The Hard Work of Being a Sensualist

“Live in the moment” has been the advice of sensualists from Epicurus to Camus. Peak experiences, moments of extreme pleasure or catalyzing emotion, can nourish life especially when not burdened with a guilty past or an anxious future.

Wine lovers and culinarians (“foodies” in the vernacular) are sensualists or at least we strive to be when the cares of everyday life are not too pressing.

But this advice to live in the moment seldom comes with a set of instructions for how we should do it. It is not easy, and for genuine sensualists “live in the moment” is a bad idea.

We are all familiar with the shallow sensualists chasing after any source of stimulation with no thought of the future or the past. (Frat boys occupy one end of a spectrum that extends to the Jay Gatsbys.) But in addition to being a road to ruin, shallow sensations won’t produce a peak experience.

Finding peak experiences requires commitment over the long term. You, first of all, must find out what you like. That requires introspection and a confrontation with one’s own demons, weaknesses, or curmudgeonly ogres who like to stamp out the green shoots of pleasure before they bloom.

Once you discover what you like, you then have to make it persistently part of your life if it is to be satisfying. That means figuring out why you like it, so you can recognize other things that might produce the same response. Our senses must be trained to notice quality lest we miss opportunities. Finally, the genuine sensualist must learn how to acquire or create what she likes to insure demand does not outstrip supply. A life devoted to peak sensations is hard work.

Most importantly, genuine sensuality involves the desire to explore. Real beauty is always accompanied by the sense that there are hidden depths in the admired object, something lurking just beyond the horizon of “now”, a promise that only the future can keep. This sense of wonder or rapt curiosity is itself a sensual experience that boosts the dopamine deluge and makes the experience extraordinary. Pleasure is a means to further exploration; the experience of beauty produces a desire for more beauty.

Thus, to “live in the moment” is to be projected into the future on the wings of one’s curiosity.

But this curiosity and sense of wonder knows no temporal boundaries. Everything has an origin. A flavor is not just a flavor but a flavor pregnant with meaning traceable back to people, places, communities, and traditions.

In a peak experience, we are connected to a world around us,  a world that antedates our own existence at that moment. Acquiring a deep knowledge of origins, a place and time on which the present depends, engages the mind and unites mind and body in one experience.

Moments, by themselves, regardless of how vivid, are just too ephemeral to stitch together meaningful lives.

“Living in the moment” requires the work of remembering the past and creating the future.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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