Rediscovering Pleasure

I can’t decide if it is the way my brain is wired or if it is just the way of the world to identify the bad in something. If something isn’t right, we pick up on what has gone wrong first and then later start to unpick the good.

I feel this way when leaving a film or a play. Upon leaving, I complain about the seat, lack of leg room or the annoying person sat behind me. It’s not until I get in the car or a bar that I think about what I liked about the show or film.

Think about the news – are good stories ever reported? We seem drawn to the pain in life. Do we really think that if we surround ourselves with negativity then that will, somehow, make us feel better? Or does it make our life’s sweeter somehow?

I am fascinated by the reality show-ness that consumes how we live our lives. We all need to overcome something – myself included. We choose to see our lives as riddled with pain and obstacles and this magnifies our achievements.

Recently, I emailed a charity in response to hearing from people living who had overcome mental health illnesses. I didn’t hear back. I can imagine the people at the other end of the screen deciding whose story sounded worse in order make them sound better. I regret emailing them, not because I wasn’t successful, but because someone was judging the health of other people for audience appeal in the name of charity and removing stigma. Others like me would feel left out, like our story didn’t matter – unheard again. Maybe a subconscious response was to start this blog. I digress.

The main point is that I feel that many of us naturally look to the pain we feel first rather than the pleasure. I am perhaps the worst culprit. When people ask at a dinner party – ha ha – whether I am glass half full or half empty type person, I, first, have to resist punching them before answering that my glass is totally empty and smashed against the wall. I get the tilted head confused looked before they move on.

Thinking about the potential ‘pain’ of a situation means that we reason logically before deciding to do something. It minimises risk. It is safe, which is perhaps why so many of us do it.

So, identifying the things that bring a lasting pleasure has been difficult to do. Much harder, and yet much simpler than I realised. Trying to cut through the streams of negative thinking that brings up what ‘pain’ or discomfort can bring is a challenge.

There is much of the Polonius in this:

To thine own self be true. Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3

or the Roman maxim

Nosce Te Ipsum – Know Thyself

Whilst writing this blog, and thinking about how we understand ourselves better to improve our mental well being,  the idea of having a detailed insight about how you, as an individual, functions is vital. To be able to strip away external factors and take the time to focus on what is important to you is a vital step in personal recovery.

If you constantly fight demons of what others say you should do or societal pressures on to how to act, personal recovery will always be out of reach. Obviously, don’t go justifying that a crime spree is part of you recovery as there are still functional rules and laws to go by but there different ways to live your life.

One big bugbear of mine at the moment is the idea of career. Because I went to a good school and university, I feel I am expected to be in an established career. And in a way I am. However I am unwell. My health prohibits me from doing this. But I still feel the expectation but I place that expectation there. I believe it. It is a mental pain that I feel.

But I am slowly trying to see the good in not being in a ‘career’ at the moment. I spend more time with my children. I can write (should I choose to). I walk the dog. I go running. I make bread.

Life is actually quite simple. We can put the barriers in place that actually prevent us from living a good life. Sometimes it’s when things don’t go as we expect them that we can start truly finding out what’s important.

It Began with a Book.

I know I have and never will be the smartest person around. After all, as Socrates said:

As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.

In the world, there is too much over confidence in what one knows and perhaps not enough of wanting to listen and learn from others. What I do know is that when I have thought that I know a lot about something, the world comes along and reminds me that I don’t. And this includes knowing myself.

At school, I was not setting the world of academia on fire. I was about as average as they come. I knew this and, occasionally, other would remind me. When I left school at 18, I was awarded a prize for sports coaching to young pupils. I had to choose a book to be awarded to me by the headmaster.

Others won won prizes for genuine excellence and were to go into the worlds of medicine or law. I was being rewarded for being a good chap – really I should have been presented with a copy of Where’s Wally and be done with it. But, wanting to show that I was perhaps not as dumb as I was, I chose a book from my University reading list that had just arrived in the post – Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe.

