The Power of Pleasure


It was a revelation to me when I began studying Somatic Experiencing® to realize the importance of being able to access pleasure – that it is foundational for increasing capacity and resilience.  What a concept, to approach my work and, subsequently, my life with an emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness of pleasant experiences, not in a Pollyanna way, but in a very real, tangible way.  In a way that can then expand our capacity to experience whatever we are experiencing from a place of ok-ness instead of becoming lost in looking for “what’s wrong.”

When our stress and threat response systems become dysregulated through events or circumstances, we can become stuck in searching for what’s wrong – and if we are looking, we’ll find it.  We’ll find the partner who is loading the dishwasher incorrectly, or the almost invisible spot on the couch that we still haven’t cleaned, or the co-worker who “always” says the most annoying things, or… We’ll find something to label as “wrong” in ourselves or our environment. This makes sense in terms of survival, if our internal safety gage is telling us there is something wrong we better find it so we can deal with it by running or fighting or hiding. But in modern times those internal cues often mislead us, we frequently misinterpret a sign that there is an unresolved historical threat as something that is happening right now in our current moment and we respond accordingly. We lose access to awareness of what’s going on and, consequently, to the potential for balance.

I often explain this as if we’ve been going to the gym and only working out one bicep, doing curls with only one arm and that arm gets really really strong. We start only using that arm – the one that is really good at seeing what’s wrong. It becomes not only too difficult to use the other arm but no longer makes sense.  Why would I look for what’s ok when what I need to feel better is to figure out what’s “wrong?” What’s the point?

Steven Hoskinson has developed a particular understanding of how to rebuild and use this innate capacity through an approach called Organic Intelligence® (www.organicintelligence.org). There are basically three initial conditions that apply both to therapeutic work and to day-to-day stress reduction: orienting to the environment through the senses, accessing healthy, non-addictive pleasure, and stabilizing that access.

The first condition, orienting to the environment through the senses, is important for assessing safety in the current moment. There is a part of our brain that is constantly asking “Is it safe? Is it safe?” and if we don’t actually allow ourselves to check out the environment then the answer will be more based on internal, historically driven experiences than the current circumstances. Have you ever been in a restaurant and suddenly you can’t quite understand what the person you are with is saying? Your hearing doesn’t seem to be working right all of a sudden. That is actually an accurate assessment – when something inside says, “I’m not safe!” then the inner ear structurally changes to let in different frequencies and we, literally, can’t hear the human voice as well. If, in that moment, we allow ourselves to look around, let the eyes go where they want and actually see where we are and what is happening around us, then the brain receives the information it needs in order to either settle down or address any current threat. It’s the same system that drives a bird that just hit a window to eventually start to look around as it is coming out of freeze and before it takes off again. It wants to know where it is, how it got there, is it safe. This is vital information to have in order to stay present.

The next condition, accessing healthy non-addictive pleasure, is something I encourage my clients to incorporate on a daily basis. Our bodies get our attention when something is hurting or feels off and we can develop an aversion to feeling the body because these become our only experiences. By attending to sensation when you are experiencing something pleasant – the sky at sunset, your child expressing joy or affection, a moment of respite where things are finally quiet – you can begin to restore a sense of balance and trust in your own body knowing what to do and being a pleasant place to live.

In a stressful work place, being able to pause, take a moment, bring your internal or external awareness to something that is not stressful, to something easy can dispel the internal stories that “everything” is uncomfortable or bad and “always” is. That only leads to feeling overwhelmed.  A return to balance brings with it the sense of “I can” handle this situation, it will end, there is light coming in the window even in this moment.

I live in such an externally beautiful place up here in Flagstaff, AZ and if we only attended to what we thought was wrong we would miss all of the alpine glow, the crocuses emerging, and the hawk soaring.  We wouldn’t want to miss these external experiences, and our internal landscape is just as rich. Having a full life includes all of the internal richness that comes from having the capacity to experience all of life’s experiences as an embodied human.

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