The Way of Indulgence
Strategies for Developmental Wisdom in Societies of Super Salient Stimuli
Q: How does indulgence fit into spirituality?
I’ve been thinking about porn.
Forgive my intentionally lurid opening sentence but wait — alas! — you still don’t know what I’ve been thinking about porn. Unfortunately, you’ll have to keep reading to find out...
This weird topic got on my radar following a very interesting one-off episode of the Integral Stage podcast. It was an anonymous conversation exploring “meta-level views about explicit cultural content & strategies for working with it more productively.” After pondering that discussion, I realized I hadn’t asked myself a central question:
What IS porn?
In 1964 the US Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart said he couldn’t define it but nonetheless assumed that “I know it when I see it.” Most of us probably have the same feeling.
Porn seems too obvious (and perhaps too crass) to consider, but we may wonder whether or not Judge Stewart noticed his own compulsive and excited attention to various other things. Statues of Jesus? Television sports? Close-up images of fly-fishing lures? Adorable baby-faces? Those are kind of porn-ish.
As long-evolved terrestrial organisms, we inherit many kinds of primed instincts. We have natural sexual drives, hunger, compassion, a need for glucose, an interest in predators and prey, etc. Each of these biological predispositions can be hacked. Artists & entrepreneurs are good at isolating and amplifying particular aspects of our inherited neurochemical response-patterns for their own purposes.
So it is not surprising that, today, an evocative word such as “porn” no longer points only toward graphic representations of sexual details but instead we talk freely about ‘food porn’ and ‘disaster porn.’ Maybe even ‘wisdom porn’ ?
It seems like anything could be porn if it involves cultural artifacts that repetitively represent particular perceptual details which amplify and quicken subsets of our inherited behavioral instincts in order to produce experiences that are abnormally engaging.
So the provocative concept of pornography has evolved. It no longer simply refers to the erotic frescoes of lost Pompei (sealed up in the private backrooms of the British Museum) but rather to the much broader category of all kinds of access to indulgence.
A CIVILIZATION OF INDULGENCES
The 14th-century English word “indulgence” derives from the French and Latin term for “yielding, fondness, affection or kindness.” It is indulgent when we allow an engagement or activity that we might otherwise deny.
Perhaps we take a magnanimous attitude toward the oddly obsessive activities of a child or a spouse. Perhaps we indulge a whim or a fantastical theory. A guilty pleasure. A sweet tooth. A fond hobby. An affection for imagination. Any unjustified recreational activity which we kindly tolerate...
And let us, as we continue, keep the word kindness in mind. This mini-essay is moving toward a spiritual, developmental or wisdom-cultivating approach to existing in a world of indulgences — so we must first accept them without too much judgment.
People have been historically unwilling to indulge indulgences. Public priests, parents & pundits are perpetually pejorative toward “mere indulgence” even though, quite often, they permit their own special brands of indulgence in private. Although that is common we may need to adopt an uncommon attitude if we are going to probe the ways in which indulgent civilization might grow toward wisdom.
Can we be more kindly disposed toward the principle of indulgences.
Can we be meta-indulgent?
Historical sages have worked to evolve or emerge or emanate pathways to developmental growth from out of their actual cultural and technological contexts. Our context today is mostly a hypermodern liberal/digital/capitalist landscape in which many folks have regular access to unnecessary super-salient stimuli. Therefore many people may be in the position of needing to begin, or deepen, their developmental journeys from within a pervasive culture of indulgence.
This is relatively new on a mass scale. There were sex addicts and alcoholics in the past, of course, but now there are fully stocked liquor stores and caffeine-dispensaries on every corner. Endless streams of free explicit sexual content. Chocolate is everywhere. Nicotine comes in colourful flavors and diverse handy devices. Cannabis is decriminalized. We are festooned with massage parlours. Even the cheapest phones have customizable ringtones. Algorithms profile us to match us with our preferred genres of entertainment to give us saccharine overdoes of any desirable emotional experience.
We live like the lords and high ladies of the past. We have that kind of access to indulgences (and, like them, we get to give our “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” evaluations) but, unfortunately, we lack the training to go with this situation. The depth-oriented developmental systems of the past are primarily designed to help people who — like most of our ancestors — had only infrequent and mild access to personal indulgences.
If you lived in the Buddhist countryside of China in 1000AD, how much opportunity did you get to evaluate a bewildering diversity of nuanced and graphic sexual representations?
How often did people have “sweet treats” in ancient Assyria?
