empty and deflated. Indeed, by definition, the very term “material” describes objects and scenarios governed and limited by time and space, including our own bodies and minds. In other words, anticlimax is inevitable with material experiences; what goes up must come down.
Even if the object of our desire is not prematurely ripped away, time wears everything down. The exciting new partner, car, job, or house soon appears humdrum. Indeed, we may well arrange to remove ourselves from the very same situation we were previously desperate to acquire.
We desire significant pleasure and reciprocation from others, yet we find only repeated frustration every time we try for conventional, material happiness. What a conundrum!
Despite these common, ultimately dissatisfying experiences, the influence of Western culture is so great that it impels us to continue the robotic and repetitive search for material pleasure. The propaganda, both internal (stemming from our own misconceptions about life) and social is overwhelming. Indeed, the advertising industry is expert at exploiting the pandemic disease known as “empty heart syndrome.” Whilst desperately groping around for happiness, we are easily manipulated into believing that buying anything, from socks to helicopter blades, will bring real happiness.
So what do we do after becoming frustrated with external, material enjoyment?
Sadly, many people become cynical and depressed, cultivating a sour grapes mentality. Grumpily criticising everything and everyone, they stumble through life, only just keeping it together. They can only survive by taking various intoxicants, which help them to temporarily forget the painful nature of their existence. Indeed, some people become so frustrated with the repeated failure to find happiness, that they bitterly renounce the world, abandoning society for a life of seclusion.
Others dust themselves down and reassess, taking the opportunity to table deep philosophical enquiries:
It is often at times like these, when we are philosophically checkmated, that the ancient yoga texts of India can save the day.
Key books such as Bhagavad-gita explain that our core identity is spiritual, not material. Furthermore, we learn that when in a healthy state, the soul naturally experiences eternal bliss and knowledge. As such, our desire to experience ever-fresh delight is the hankering of the real self, the soul. If we were just the sum total of a bunch of atoms, why should we care about happiness?
Although a good start, simply theoretically understanding this foundational knowledge does not solve all our problems. Subsequent questions arise. If we are indeed entitled to enjoy real pleasure as spirit souls, why then do we run into brick walls when trying to enjoy? Why are there so many stumbling blocks and limitations? Despite the overwhelming pressures and expectations we place on ourselves to squeeze out at least a few drops of happiness, our attempts so often end in tears and lamentation.
So how do we solve this happiness riddle, which sages have wrestled with since ancient times?
Firstly, let us examine the nature of our identity and that of the world around us, in greater detail.
As Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita (7.4-5):
“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego—all together these eight constitute my separated material energies.”
“Besides these, there is another, superior energy of mine, which comprises the living beings who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature.”
Although our identity is that of superior energy, or spirit soul, we are currently encased by inferior matter, namely our bodies and minds, consisting of the above-mentioned, grossly classified elements. Unfortunately, these gross elements are governed by strict laws of time, space and deterioration. As such, utilising our material bodies and minds to exploit material resources will never help us, as spirit souls, to achieve the ever-increasing pleasure we demand.
Krishna consolidates this understanding of our current existential position:
“Know that whatever you see in existence, both moving and nonmoving, is only a combination of the field of activities [body] and the knower of the field [the soul, us!]” (B.G. 13.27)
Through this illuminating analysis, Krishna is pushing us to seriously consider our real self-interest. As spirit souls, if we don’t act in accord with our real identity, how can we expect to be happy?
Of course, having been systematically trained to seek satisfaction through matter, this knowledge certainly challenges our deeply ingrained conditioning. To advance further, firstly, we have to accept that we are actually not so expert at knowing what will make us happy. Naturally, this may pain our false egos; typically we like to profile our so-called expertise at material enjoyment. Underneath all the bravado, however, even the most expert materialists are riddled with insecurity and envy, worrying that others are enjoying more than they are.
Fortunately, Krishna doesn’t simply leave us with theoretical knowledge. Bhagavad-gita is also a book of action. Therefore, Krishna clearly delineates the practical path of spiritual activity, which culminates in the re-establishment of the full knowledge, pleasure, and freedom we all aspire for.
In the fifth chapter of Bhagavad-gita, entitled “Action in Krishna Consciousness,” Krishna summarises:
“An intelligent person is not attracted to material sense pleasure but is always in trance, enjoying the pleasure within. In this way, the self-realized person enjoys unlimited happiness, for he concentrates on the Supreme.” (5.21)
Achieving this unlimited happiness is the birth right of all human beings. A real human civilisation recognises this and instead of corrupting and exploiting its members, equips them with the tools and training required to achieve self-realisation.
In this day and age, the prime technique for self-realisation is mantra meditation, the focused chanting of spiritual sound. The Sanskrit word mantra means to free or liberate the mind. The beauty of this practice is that it can be done anytime, anyplace, by anyone. It can be performed as a reflective, individual meditation using beads (japa) or in a group, accompanied by music and dancing (kirtan). It is not based on belief or a blind hope in some vague future benefit after death. A complete beginner can immediately experience the deepest spiritual bliss whilst also benefiting from reduced stress, better sleep, improved concentration, and many other advantages. So powerful is this chanting, that many athletes, musicians, business executives, and academics maintain a daily practice to enhance professional performance.
Of all mantras, the chanting of the maha-mantra (most powerful mantra) is universally recommended for those wanting to make rapid spiritual progress:
HARE KRISHNA, HARE KRISHNA,
KRISHNA KRISHNA, HARE HARE,
HARE RAMA, HARE RAMA,
RAMA RAMA, HARE HARE
The maha-mantra is a spiritual call, which petitions the energetic Source and his energy, Hare, to help us respiritualise our lives. Krishna and Rama are primeval names for the Supreme Person who possesses all energies, meaning all attractive one and source of all pleasure respectively. The perfect effect of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is the complete reorientation of our consciousness. Before long, a sincere and steady chanter of Hare Krishna will emerge from the deadly cocoon of material absorption, flying high into the spiritual sky of unlimited pleasure. For cultured souls, who relish ducking and diving in the eternal, spiritual atmosphere through chanting Hare Krishna, no parachutes are required. As Krishna assures in Bhagavad-gita:
“After attaining me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never fall down again to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.” (8.15)
As Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the most famous teacher of mantra meditation stated:
“This chanting enables us to taste the pleasure for which we are always anxious.”
So instead of resorting to drink, drugs, unhealthy relationships, and life endangering extreme sports, why not take up a daily practice of chanting Hare Krishna? Initially, beginners may simply dedicate five or ten minutes a day. After a month, the practitioner may then objectively assess the value of the chanting. As a teacher of mantra meditation, I have never experienced anyone being disappointed after making this small effort; everyone feels benefited. Indeed, the vast majority spontaneously elects to increase their practice, being delighted with the effects.
To conclude, this process of chanting Hare Krishna is so sublime that Yamunacarya, a great saint and practitioner of chanting Hare Krishna, commented:
“Since my mind has been engaged in chanting Hare Krishna and I have been enjoying an ever-new pleasure in this way, whenever I think of material pleasures I turn away and spit at the thought.”
Here we see the elevated position that an expert chanter of Hare Krishna enjoys. Knowing what is what, he can easily reject superficial material pleasure, skillfully avoiding the sources of frustration. This is not due to dry, sour grapes renunciation. His strength of character is established on the basis of constantly tasting the intoxicating, exquisite, ever-increasing, and complete pleasure contained within the maha-mantra.
So why not give the Hare Krishna mantra a chance?
It might just be what you’re looking for.