What brings pleasure in life? We all have experienced it, we get success, a promotion, we win a competition. There is a sense of great accomplishment but we very often realize that this sense is feeble and vanishes quickly. Then we move on to some other desire to reach another goal.
There is nothing wrong with having the desire to accomplish things in life. If humans hadn’t had any ambition to reach new summits, we would probably still live in caves. But a wise person may question this constant urge to run in the future. What impact does it have on our sense of happiness and contentment? Are we addicted to our desires?
All humans have a built-in tendency to get addicted: it can be to food, alcohol, drugs, money, sex, power. Have we reached a stage where we can’t appreciate what we get (the liking aspect of life), but only respond to our desires (the wanting aspect of life)? How can we increase our liking and diminish our wanting?
To answer this question we need to define pleasure, but most importantly, we need to know when in the process of a complete action we feel pleasure? We have been taught that we experience pleasure when we get what we want — when we finally obtain that success in a competition that we have worked so hard for such a long time.
Actually we might have it all wrong. The feeling of pleasure comes from the release of dopamine in parts of the brain. This release occurs when we expect a result not when we get the result. That’s why gambling is so powerful: winning matters little, but expecting to win is where we feel the rush.
Which means that neurologically, pleasure is in the anticipation of a reward; the reward itself is almost an afterthought. To want things is to constantly project ourselves in the future where happiness seems to be. This is a huge and costly mistake. By being obsessed by rewards we do not realise that happiness is slipping away from us at every minute of our life.
High-level athletes will have to perform the same exercises again and again in order to achieve excellence. As they practice with discipline sometimes boredom might surface. Mindfulness can bring back enthusiasm and pure pleasure in a routine that will need to be rehearsed time after time to achieve a goal. We may remain goal-oriented (it has beneficial effects) but we must understand the neurochemistry behind it. It can make the sometimes difficult and demanding road of training and preparing for an event more pleasurable by diminishing our “wants” and increasing our “likes”.
MIND WORKSHOP — The addicted brain: how meditation can increase liking and diminish wanting
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About the Author
Pierre Gagnon practised concentration and insight meditation intensively from 2010 to 2012, then went on to study meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh with the venerable Ajahn Po from 2013 to 2015. As well as his own practice, he has coordinated meditation retreats in the south of Thailand which were attended by more than 1,000 people.
Having a great passion in the field of neuroscience, he likes to integrate these concepts into meditation practice. He believes that much of our life is lived resisting and defending against internal and external experiences that people perceive as threats. Through the development of concentration and meditation, we can insightfully see that all experiences are harmless and there is no need to defend of contract around them. Pierre has experience coordinating concentration and insight meditation retreats, teaching the relationship that exists between Buddhism and neuroscience.