When did the Mesoamericans of 1000 BC get to explore heightened reality vignettes of sexy new vehicles, sizzling steaks or fancy dresses?
Did the Celts ever get to stand in front of a thousand mystery novels trying to choose their favourite sub-genre?
Occasionally, Roman aristocrats set out for the pleasure pits with an armload of exotic fruit but that was a marginal fraction of the population. An Indian Rani (female Rajah) might have had a sumptuous copy of the Kama Sutra hidden under her expensive purple sheets but such luxuries — and the psychology of interacting with them — were notoriously rare.
Today the situation is often very different.
More people, they say, are dying from obesity than from starvation. Grocery stores are falling all over themselves to dazzle you with exotic fruit and chemically-doctored candy bars in hyper-colorful wrappers. Every possible way to get caffeine, sugar or THC molecules into your body exists and can be delivered rapidly to your home by Amazon’s downtrodden drones.
We are now grown, multi-generationally, in a garden of increasing indulgences. We ARE the people of this garden. It is we who suffer all the playful joys, repetitive self-expressions & addictive diseases associated with a regime of artificial super-salience.
More than any other people who have lived on this Earth we know what it is like to dwell among the extreme hacking of our attention, hormones and perceptions. And we will need to take ourselves seriously, accept this situation and begin to evolve pathways of wisdom cultivation appropriate to this cradle of addictions.
PSEUDO-ADDICTIVE SUPER SALIENCE
Today all kinds of things get called “addictions.” Some are classical addictions like synthetic opiates which create a chemical dependency. This is an illness in which the foreign substance produces a situation of hormonal dis-ease that only it can renormalize. Yet for people with addictive personalities, many other small pleasures and stresses can become an emotional crutch or a habitual way of filling an inner craving —even if the substance or activity is not widely considered to be physically addictive.
And then there are pseudo-addictions.
A pseudo-addiction is what I am calling human participation in a semantic tunnel (“rabbit hole”) populated with artificial saliences. It describes people finding their way into areas of culture that isolate and amplify the most triggering facets of our perception.
We have an internal “search algorithm” that optimizes for engagement by getting sucked into things like the Olympics, the Elections, distress-oriented news programs, refined sugars, Football, the sentimentalism of romantic comedies, the exposed crotches of pornography & the unbearable cuteness of kittens.
Part of our contemporary cultural participation, driven by commerce and technology, is to make our meaning by engaging artifacts and information that are specifically designed to hack our brains.
We are optimized for indulgences. Sounds bad — but it’s oddly close to the orientation of wisdom and development culture.
THE UNCANNY VALLEY
The term “uncanny valley” is used to describe robots that are very-but-imperfectly-human. They creep us out. We are comfortable with robots that look like machines AND we are comfortable with our fellow humans but… it is subtly offputting to interact with a not-quite-human-looking machine.
I would argue that a similar uncanny valley exists between people adapted to indulgent civilization & people oriented toward depth, spirit and growth. The former is a creepy simulacrum of the latter but supersalience is exactly what we want.
Our apparently unwise civilization of pseudo-addictive hyperstimuli is a distorted approximation of the supra-meaningful world attested by sages, mystics and psychonauts.
“The red is so red,” said 20th-century Buddhist tulku and meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. A high state of amplified vividness. However, amplified vividness is also the very thing that determines which digital colour filter will be used on the next car commercial that I see.
A new Tesla in ultra-red?
The people of the camera phone — that’s us — are prone to respond technologically to vivid perceptions. If you see a rose that looks “so red,” you could attune your intentional attention toward that feeling quality. Instead, however, you most likely whip out your phone, snap a pic, crop it, tint it & share it. You are attempting to technologically demonstrate the glimmer of an extraordinary perception or amplified stimulus.
In both cases (the more spiritual and the more techno-social) we are interested in having a perception that “pops.” Yet it is clearly weird to think of our commercial brain-hacking and technological self-alienation as signs that we are very near to our natural drive for more meaningfulness in perception.
Our new technologies and our ancient psycho-technologies have something in common. They both orient around the basic human urge to have more intense, more evocative, more satisfying, more meaningful, more flowing & luminously engaging perceptions. You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.
So perhaps this uncanny similarity could help to build a bridge between the culture of indulgences and the culture of emergent wisdom...
ASCETIC & HEDONIC SPIRITUALITIES
The most prevalent historical “spiritual attitude” toward indulgence is simply DON’T.
