The Art of Pleasure: Learning to Savor

This morning I was sitting in the living room, windows open to the salty breeze ascending the valley from the sea, listening to the noises of the neighborhood. Actually, I was trying to read a chapter in a book I’m currently engrossed in, but repeatedly I was distracted by the sounds outside: dogs barking; workers in the yard of the house below ours; the loudly rumbling garbage truck; the incessant drone of a neighbor’s weed whacker; a car alarm.

I have sensitive hearing and a low ability to filter on an auditory level, which means that noise (including television and radio) easily distracts me. It’s a bit challenging, I admit, because the modern world is loud with man-made noise; frequently I’m rankled and on edge until I can retreat to a quiet place.

C’est la vie.

Despite the fine June morning, I finally stood up and closed the windows, then settled back with the book. The most recent offering by one of my favorite authors, it is written by an American woman who married a Venetian and moved to Italy. Living in Venice for a few years and then Tuscany, Marlena de Blasi has dwelled in Umbria for more than a decade now. A former chef, she has a passion for earthy, rustic food that perhaps exceeds my own, along with a flair for descriptive, evocative prose.

Orvieto poppies

Some have criticized her works as being overly dramatized, fairy tales for adults, ones that blur the line between memoir and fiction. While I do think that a good deal of her writing is probably fictionalized, I savor the old fashioned, poetic, and sensory tales that she weaves. As an Old World soul, I always delight in being transported back to the villages and countryside of Europe, where the cadence of life moves differently and an unbridled love for good food and wine upholds the table.

Though Ms. de Blasi never employs the word, I think that much of the time she is writing about soul. Its deep, nameless longing. The ways we nourish it. I value her insights into the complexities of human nature, her appreciation for the gifts of place, season, and earth, and the exquisite descriptions of hand-crafted, simple, agrarian food. In all, I celebrate and share her deep appreciation for an elemental sort of pleasure.

I’ve been musing quite a bit on pleasure lately. Partly this is fueled by reading De Blasi’s book, but it’s also the subject of one of the chapters in my manuscript that I’m editing right now. Specifically, I’ve been word-smithing on the role of pleasure in nourishing the soul:

Far more complex than merely the effects of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, or the sensory response to stimulus in the ‘pleasure centers’ of the brain, pleasure transcends scientific, reductionist explanation. Not only is it lovely—and essential—to experience, but it also draws our awareness back to the body and anchors us, however fleetingly, in the present moment. Like any sacred or mystical experience, it cannot be adequately discussed, considered, thought about, or explained; pleasure must be felt. 

Sibling to Beauty and Grace, pleasure attends the soul when it invites authentic expression in our being. Like a petaled flower closed against the chill of night, pleasure invites us to unfurl; it offers us a glimpse of our true radiance. Expansive and receptive, pleasure holds a key to a more open, connected, and relational way of being in the world. 

The agents of seduction and mystery are everywhere, seeking to wake us from our trance and court us with inspiration and beauty—little birds in the garden; sunny, scented flowers; luscious ripe mangoes; howling windstorms; amber honey dripping from fragrant comb; blazing sunsets; a lover’s flushed, warm skin. Indeed, pleasure is part of the Cosmic conspiracy to bring us fully alive and singing. It arrives through any and all of our senses, a graceful Muse that reveals our true nature and nourishes the soul. As we move, breathe, sing, dance, play, eat, make love, create and celebrate, the embodied soul IS pleasure.

We experience gratification along a wide array of avenuesfrom touch to taste, music to movement, breath to stillness, solitude to communion. Truly, the ways to receive and give pleasure are limited only by our imagination. As with mindfulness and embodiment, pleasure draws us deeper into relationship with self and ‘other’—food, Nature, lover, Spirit, even the environments that we inhabit or move through. It invites us to pay attention and savor.

Modern culture has cheapened pleasure. We’ve confused it with ‘entertainment’—or never learned the difference. 

Real pleasure nourishes on a deep level, feeding the soul through the expansive senses: a painted sunrise in the chilled air; a home cooked meal shared with friends at a lovely table; the warmth of a gentle, tactile connection; the interwoven harmonies of a classical piece of music (played on real instruments); a succulent ripe peach dribbling golden juice down your chin, or the scent of washed earth after a hard rain.” 

One of the reasons that I so deeply enjoy reading Marlena’s memoirs is that she draws me into the sensuality of the moment. She understands pleasure. And grace. A Soul Artist, she invites me to walk with her along the cobblestone street of Orvieto or through a Tuscan meadow of poppies. She pays attention to the details, opens her senses, and takes the time to cultivate—and celebrate—beauty. A vase of fresh flowers on the mantle. A handmade, ceramic platter for the glazed apricot tart. The bread kneaded by hand on the old wooden table. Pounding fresh, aromatic herbs with a pestle and mortar, or making a wobbly mayonnaise by hand. The joy of gathering at table for a rustic but elegant meal amid the clink of wine glasses and shared laughter.

She writes the kind of books that I’d love to craft someday. Though her life in Italy and mine in Hawaii are vastly different in countless ways, we share a central governing principle—passion for a hand-crafted life, deliberately constructed of timeless, elemental textures and little ‘soul rituals’ that imbue life with a sweet taste… a balance against the salty and bitter. True pleasure feeds the soul as equally as grace. If we pay attention to the details, we can have an enchanting life of interwoven connection almost anywhere. (That said, a rustic, stone farmhouse surrounded by silvery olive trees and gnarled grapevines near the Mediterranean always helps.)

No matter where they dwell, Soul Artists engage in a polysensory communion with the ‘other-than-human’ world around them. Whether you live in San Francisco, rural Nebraska, the English countryside, or Rome, may you find moments in your day to savor. It is most likely to be something simple and commonplace—flowers smiling brightly in a window box; the sweetly tart crunch of a crisp apple; clouds hung like poems in the afternoon sky; tables piled high with fresh bounty at the open air market; a well-spun, evocative sentence; or the colorful ingredients gathered upon your kitchen counter for supper. Each offers its own treasure of the moment.

I have written extensively about the importance of dilating our senses, of coming deeply into the body, and paying attention to the moment. We can savor anything; it’s the word I think is best wedded to pleasure, implying both a mindfulness and enjoyment. But other than food (and sometimes not even that), what do we savor in our daily life? What brings us pleasure? Notice what happens in your own body when you savor something—a gentle opening, a subtle expansion, a sensation of warmth in your chest or belly, a softening of the calcified shell.

Despite the barking dogs and noise of our days, open your senses. In the frenzied rush of our lives, there is really no hurry—the next moment is no better than this one. Take the time to savor, to mindfully indulge in the many forms of pleasure, and breathe deeply. Your soul will sing out in a grateful blessing and your life will feel a little bit richer. Or immensely so.


[Contains an excerpt from the forthcoming The Bones and Breath: A Man’s Guide to Eros, The Sacred Masculine, and the Wild Soul, White Cloud Press. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]