Comfortably settling into my spot on the back porch for Sunday morning coffee, I noticed it.
It didn’t feel right. It seemed empty. What was it?
The coffee was its usual perfect color, aroma and taste. The cushions and pillows cradled and supported me as always; the velvety plum-colored pillow (brought out from indoors) fit perfectly on my lap, softly snuggling my coffee mug between my savoring sips. The garden sported more than its usual splendor of blooms. The squirrel did its ritual leap from the tree to reach the squirrel-proof bird feeder, where it cleverly clung to the wire mesh and bounced to get the seeds to fall out. Birdsong filled the air, announcing another beautiful day forthcoming, while the birds awaited their turn at the feeder. The sprinklers were on (I timed them to come on just as I get there so I can enjoy their rhythmical dance across the lawn).
Yet my usual Sunday-morning-on-the-back-porch-peaceful feeling eluded me. What was it?
“Tshhhhh, tshhhhh, tshhhhhh.”
The sprinklers. It was the sprinklers!
For eleven years now, I relaxed to the “chish, chish, chish” sound as the sprinkler heads dispurse their fervid streams of water in pulsating, vigorous semicircular motion, followed by the long “chshhhhhhhhhh” as they reset for the next round of bursts.
But now the sprinklers were different. We had them replaced.
The new ones didn’t “chish, chish, chish.” Instead, they went “tshhhh, tshhhh, tshhh.”
They didn’t pulse in streams of lively water. Instead, they gently whirled, wistfully falling, in spokes.
They watered the garden just fine. But they didn’t activate the pleasure center in my brain.
We associate sensations with emotions in the subconscious brain. Sensations travel like little messengers along the afferent nervous system and make their way to the amygdala. The amygdala is a deep, central part of the human brain that helps determine if we should fear or enjoy what’s going on, based on the incoming sensations. It receives messages from the sensory system and makes instantaneous connections. It triggers positive behaviors for rewards and stores memories associated with these strong emotions (fear and pleasure). It helps a baby know that mama’s voice from the other room means help is on the way. It lets us know if a face we see is dangerous or trustworthy. We learn, through the action of the amygdala (and associated brain structures and chemistry), that if we need to feel peaceful pleasure, we can turn to things that created them before, like the back porch on Sunday morning, for reliable relief.
If something changes the sensation–even something as simple as the sound of the sprinklers–the peaceful, pleasurable response doesn’t trigger.
So what’s to be done? Will there never be pleasure drinking coffee on my back porch on Sunday morning again? Must I rush to the hardware store and buy the old-style sprinkler heads?
Maybe you’ve noticed something is amiss in your favorite pleasurable activities. Maybe there’s something changed that’s much more drastic than a sprinkler. Maybe you’ve acquired an injury or disability and can’t walk or move your body the way you used to. Maybe you’re missing the feel of the sand between your toes or the sound and sights of the dance floor. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one. Maybe you’re missing the smell of your loved one’s clothes, or the sound of their voice, or the gentle, comforting pressure of their arms around you. Maybe you’re not sure what’s wrong, but you just can’t feel the way you used to feel. Maybe you wonder if you’ll ever feel peaceful pleasure again.
Stay tuned, then. This is the first in a series of five posts entitled, “Elusive Pleasures.” We’ll be exploring these losses, connections and ways to work with our brains to help them adapt to changes and renew pleasure.
Come back soon. Bring your favorite coffee mug, pillow and journal. Be sure to leave me comments too, so we can share the journey.
“You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11, AMPC