In my twenties when I was dancing professionally I was cast in a piece about monastic life.
I know, I know, not your usual topic to explore via the artistic medium of dance. Regardless, the ten or so of us dancers went for a long weekend at a Buddhist monastery a few hours from New York City where I was living at the time, as experiential research.
I took off all my jewelry, wore a monk’s robe, got up at 4am to chant and sit in meditation for many hours each day. At the end of each simple meal of brown rice and vegetables, we were to pour a little of our drinking water into the bowl, swish it around and then drink, so that no food was wasted.
It was simple, and austere, a deliberate stripping down of bodily thirsts and cravings.
A few years later I went to a weekend workshop about pleasure and sensuality, also a short train ride from Manhattan. The first night we had homework to decorate the room we were staying in with something for every sense, as though royalty was coming — and the royalty was us.
We were then supposed to slow down, enjoy, and savor each of the things we had chosen to decorate with, as well as touch our own faces and bodies in ways we found pleasurable.
Even though it was a workshop about pleasure and sensuality (so what did I expect?), I found the homework assignment wildly confronting.
I didn’t much consider myself royalty. As a busy New Yorker and hustling dancer, I wasn’t in the habit of slowing down and savoring. I wasn’t convinced I had worked hard enough yet to “deserve” enjoying things. I was pretty sure that touching my face and my body pleasurably was for OTHER people to do (as a way of validating my attractiveness and worth) but not for ME to do.
I almost left the workshop and got on a train back to the City. But instead I bucked up and did it.
Around the room I placed incense to smell, a silk scarf to touch, music from my iPod to hear, flowers to see, figs to taste.
Toward the end of the exercise, I cried for a few minutes, realizing I had never deliberately experienced pleasure — the pleasure of my senses, of my body, of my face — for myself. It had always been for someone else. Or something I’d avoided because it thought it was bad for me. Or something I was convinced I would get around to some day.
We think of pleasure as frivolous. An afterthought. A distraction from the serious business of pursuing of our goals, spiritual practice, or well-deserved promotions. A siren that will strand us on the island of slackers, cheaters, and overeaters.
We think that we must put aside pleasure and focus on being productive. We think that hard work comes first, enjoyment comes after.
But what if we’ve got it back-asswards?
We think of pleasure as an embellishment on life, but it is actually the fertile heart — the very womb — of life.
We think of pleasure as a force that will trap us in our “base nature” but it is actually a portal to the sacred. We think of pleasure as a distraction from the work we’re here to do, but it is actually the wellspring that the best creative ideas flow from.
I just read a statistic that says only 32% of us feel “engaged” in our work.
One reason I think this is so is because we are all grind and no joy. We do not decorate our lives as though royalty is coming, and the royalty is us. We work in stripped down, austere environments, created for the “Masculine” in all of us, but which leaves the “Feminine” in all of us, starving.
The genius of the “Feminine” sidles in with an outlandish solution, asking us to put our pleasure BEFORE our productivity. Suggesting that this will help us to feel fulfilled and happy rather than morally reprehensible.
Pleasure is an invocation of your five senses. A slowing down and a savoring of something that you love. A blessing of thanks.
As my client Teresa puts it, “Pleasure is not just sex and chocolate.”
It can mean putting a sprinkle of cayenne on your slice of fresh mango. Sleeping late. Opening the window to let in the crisp winter air while you are cleaning the toilet. Pausing between emails to breathe deeply. Running your fingers over your cozy fuzzy favorite sweater. Sticking your nose in the flower bouquet on the concierge desk as you check into a hotel. Wearing your grandmother’s emerald pin and remembering the safety of her soft lap.
(Sex and chocolate count too).
I don’t mean a hedonistic orgy. I don’t mean a blackout-worthy binge. I mean just loving that which you love, delighting in that which fills you.
When our senses are engaged, we are more “in our bodies” and less “in our minds.” Our limbic brain — our feeling brain — is activated, which is the part of us that has mystical, sacred experiences. We don’t just think about things, we feel them. We don’t just conceptualize things, we realize them directly.
Pleasure shifts us from “I’m-freaking-out” (“fight-flight-freeze” mode) to “I’m-okay and-feelin’-good” (“clear-creative-confident” mode).
Pleasure shifts us from hustle to flow — which is where inspiration, intuition, wisdom, self-esteem, and joy spring from.
Why did I title this article The Tao of Figs and Flowers?
“The Tao” is a Chinese word that translates as “The Way,” “The Path,” or “The Principle.”
The Tao is an energy that is the source of the Universe. The Tao is a way to approach life, a way to be fully human while living each day with sacredness. The Tao is not conceptual, but a realization that must be experienced directly.
When it comes to our work-life and soul-life, “The Way” that most of us have inherited is one that glorifies “Masculine Genius” qualities like austerity, relentless work, and a stripping away of bodily pleasure.
It’s one “Way” to go, but I believe we are all thirsting for a “Way” that is ripe, full, and sensuous.
Your pleasure is yours, it’s not for anyone else to give to you, or give you permission to experience. You are the royalty of your life. Pleasure won’t veer you off-course, it will sit you firmly on the throne of your red-hot love for your work, for your world, and for yourself.
Your pleasure is an olive branch “Feminine Genius” is here to extend to us unhappy over-toiling humans: The Sacred Way of Figs and Flowers, rather than The Soul-Crushing Way of Hustle and Grind.
Come on over to the discussion and let us know the most confronting — and the most comforting — things for you about all this.
PS: In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing more about a new online program that is just about to open its doors, Feminine Genius At Work, and the Key Principle of “Putting Pleasure Before Productivity.” I got to interview a bunch of working women and ask them if prioritizing their pleasure, joy, and sensuality has — as most of us fear — made them flaky, lazy, and unable to get shit done.
I think what they have to say — and how this principle has impacted their sense of self, their effectiveness, and their work — will give you chills.