Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hedonism as a path to Enlightenment

In my contemplations about hedonism I’ve gone back and forth as to what to call this particular brand of considered hedonism. I started out calling it “enlightened,” but ultimately backed away from that as sounding a bit too pretentious. I then tried “rational” on for size, hearkening back to those empiricists of the Victorian era, but as I went back to rewrite some of my original pieces, it just didn’t fit – I really was talking about hedonism as a path to enlightenment.

I’ve been thinking about Buddhist concepts of enlightenment (or my understanding of them), where enlightenment is obtained by weaning oneself off of one’s desires. That the pursuit of pleasure dictated by one’s desire often results in disappointment, unhappiness, and ultimately leaves a person unfulfilled. I certainly feel this is true in the pursuit of material things, but have certain disconnect when applied to experience.

The desire to travel, to meet people, to experience the new and different – I suppose whenever there are expectations, there is the risk that they will go unfulfilled, but that is a critique of expectations and not necessarily desires. Certainly an enlightened hedonist would know these dangers and how to navigate through them.

Buddhism and many other religious practices often tout a certain suffering and asceticism as a path to enlightenment. Here, through their denial, desires are overcome and transcended. Whether fasting or flagellation, there is a sense that by denying the body and the physical world, the spiritual world is obtained. I don’t deny that can be a path to enlightenment, in fact it may be one of the few paths available to someone still living in a culture of scarcity, where people still struggle to meet basic needs. But in a world of abundance, I wonder if another path is possible: a path of enlightened or rational hedonism.

If I return the story of Buddha himself (and I must confess I am no real scholar on the topic), that path may already be refuted with his renunciation of his shielded royal life when he learns of the suffering of others. But Buddhism seems to define “happiness” as the absence of suffering – and to me, happiness and pleasure are so much more than this. Then again perhaps enlightenment has nothing to do with happiness at all, unless that term is equated with “contentment” or “inner peace.”

None-the-less, I believe this hedonist path must be explored, if for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity and experience the world.

Perhaps where some shun the suffering of desire, I shun the suffering of contentment. So this path to enlightenment may not lead to “inner peace.” But rather to the “most fulfilling life” Fulfillment becomes enlightenment, as each experience moves against ignorance, and improves self knowledge.

Where enlightenment typically means the overcoming of desires, enlightened hedonism seeks to focus on uncovering our desires and refining them. These desires are not denied but rather enhanced or celebrated.

Perhaps for me this is a reaction to growing up in a Western culture, where Judeo-Christian morality seems to look at success or pleasure as temptations the ultimately lead to a path of evil or damnation. In reading some Hindu texts, it was refreshing to learn that among the four aims of man is both prosperity (Artha)), as well as love and sensual pleasure (Kama) - the other two aims being ethical behavior or duty (Dharma) and enlightenment or release (Moksha). In the Hindu world, all four of these aims are interdependent; each is required to be successful with the other, so Kama, which I see akin to hedonism, is a required component of achieving enlightenment.

So, I’m encouraged that perhaps my exploration is simply a continuation of a conversation begun a few thousand years ago.

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