Do you want peace or bliss? Tranquility or excitement? Serenity or ecstasy? It is not easy to have both. The fanatics, such as drug addicts and hermits, will strive for the extremes. Most of us will have more moderate aspirations.

A harmonious, well-ordered life is quite attainable since peace is all about moderation. But the very idea of ‘moderate’ bliss seems like a contradiction in terms. Bliss is a glorious peak of arousal and release. It is naturally about excess, and the more excessive the better it feels.

The word ‘ecstasy’ literally means ‘to stand outside’, or to forget oneself in the thrill of the moment. We can find peace in the mundane world, but bliss is about transcending the mundane. Even a small high, such as that induced by alcohol, sex or a good movie, gets its power because it breaks the daily monotony.

When we’re high, it seems to last forever. Everything is just right, and everything makes sense. Bliss is naturally self-justifying. How could anything that feels so good be bad for us? Unfortunately, even the third cup of coffee or fifth glass of wine has its price.

We know that good habits and routines are the secret to a long and healthy life. With minor variations, it is good to eat the same amounts of much the same food daily, to go to bed and get up at the same time, to exercise regularly, to have a predictable alternation of work and play, socialising and time alone.

Good habits are valuable because we no longer have to think about them. We don’t have to decide ‘shall I or shan’t I?’ We just do it. Once our minds knows what to expect, they effectively switch off and function on automatic pilot. Unfortunately, this means a predictable, orderly life is often dull and lacking in excitement.

Even our pleasures then become vulnerable to the malaise of what is called ‘habituation’, or the law of diminishing returns. The second chocolate or third kiss or fourth new car is rarely as exciting as the first. The first time is a vivid contrast with the lack what preceded it, but the second time is just a slight variation on the first, so the novelty inevitably fades. Each time we repeat a pleasure, the intensity is almost guaranteed to diminish.

This is why having all we want, and repeating what we once enjoyed, can fail to make us even moderately satisfied. We can ask ‘Why do I feel so unenthusiastic and dull? There must be more to life than this.’ We remember how we felt when we truly were happy, and we know that this isn’t it. This can lead to silly fantasies about dumping our jobs, changing houses or partners, or escaping to where the grass is greener.

Much as we may love peace, the truth is that we also want to feel high, or more alive than we do right now. We want to be transported by ecstasy or, if that is impossible, we will at least do whatever we can to feel better than we ‘normally’ do. We want to break the curse of habituation and our orderly lives if only for a few bright minutes here and there. The question is how we go about it.

This impulse for intense joy seems to be universal. We know that certain birds, monkeys and grazing animals will deliberately eat rotting fruit in order to get drunk. Children crave the sugar rush. Nearly every one of us takes some kind of legal intoxicant daily to enhance our joie de vivre: coffee, sports drinks, alcohol, nicotine. Many also seek out sex, drama, risktaking and adventure solely to overcome that inner monotony.

The impulse towards ecstasy and self-transcendence that drive the drug addict is also the spiritual impulse. The shamans of primitive cultures made extensive use of intoxicants to attain their visionary highs. Indians in the Vedic period used ‘soma’, which is the hallucinogenic brew from the fly agaric mushroom. This was the essential ingredient which enabled communion with the gods. Peyote, the yage vine and very strong tobacco fulfilled the same function in North and South America. Hashish is still lavishly used as a sacrament by the followers of Siva in India, and throughout the Middle East. In the West, we prefer alcohol.

Intoxicants are literally ‘toxic’, which is why they work. They derange the normal function of consciousness. They are poisons that make us feel good precisely because they disturb the natural equilibrium of our bodies and minds. In small doses, they have few lasting effects and are well worth the price. If the dose is too high, or if we seek out that state too frequently, it can kill us, as drug addicts well know.

Even worse, a high doesn’t last for long. For biological reasons alone, every high is followed by a low. What goes up must come down. Freud famously described any pleasure as nothing but the release of an intolerable tension. Once we see this pattern, we have to decide what to do about it. After the ecstasy comes the reckoning.

We have many options. We could try to get higher, or settle for lesser highs, or find healthier ways to the same effect, or add value to the highs, or give up on getting high altogether. We tend to make these kinds of decision rather thoughtlessly, so let’s examine them in more detail.

To counteract the curse of habituation, we may try to increase the tension and dosage. There is a Zen saying that ‘the greater the anguish, the greater the awakening’. Great love stories gain their intensity not from love but from the dfficulties that the lovers face.

Timothy Leary, the LSD guru, once took the drug continuously over several days in the attempt to become so high that he would never come down. He failed. Similarly, some Indian yogis try to repeatedly enter the state of deep trance, so that eventually that feeling would remain with them when they returned to ordinary consciousness.

Another approach is to become so disappointed by the highs that we abandon them altogether. Many spiritual traditions say that all pleasures are profoundly disappointing, because they can’t last. We can find inner peace only by turning our back on everything. This aversion to pleasure can explain why many spiritual people are also rather dull.

Another approach is to be more moderate and realistic in our pleasures, so we can comfortably ride out the lows that follows the highs. ‘After sex, every animal is sad’ says the old Latin proverb, and yet sadness itself has its charms.

We love sad movies and melancholic songs. They give us a deeper, more contemplative perspective on the mystery of existence than mere happiness does. The man who cannot feel sadness is shallow, said the Indian sage Osho. There is nothing inherently wrong with the lows, though it takes a certain maturity to appreciate this.

Another approach is to find healthy ways of duplicating the experience. The Vedic sages may have started with hallucinogenic mushrooms and the auto-intoxication of fasting, but they eventually found that meditation, yoga and self-discipline work so much better. Many hippies did the same.

An excellent way to redeem pleasure is to add value to it. Sex is good, but sex plus love, or sex plus love and play, is a hundred times better. Violence may feel marvellous if you’re on top, but the controlled aggression and training of a martial or contact sport has so many more possibilities.

Playfulness and imagination can enormously increase a pleasure, keep it fresh and help you learn. As children know, it is so much better to play with your food, than to just eat it. Similarly, drugs, sex and risk-taking can be potent accelerants of creativity. They may be destructive forces on their own, but Western music, literature and art would be so much poorer without them.

Malcolm Lowry who wrote the 20th century classic ‘Under the Volcano’ was both a binge drinker and a binge writer, and they went together. “Not an hour, not a moment of my drunkenness, was not worth it”, he said. “There is not a drop of mescal I have not turned into pure gold, not a drop that I have not made sing.” I doubt if he would have regretted his chaotic life and early death either. He wouldn’t have been much of a man if he went on the wagon. Sometimes the ecstasy is worth more than life itself.

© Perth Meditation Centre 2006