If meditation practice leads to the cessation of desire, then how are we to pursue spiritual goals? Are there good and bad kinds of desire? Can desire be spiritually helpful? Bodhipaksa explores a saying by Aldous Huxley in an attempt to shed some light.
“Uncontrolled, the hunger and thirst after God may become an obstacle, cutting off the soul from what it desires. If a man would travel far along the mystic road, he must learn to desire God intensely but in stillness, passively and yet with all his heart and mind and strength.” – Aldous Huxley
When an American university asked me to give a talk on Buddhism and mysticism I was, well, mystified. Buddhism, for me, was an immensely practical and mostly logical approach to the problem of living a satisfying life, while I understood mysticism to consist of an escape from day-to-day living and a retreat into a realm of sometimes confused and confusing inner experience. I’d no idea what I was going to say.
But then I decided to look up the dictionary to find out what mysticism was, and to my relief found that it directly overlapped with my understanding of what Buddhist practice entailed. The definition I came across was something like:
Mysticism: the belief that the spiritual apprehension of knowledge unavailable to the intellect may be attained through contemplation.
While Buddhist practice is indeed very pragmatic and involved with the minutiae of how we respond to our moment-by-moment experience, it does of course involve meditation, and meditation is a very practical way of changing our experience so that we can come to a deeper understanding of our lives. In other words, through “contemplation” we come to the “spiritual apprehension of knowledge.” Furthermore the insight we achieve through meditation, while it can be directly perceived through the intellect, can’t be completely understood by the intellect alone. For example, I can know intellectually that all things are impermanent, but it’s only when I sit quietly and observe the impermanence of my experiences, my thoughts, my emotions, even my body itself, that the truth of impermanence starts to sink in at a deeper level.
So Buddhism was, I found rather to my surprise, a mystical religion.
…we absolutely must wish passionately to be Enlightened if that’s ever going to take place
Of course there are different varieties of mysticism. Huxley saw mysticism as being the way to experience God directly through one’s experience, rather than through one’s intellect. I don’t believe in the existence of Huxley’s God and in my own mystical practice I pursue a different goal. Or perhaps what we experience is the same, but we interpret that experience in different ways, Huxley calling it “God” while I call it “Reality.”
But Huxley’s quotation is not primarily about God anyway. It’s about different kinds of desire, and how they can help or hinder us in our quest for direct experience of Reality (whether or not that Reality is understood as involving a God).
What Huxley is saying, in effect, is that you need to have a desire for the realization of spiritual experience, but that the wrong kind of desire will actually get in the way of that experience. So what’s the right kind of desire and what’s the wrong kind? How do we tell them apart? How to we make sure we cultivate the right kind of desire?
The difference is not in intensity. Huxley describes the unhelpful kind of desire as “hunger” and “thirst” while the necessary kind is experienced “intensely” and “with all [one’s] heart and mind and strength.” One can passionately wish to be Enlightened. In fact we absolutely must wish passionately to be Enlightened if that’s ever going to take place.
The difference lies, most fundamentally, in the quality of consciousness that is doing the desiring. On the one hand we have unhelpful desire, which is like “hunger” and “thirst” in that it’s a relatively primitive kind of desire. It wants to grasp and possess. It sees something it wants and it tries to appropriate that object to itself. It thinks of itself and the thing desired as separate and real entities. Its grasping is a kind of survival mechanism; it thinks that its own perpetuation will be made more likely by having appropriated the object of its desires.
In Buddhism you sometimes get the image of trying to catch a feather on a fan.
On the other hand we have the spiritually helpful kind of desire. This is the opposite of grasping. It involves, in Huxley’s words, “stillness,” and it must be receptive (Huxley says “passive,”which has unfortunate connotations) as well as active. It might be useful to have a metaphor here.
In Buddhism you sometimes get the image of trying to catch a feather on a fan. Now obviously if you make a vigorous effort to catch the falling feather with the fan (if you have a “grasping” attitude) you’ll simply push the feather away and achieve the opposite of what you intended. To catch a feather on a fan you have to be subtle and intelligent. There has to be activity, so that the fan gets into the right place for the feather to land on it. Then there needs to be stillness, so that the fan can approach undisturbed. There has to be receptivity; you have to let the feather come to you. This combination of activity, stillness, and receptivity allows us to achieve the goal.
Likewise, in approaching mystical states of mind we have to make an effort. We have to want to approach the goal. And the desire must be intense. But it also must be intelligent. It must lead to the still point where we have done what has to be done (and no more) and where we are positioned to simply wait, with openness and receptivity, for the feather to land.
At different times different approaches are needed. At first we might need to take relatively vigorous action, holding ourselves back from grossly harmful actions and working to pacify the unruly mind. Desire itself, as Huxley says, must not be “uncontrolled.” We need to grasp the fan of the mind. We must move it decisively yet gently to intercept the path of the feather of reality. We need to intelligently observe how our own actions affect the feather’s course — observe how the very act of meditating can distort our ability to experience reality — and make increasingly subtle movements to compensate. At last as the fan becomes perfectly positioned we can become still, and we need simply to wait.
Both activity and receptivity need to be blended. When we have activity towards a goal without also having receptivity we are in the grip of mere “hunger,” while activity intelligently blended with receptivity leads us down the path of practical mysticism and, ultimately, to the direct apprehension of reality.