The Taboo Against (Healthy) Pleasure

Why the Revolution Starts With You

life is art

“Life is grim.”

That was one of my late grandfather’s stock responses to my mother when my mom was a child and couldn’t have or do something she wanted.

His other chestnut was a paraphrase of one of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount: “Into each life some rain must fall.”

We all heard things like this when we were kids. Often delivered either in a tone of mocking humor that demonstrated – consciously or not – the parent’s contempt for our desires. Or laced with enough anger to shut us up and back us down.

We laugh about these ridiculous utterances now, but I think most of us are ignorant of just how deeply they were seared into our unconscious – and of the extent to which they still control us as adults.

We’re Doomed! Unless…

I recently posted about joy as the secret elixir of life. And in my podcast about helping fourth-graders write a fun pop song I talked about how my experience working with the kids had helped enlighten me to the meaning of the hermetic axiom: “As above, so below.”

It has become so clear to me that all of our attempts as cultural creatives or spiritual people to change the world are doomed to fail unless and until we learn to value our own pleasure above all of the self-destructive beliefs we’ve absorbed from our family systems¹, our churches, our schools, and our culture.

Love Thy Neighbor (As Within, So Without)

I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea that you can only attract into your life the experiences that resonate with your inner thoughts, emotions and beliefs.

"You must be like a child to enter the kingdom"In another New Testament passage, Jesus says there are only two important commandments, the second of which is “love your neighbor as yourself.” We usually think of this in terms of the golden rule – treat others as we would like to be treated.

But the golden rule is about behavior, not love. We can behave nicely towards other people while secretly building a mountain of resentment against them. Love includes our intention, and our attention. Love includes a willingness to see the best in the other person, and to extend compassion to them when they are not at their best.

How many of us give ourselves the compassion we regularly extend to other people?

Including people who don’t have our best interests at heart and probably don’t deserve our compassion? Most of us would never judge our neighbors as harshly as we judge ourselves in an average day.

In observing my own thoughts and actions this week, I’ve been shocked to see just how easy it can be for me (still, after years of working at this stuff) to push the activities that make me feel good to the bottom of my daily to-do list.

The Voice of Knowledge

In The Half-Lived Life, John Lee writes: “After twenty-five years of counseling and coaching, I’ve realized there are eight primary reasons people give for not pursuing their dreams, no matter what age they are: Money, Children, Work, Parents, Friends², Colleagues, Religion, Self-Talk.”

Watching myself over the last few days, I’ve been reminded of several things I’ve known about for a decade or more:

  1. The voice – and accompanying emotion – that tells me to prioritize something other than what makes me happy is not my voice. It sounds like me, but it is actually a parasitic program masquerading as my “self”. Toltec teacher Don Miguel Ruiz calls this the voice of knowledge.
  2. The parasitic program will choose whichever item from Lee’s list it deems most likely to succeed. “I really should play with my son instead of playing my guitar.” Or, “How can you think about working on that song when you don’t have the money to pay that bill?” Or, “My wife will be upset that I’m going for a walk instead of working on the house.”
  3. When I am able to be aware of these urgent pronouncements,  I can usually see the lies they are designed to hide.³ When I’m not on my game, though? Despite how patently false and annoyingly repetitive they are, I’ll often accept them.

I know when I play my guitar or sing for a half hour in the morning the rest of my day goes better. I have more patience for the tasks I don’t really want to do. My writing is more enthusiastic and genuine. I’m more generous with people. I have more patience with my children and my wife.

Same goes for exercise. When I’m walking every day, I’m a better person. I’m more energized, I focus better, I’m calmer.

All of this makes sense. Daily exercise increases the amount of energy I have and releases stress. Playing the guitar and singing get my endorphins flowing and increase the amount of feel-good chemicals (GABA and serotonin) in my brain.

Of course I live a better life when I prioritize the activities that make me feel good. So why is it so tempting to minimize their importance?

S.O.S. – Same Old Story

I submit it’s because we are all living inside the confines of a collective story embedded in our unconscious minds. This story has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. We now know it to be false, but adherence to it has become an ingrained habit of our species.

The story is implanted in us through our mother’s emotions even before we are born. It is the a priori of every one of the parental pronouncements that negated our needs and shamed us for our desires when we were children. It pervades nearly every aspect of our society while its very omnipresence makes it almost invisible.

children costumesThis story tells us we can’t trust our own desires and that having fun is something we do after we’ve met all of our other obligations. It also urges us to take solace against the unfairness of life by getting high on alcohol, food, drugs, sex, media, and worry. “You may not be able to have what you want, but you can be a badass and rebel against the system by harming yourself!”

The story is the reason we fear success even more than we fear failure. For, if we were to realize our dreams, we would have to break the age-old taboo against pleasure.

But how can we possibly change the world from a place of self-denial? How can we attract better experiences from life and from other people when we won’t allow ourselves to do what makes us happy?

It’s time to challenge that old story and write a new one. I believe we are the souls that came to Earth to do just that.

I also know it starts with me. So I’m going to go play my guitar now.


1 – My linguist friend recently informed me that the etymological root of the word family comes from a word that means doom.

2 – I would personally include ‘romantic or life partner’ in this list. In fact, Lee’s chapter on ‘Friends’ is actually more about codependency, which he characterizes as: “I’m afraid to tell you what I feel, need, and even what my dreams and aspirations are because of how it might make you feel. So I won’t tell you.” Codependents, Lee says, “give up themselves for others – and then harbor great resentment for doing so.”

3 – Each of these statements contains an element of truth: playing with my son is important; paying that bill is necessary; my wife may be upset that I’m not doing what she wants when she wants it done. But the lie behind each statement is the unspoken “meeting their needs right now is more important than taking care of yourself.” The giveaway, the clue that reveals this voice to be of parasitic origin, is the emotional urgency attached to it. The perceived need to drop my self-care practice and attend to this other need just like an addictive craving that must be satisfied before I can feel at peace again.

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8 thoughts on “The Taboo Against (Healthy) Pleasure

  1. Sara Waskuch says:

    Very inspiring. However, I do believe that historically what was past down through generations is the end to survive. Plant the potatoes now or we wil al starve in the winter. This is probably the first time in history that we have the pleasure of choosing pleasure first. But this is a ver y good homily for all of us today. Thanks for the love!

    • DK Brainard says:

      Sara! Great point. That’s one of the big themes that came through from the ancestors in the webinar series I did with Diana Quinn this spring. That they want us to take advantage of this time in history and enjoy ourselves and as they never could.
      Whether due to the harshness of life and the need to survive, to being born a slave or serf, or to just being born female in so many societies. Welcome and thanks for the love back!

  2. Katie Cokinos says:

    From joy springs all creation.
    By it is sustained,
    Towards joy it proceeds,
    And to joy it returns. – Mundaka Upanishad

    DK have you read Robert A. Johnson’s book, Ecstasy? Highly recommend it.
    thank you

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