The Profound Practice of Enjoying Life

Editor-in-Chief Melvin McLeod introduces the January 2024 issue of Lion’s Roar.

Melvin McLeod
2 January 2024
Photo © Lucas Ottone / Stocksy United.

We are passionate creatures. We’re full of desires—for love, beauty, intimacy, the pleasure of our senses uniting with the world. Passion is a fundamental aspect of our being, perhaps the very definition of who we are as human beings.

It’s true that too often we try to fulfill our desires in selfish and destructive ways, causing suffering for ourselves and others, and religions have rightly warned us of passion’s dangers. But their antipathy toward passion and pleasure goes much deeper. It’s rooted in the damaging split between the spiritual and secular.

For millennia, many religions have told us that to lead a truly spiritual life we have to renounce and transcend this material world because ultimate happiness and perfection are not found here. So we must suppress our passion, because it’s what binds us to this world most strongly. 

How we feel about this world and how we feel about our passion are inseparable. If we condemn our passion, we’ll find this world unsatisfactory and look elsewhere for happiness. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, if we enjoy this life fully—the rustle of leaves, the beauty of the colors in the sky, the pleasurable touch of our lover—we may discover this world is good and, yes, spiritual. 

When we work with passion as a spiritual path, we don’t suppress or deny it. Instead, we experience it in deeper and deeper ways. At each step, the practice is the same: diminishing our focus on the ego, or false sense of self, that’s distorting the true nature of passion.

We start at the outer level, with how selfish, obsessive passion drives us to act in ways that harm ourselves and others. The problem isn’t with passion itself, but with those two adjectives—selfish and obsessive. To prevent us from acting selfishly, we need ethics that guide how we relate to our desires so we don’t create harm. We seek pleasure obsessively to fill our inner emptiness based on deep-seated feelings of dissatisfaction and incompleteness. So we need practices to cultivate self-compassion and awareness of our inherent completeness.

Going deeper, we discover that passion is a good working basis for spiritual practice. That’s because it connects us with other beings and the world, unlike aggression, which separates us from them. So if we can purify our passion by removing the “me” part—my pleasure, my gratification—then passion becomes compassion. It becomes connection and goodwill. It becomes love. By removing self-focus, what was poison becomes medicine.

In the final stage, passion becomes the wisdom and bliss that is the true nature of reality. It is passion beyond passion, in which there’s no experiencer, experience, or object of passion. That’s why it’s said that the experience of emptiness—the end of ego and ignorance—is not merely the absence of suffering but bliss and joy. It turns out that the popular view of nirvana as ultimate happiness, often criticized as a crude misunderstanding, may be true. 

Humanity has suffered so much from the purported separation between the spiritual and the worldly. We’ve distorted societies and oppressed people. We’ve been told to fight against our passionate nature and warned against enjoying life too much. It has made us unhappy, with only some promise of another, better world as compensation.

Worst of all, we’ve been separated from the real place of happiness and enlightenment—right here. And from that surprisingly profound spiritual path—of passion and the simple enjoyment of life. What seems so ordinary can take us further than we can imagine.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.