That’s actually good advice. Discipline is a very obvious way of relating to indulgent options and contextualizing them within a wisdom-orientation. Try a little fasting. How about some chastity? No coffee for a month! No digital devices this weekend! Stop gossiping. Stop staying up too late. Stop giving your children so many processed carbohydrates. Stop following the prompts of your monkey mind. Maybe try dopamine fasting (which is not really anti-dopamine) to reset your weak habits and culturally-hacked pleasures.
So obviously the experimental, intentional and pro-life use of anti-indulgent disciplines is powerful. It has every chance of making us healthier, more self-aware & more powerful. However, this ascetic mindset is not the only historical spiritual attitude toward indulgences.
There have been saints who smoke, drank & sex’d. A few might be frauds or lunatics but we find common hints of tantric and bhogic approaches in many traditions.
Bhoga, btw, is a pleasure-oriented complement of Yoga. Take a really enjoyable, luxurious deep breath. Automatic pranayama. More present. More mindful. More attunement. Yum.
There have been many sects and lineages involved in pro-pleasure and pro-intensity “ways” of development. Yet these were typically limited either to the nobles (already adapted to indulgences) or to specially trained adepts who were deemed capable of handling the extra complexity. It was considered unwise to suggest such practices to the average person. An esoteric container was needed.
There were likely some elite status games involved as well as a pragmatic need to hide from periodically irrational public mobs looking to attack whatever provokes their unintegrated energies. However, it is also important to take people’s different competencies seriously by holding an appropriate membrane or boundary between common and uncommon approaches to self-development.
At least that was the historical norm. Today might be different. We still have elite indulgence, erratic mobs and a need for private spaces in which specially prepared psychonauts range beyond the normal religious constraints. Yet we also have legal access to psychoactive drugs, non-reproductive sexuality, games, immersive alternative worlds, and uncensored depictions of anything you like.
Therefore it behooves us to consider which principles, previously regarded as applicable only to rare spiritual contexts, might be needed in a more general sense for masses of people embedded in intense, easily-accessed, super-salient behaviours.
PLEASURABLE DISCIPLINE & DISCIPLINED PLEASURE
The most overt form of pseudo-spiritual praxis — associated anciently with sophisticated aristocratic traditions — for indulgent contexts is what I might call hedonic askesis. It involves
(a) learning to feel good about effort and self-struggle
(b) bringing art, control, intention and discipline to private pleasures.
The first part is an interpretive shift. You can anticipate and try to enjoy the friction, frustration and growth pains involved in exercise and self-control. It takes practice but there is no limit to how far you can go. People do it every day at the gym:
The second part asks us to be actual hedonists rather than crypto-moralistic decadents. How can you get more of the upside and less of the downside from a drug? Or from binge-watching a cooking show? Or from getting off on seeing hilarious raccoon antics? Can you bring a little extra clarity and decorum and discipline to watching the game or reading online fan fiction about girls dating vampires?
If we took our indulgence more seriously, we might start pondering it and then applying various degrees of intentional tweaking and refining. Turning it into a ritual or an art form has a little more dignity and, interestingly, requires that we adopt a mildly metacognitive stance toward our typical hasty, overly-identified patterns.
But these twin aspects of hedonic askesis are only the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s explore some possible types of developmental praxis that respond to three primary features of indulgence:
1 THE TRIPLE GEM OF APPRECIATION
The pleasure of indulgence is connected with a positive evaluation. We like something! Therefore one pathway beyond the dullness of pseudo-addictive pleasures is to reconnect with the appreciative core of the experience. An indulgence is already an appreciation of something — so why not get better at appreciating it?
Appreciation can be trite. The lamest people suggest socially that we ought to be more appreciative. Unfortunately, this common refrain is seldom paired with any insight or methodology by which to actually deepen our capacity for appreciation. How do you get better at appreciating something you enjoy?
Here are three options:
Emotionally, we can make appreciation more coherent, intense and intentional. Rather than merely knowing that we like something, we can deliberately feel into a quality of care, gratitude and loving-kindness. We can be thankful to our cooking shows, sweet treats, porn, anger-inspiring news or to the creators of our video games and vampire shows. They are providing us with enjoyment. That is worth acknowledging.
Our appreciation of indulgence does not have to coil and cluster upon our private reactive activities (as though we were dogs or squirrels trying to secretly bury our treasure where no one can see it). Instead, we can volunteer to feel appreciation flow gratefully outward. The things and people responsible for our pleasure are real. They are “out there.” And once we find this feeling quality of active appreciation, we can urge it to become deeper and stronger.
