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Feeling Good Without Feeling Bad: Pleasure and Ritual

Edited by: Mohan Rajagopal

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the term ‘guilty pleasure’ a lot, about why something you enjoy would make you feel bad about yourself or why you would regret doing something that makes you feel good. We often see pleasure as something to be wary of, as per the old adages of ‘too good to be true’ or ‘too much of a good thing’. There is almost a suspicion of pleasure, some sort of trickery or seduction at play. Even with the simplest acts of reading a chapter of some novel or watching an episode on Netflix, we feel a kind of hidden shame (or at least I do). But there are also non-guilty pleasures. What are these and why are they exempt from this kind of misgiving? Is there a way for us to free ourselves from this doubt of all enjoyment? I think the answer lies in the space of the ritual.

Many a time, pleasure is put in opposition to productivity. The pressure to be constantly accomplishing some task or working towards some goal is extremely high today. I myself am always thinking about a hundred things that I have to do— my coursework, keeping my resume updated, fulfilling all my familial commitments, doing my thesis, looking at options for grad school, and more. Every moment of every day is supposed to contribute towards these obligations and therefore, every action has consequences for the future. In contrast, pleasure is delegated for times of leisure, which there is very little of. Any time taken off is time wasted. So, feeling good takes a backseat to everything else which makes it a matter of prioritization. All of our commitments and responsibilities take precedence over the way we feel about ourselves and our lives.

In some ways, this is the way we are supposed to feel or the way the world tells us we are supposed to feel—like we’re running out of time. All of the things that we think we need to do in order to move forward are things that society deems good or healthy or acceptable. So, when we do something that doesn’t align with that notion—say, watching a movie on a weekday—we feel like we have sinned, transgressed the social boundary of what is right and what is wrong. Our priorities are not in order, where in society’s eyes, pleasure would be last on the list.

Are there ways, however, in which we can take pleasure without feeling guilty? Since Diwali has just gone by with Christmas and New Year’s coming up, I was thinking about the idea of the festival. In my house, Diwali is always a happy time. We make food, decorate the doorway with rangoli, meet friends, and burst firecrackers (although I don’t do those anymore). None of these activities falls under the category of work or productivity. In fact, these are all pleasurable acts. We take out three days every year to engage in such enjoyment and yet my conscience is guilt-free. The same goes for Holi and Teej and any other festival that we celebrate (even if it is different for different families or cultures). All of these occasions are rituals that we as a society participate in. They are repetitive occurrences that break the flow of everyday life. So, the pressure to be productive is socially induced but rituals exist as societally sanctioned spaces for pleasure and fun. In a way, they are out of time, disjointed from ‘real’ life and therefore distanced from the guilt of pleasure. You might be wondering, ‘Okay, but why does this matter?’ If rituals allow us to feel pleasure without feeling guilty, it is perhaps because of the knowledge that they are practices meant for pleasure, that we are allowed to feel joy. Here, we can think about extending this into our everyday lives in the form of daily rituals— routines that we set for ourselves to feel good without feeling bad. Instead of being socially sanctioned, they are personally sanctioned. If one decides upon a ritualistic action of taking a walk every morning or reading one chapter of a book or watching one episode a day, knowing that it is a habit permits one to view it as not encroaching upon one’s daily schedule or interfering with one’s responsibilities. It will leave you open to the possibility of enjoying yourself, with no regret necessary.

Surabhi Jain

Ashoka '21

A fourth-year English and Creative Writing major, Surabhi is always in possession of 20 different kinds of tea, watermelon-pink kitten earmuffs and galaxy-printed leggings. Her many talents include the art of hugging, marathon Netflixing and catnaps.
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