I chose it on the title alone. On the Nature of the Universe sounded immense. All I knew at the time that is was a Roman epic poem written by a philosopher for a philosophy class I would be starting in couple of months time. I can still remember the half-impressed, half-confused looks I received from former school friends and pupils as I was awarded me prize. They were probably thinking, “Is he really going to read that?”

And I did. A few months later, I was sat in a 9 am lecture, hungover and confused thumbing through this book trying to make sense of it all. Which of course I couldn’t. But it wasn’t until I was writing an essay about it that I had time to sit and reflect on it more that some of the ideas began to resonate with me.

Lucretius was a Roman philosopher and built upon the foundations of the Greek philosopher, Epicurus. The poem covers the atomic nature of the world and denounces the existence of the gods. It looks at the relationship between the mind, soul and body how they all work as one and a intertwined. Finally, it state that people live in accordance with nature and by design seek natural pleasure and absence of pain.

In fact, it recognises that, in the past, people were ‘wide-wandering like wild beasts’ and their needs were simple; warmth, shelter, food and water. And although we learned, adapted and created new ways of living in society and acquiring wealth, Lucretius states:

But if a man should guide his life by wisdom,                                                                          His greatest riches are a frugal life                                                                                            And quiet mind. In that there’s no poverty.

It’s nearly twenty years since I first came across On the Nature of the Universe and for most of that time it’s been sat on my book shelf gathering dust. However, it is only now that I can appreciate its message. The simple, more frugal things are the most important and can give the greatest satisfaction.

Therefore we see that human nature’s need                                                                              Are small indeed: things that take pain away,                                                                          And such a simple pleasure can supply.

Modern life is so complex and confusing that we can all forget the simple, often most natural desires. It seems ironic that many of the advancements we’ve made bring with them more pain that pleasure. I have certainly fallen foul to this. I am beginning to filter through unnecessary burdens to help life more pleasurable.

Over the past few weeks, I have looked much more in Epicurus and his ideas and hope to put them more into daily practice and record how this has changed both my mindset and well being.

Moving Forward

I have just deleted the idea of writing a review of the progress of this blog so far. What a terrible idea! I suppose we’re allowed the occasional bad idea – Teresa May is a prime example!

I am at bit of a crossroads with the blog at the moment. so far, it has been been of a purposeless vessel, which has been the point. I have shared how I have felt, written some half-hearted ideas about staying well, but now I think I am ready for a slight change in direction.

Last week, I took part on Stoic Week as organised by Modern Stoicism. A former lecturer of mine, Chris Gill, has been influential in the recent resurrection of ancient philosophies as a way of staying mentally well. I must admit, at the time (aged 18) it hardly seemed relevant. University in the year 2000 was a very hedonistic experience. That said, it has really made me think, which I suppose was the point.

I have always felt that thinking more philosophically about things would help me to lead a more fulfilled and purposeful life. However, as it stands, I haven’t actually fully embraced it. or, more to the point, I have read extensively about lots of different ideas but haven’t actually lived by any one mantra for a period of time. Reading about and actually doing are very different. After all, you wouldn’t call yourself a marathon runner because you read a book about it –  would you?

So in a round about sort of way, I feel that I would like to use this space as a way of recording how living a certain way effects my life and how it might help others in achieving a more fulfilling life.

That said, I don’t believe that Stoicism is the right starting point for me. I am someone who struggles to enjoy oneself. I quite often do things because I feel I should, not because I want to. I might do things because that is what a person my age should do, because it will improve how others see me, or to impress others. I have wasted huge chunks of my life making the wrong choices – choices that have brought more pain that pleasure into my life.

As I begin a new chapter of my life, I want to revisit the work of a philosopher that gets a little overlooked next to the Stoics. A teacher who looks more at the self rather than the community. A thinker whose ideas have become somewhat bastardised in modern definition and interpretation. I feel that Epicureanism is a better place to start in the hope of finding a bit more enjoyment out of life.