Mentally, it is possible to enter into what the philosopher Schopenhauer called aesthetic contemplation. This is like perceiving our indulgences in their purity, clarity and formal presence. Imagine the images or sounds or flavours you enjoy being allowed to ripple outward, completely intact, into infinite space. Track their arising as though they were the Tai Chi movements.
By bracketing out our thoughts (associations, narratives, identities, inner dialogue, presumed familiarity, etc.) we can approach perception as a clean mental space in which stimulation patterns are observed as pure aesthetic patterns. How not what. Like Schopenhauer at a symphony, we mentally orient our attention to the “way” that the phenomenon occurs…
Physically, our bodies must become better at appreciating. The animal within us moves toward simple pleasures that it seldom deeply enjoys. It would require a relaxed, toned body and a degree of somatic self-awareness to allow waves to ripple through the organism, nourish the organs, delight the cells and become deeply assimilated into our flesh.
If we are actually committed to our indulgences then we do not want to be racing desperately through a bag of potato chips but, rather, we want to pause at the in-between moments and encourage the cascade affirmational chemistry to fulfil its full cycle before taking the next bite.
Too often we are like the proverbial malnourished-but-overweight person. We keep consuming our brain-hacking enjoyments without really getting the nutrient of pleasure. To actually participate in our indulgences requires more skill, curiosity, self-regulation and alertness…
2 ENRICHING HABITUATED ATTENTION
Indulgences tend to be repetitive.
If we like video games, horror novels, science shows, cabaret, frivolous baking, cricket competitions, etc. then this is enacted by a habit of attention. We look at the same things, in the same way, for roughly the same lengths of time. So one obvious way to turn indulgences toward development involves bringing more purpose and richness to our habits of focus.
Splitting attention is one very effective tool. While you are concentrating on a stimulus and the little thrills it provides add an extra point of sustained attention. Tell yourself it is okay to watch your space movies, crime show, porn, Winter Olympics or news broadcasts AS LONG AS you remain mindful of the sensations in your left foot while doing so. Or smell each bite of pizza before eating it. Chant an internal mantra while gaming. Track your breath while taking your pills. Remember the whole interior feeling of the body while you are engaged in digital social apps.
These are all creative ways in which you can intentionally add an extra point of focus. Your brain will then energize intentional attention circuits that cultivate metacognition and encourage easy growth beyond your current identities.
You could also enrich your attention by looking for subtler details. What have you never noticed before about your indulgence? What is the smallest thing you can detect about the stimulus? Engaging anything with inquiry and precision sets us on a road that eventually converges with the wisdom pathways.
3 ESCALATOR CONTENT
An escalator is a device that moves you between levels. Some structures and forms can act like portals to higher or deeper domains. Imagine what it is like to enter a grand old cathedral and behold the stained-glass icon of the Living Lord. That’s a kind of escalator. The image reminds us of “higher things.”
In a temple, we know that we are supposed to be looking for patterns that connect us to expanded aspirational experiences. It is not so obvious when we are watching the latest Netflix fad or flipping through a cosmetics magazine or browsing the potato chip aisle in the supermarket. That stuff seems low, trivial, superficial or degenerate.
However, it does not take much imagination to find patterns that remind us of higher things — provided we agree to look for them.
Superhero shows are pretty indulgent but they also demonstrate archetypal forms of virtue, courage, skill, justice and subtle energy capacity. Romance movies could draw our attention toward the nature of Love. The Jedi remind us that balanced concentration can affect the world. Paul Atreides in DUNE shows self-transcending discipline when his hand is in the Bene Gesserit pain box. Maybe sugary treats can remind us of sweetness itself? Or the transcendental geometries of glucose crystals? Drugs point toward alchemical transformation. Distressing news cycles about economic collapse could trigger deep compassion for the suffering of others.
It might be very useful to develop a neurological habit of looking for expanded contexts within indulgent material. There is surely some form, fragment or theme with any content that we could train ourselves to associate with aspirational transformation.
The decadent/puritan impulse might decide that Tarantino’s KILL BILL is a wicked orgy of pop culture violence that should be avoided OR sinfully enjoyed. Yet the same film is also permeated with honour, discipline, sage mentors, delight, precision, etc.
If we move beyond the dichotomy of indulgence and the refusal of indulgence we may find many elevator entrances ready to take us into more profound levels. Toronto cognitive scientist John Vervaeke is keen on distinguishing the Greek terms “cratia” and “sophrosyne." The former is the goodness that strives to resist temptation while the latter is the temptation of good things that draw us into contemplation.
Every icon is a form meant to draw you beyond itself, to be transfigured, to be… an escalator.
Begin where you are.