I was looking around the other day for words and definitions to try to accurately describe something, and stumbled across an idea, not exactly what I was looking for, but something that did make me stop and go, “hmmm.” The terminology used to present the idea, put together as it was, was new to me. The term is this; Ethical Hedonism, defined, upon first encounter, as, “the belief that the greatest good is to create as much happiness as possible for as many people as possible.”
Right off the bat, the word ‘hedonism’ conjures up an image of mindlessness or carelessness, a wantonly selfish, less-than-ethical and certainly unspiritual path to tread. The word itself is a stumbling block to the bigger idea that I sensed might be just beneath it. Attaching the word “ethical” did a good job of creating space for reconsideration. That consideration got bigger as I went along, but started with a little research.
From Wikipedia: Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them. Ethical hedonism is said to have been started by a student of Socrates, Aristippus of Cyrene. He held the idea that pleasure is the highest good.
From Will Ross on his “Personal Development” website, “Willpower”, “Ethical hedonism involves working towards an improved quality of life for all people, not just in our own community or even our own lifetime, but for all people everywhere of this, and future generations.”
So far I’m not finding a huge problem with this, in general. We seem to have agreed that happiness and an improved quality of life are worthy aspirations. It’s that other word – pleasure – that seems to be the problem. We still have a belief floating around somewhere in group mind that pleasure is “mortal”, a low aspiration, even sinful. That’s the problem. We’re talking about our senses here, our God-given, inherent-in-the-design-of-creation senses. Pleasure isn’t a sin. It’s our design, and our birthright.
This brings up another word that is immediately problematic; sensuality. We run into the same belief – subtle, or not so subtle, but alive and well none the less, that sensuality is somehow a “lower” pursuit.
But check the dictionary; sen?su•al•ly, adv. – syn: sensual, sensuous both refer to experience through the senses. Sensual refers to the enjoyments derived from the senses, sensuous refers to that which is aesthetically pleasing to the senses: sensuous poetry.
We experience life via our senses. The invitation here is to broaden our definition of sensuality – our senses, all of them. If we can open our minds a bit and consider this pretty simple expansion in definitions, it closes the distance to the realization that we are, by definition and by design, sensual beings.
A friend of mine commented, about vision, “I spent a day in Santa Fe this week, viewing O’Keeffe’s paintings in the latest exhibition at her museum and the term “ethical hedonism” strikes me as applying here to my experience. I stood in front of a giant painting of a jimson weed bloom that brought tears to my eyes because of its sensuality and vibrancy; how that particular area of light against that area of darkness and that line placed particularly there on the canvas rectangle left me hypnotized and wanting more. Those who hurried through the exhibition missed the intensity because they were not open to receive, but I for one, wanted to return again and again.”
Have you ever experienced something that smells heavenly? Or tastes “sinfully” good? Has music ever evoked strong emotion, stirred you to your depths, touched you in such a visceral, non-mental way that words simply could not describe it?
And what of touch? Skin is the largest human organ, billions of nerve endings informing us constantly. Infants will die if they are not touched. Maybe they are not the only ones. By pre-judging sense- oriented pleasure as an unworthy aspiration, aspects of our very being may be dying, leading to an experience of disconnection with our essential design.
Is there really still some underlying puritanical – for lack of a better word – belief system generally in play that colors or inhibits our allowing ourselves to engage our senses to the degree that we are capable and designed to engage? Are we moving away from “sensual (expanded definition) Indulgence (another loaded word)” because we’ve consciously or unconsciously positioned sensory experience as being selfish, as if too much good is prohibited? Are we withholding an experience of good from ourselves based on some archaic belief that it’s ok to be spiritual blissed-out, in consciousness, but somehow less ok to be blissed out ‘sensuously’?
The problems that I have with this are twofold. First, it smacks a bit of spiritual elitism. We’re all wired a bit differently, and access and experience our divinity in limitless ways. If there is a pre-existing judgment or prejudice – possible old, cultural, unconscious – then we need to at least be willing to take a look and see if it is still valid and is still serving us. Second, what if our five senses are portals to our deeper senses, and by consciously or unconsciously denying our sensual nature we are also impeding access to our deeper senses, and a deeper knowing both of self, and of the nature of God Itself?
I cannot fathom that the divine design for humanity is to somehow escape or deny the human condition, and all that that entails. Instead, it seems pretty self-evident that we have been given – for the blink of an eye, our lifetime – and exquisite gift, loaded with things not just to think and to know but to sense and to feel – to exquisitely feel. I’m even wondering if, in our feelingness, in all of our countless senses, the intelligence of the universe has not hidden away some of the very secrets that our minds alone cannot fathom. We may, in our intellectual pursuit, from the neck up, be limiting the very experience of the Divine that we are seeking and that is already very present, literally at our fingertips.