desire

Rejecting the wanting self

adam-and-eve

“We have been raised to fear … our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for…many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde

In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions — Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian — teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.

A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly — and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.

The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl — “like a withering tree on a rock in winter” — the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures — delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification — need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.

Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.

As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

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The suffering of rejecting desire

“We have been raised to fear … our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for … many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde

In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions—Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian—teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.

A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly—and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.

The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl—“like a withering tree on a rock in winter”—the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures—delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification—need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.

Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.

As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.

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Hold your wants lightly

Getting caught up in wanting – wanting both to get what’s pleasant and to avoid what’s unpleasant – is a major source of suffering and harm for oneself and others.

First, a lot of what we want to get comes with a big price tag – such as that second cupcake, constant stimulation via TV and websites, lashing out in anger, intoxication, over-working, or manipulating others to get approval or love. On a larger scale, the consumer-based lifestyle widespread in Western nations leads them to eat up – often literally – a huge portion of the world’s resources.

Similarly, much of what we want to avoid – like the discomfort of speaking out, some kinds of psychological or spiritual growth, standing up for others, exercising, being emotionally vulnerable, or really going after one’s dreams – would actually be really good for oneself and others.

Second, some wants are certainly wholesome, such as wishing that you and others are safe, healthy, happy, and living with ease; it’s natural to want to give and receive love, to express yourself creatively, to be OK financially, to be treated with respect, to make a big contribution, or to rise high in your career. And many things in life are pleasurable – some of my personal favorites are morning coffee with my wife, walking in wilderness, watching the SF Giants win the World Series last year, seeing kids flourish, writing these JOTs, and laughing with friends at dinner.

But even with wholesome wants and pleasures, trouble comes when we get driven about them – grasping after them, insisting that they continue, craving and clinging, taking it personally when there’s a hitch, getting pushy, or staying in a tunnel with no cheese. The art is to pursue wholesome desires with enthusiasm, discipline, and skill without getting all hot and bothered about them – and to enjoy life’s pleasures without getting attached to them.

For even the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences always end. You are routinely separated from things you enjoy. And someday that separation will be permanent. Friends drift away, children leave home, careers end, and eventually your own final breath comes and goes. Everything that begins must also cease. Everything that comes together must also disperse.

Given this truth, grabbing after or clutching onto the things we want is hopeless and painful. To use an analogy from the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah: if getting upset about something unpleasant is like being bitten by a snake, grasping for what’s pleasant is like grabbing the snake’s tail; sooner or later, it will still bite you.

Therefore, holding wants lightly is helpful in everyday life, bringing you more ease and less trouble from your desires, and creating less trouble for others – even across the world. And if you take it all the way to its end, holding wants lightly is a powerful vehicle for liberation from all of the suffering rooted in desire.

How?

For starters, be aware of wanting inside your own mind. Try to notice:

  • The ways in which desiring itself feels subtly tense or uncomfortable.
  • The emotional pain of not getting what you want. Including disappointment, frustration, discouragement-perhaps even hopelessness or despair.
  • The frequent discrepancy between the rewards you expected to get from a want, and what it actually feels like to fulfill it.

Similarly, notice that the anticipated pain from the things you want to avoid – especially things that would be good for you to open to or go after – is usually worse than the discomfort you actually feel. In effect, your brain is routinely lying to you, promising more pleasure and more pain than you will actually experience. The reason is that the pleasure and pain circuits of the brain are ancient and primitive, and they manipulated our ancestors to do things for their survival by overselling them about apparent opportunities and over-frightening them about apparent risks.

  • The costs of pursuing the things you want, and the costs of trying to avoid some of the actually beneficial things you don’t want. What is the cost/benefit ratio, really?
  • The ways that every pleasant experience must inevitably change and end.

Next, imagine you are observing your wants from a great distance, like seeing them from on top of a mountain as if they are down in a valley below. Let them and go like clouds in the vast sky of awareness. They are just one more mental content, like sensations, thoughts, or memories. Don’t give them special status. They are just wants. You don’t need to act on them. Usually, they’ll just pass away after awhile.

Then, on paper or in your mind, make a list of problematic wants:

  • Things you’ve wanted to get but are either not good for you or others, or come with too high a price.
  • Things you’ve wanted to avoid, but are actually good for you and others.

Live with this list. Stare at it. Listen to what it says to you. Perhaps talk about it with others (maybe a therapist). Then make a plan for what you are committing to do about it. Honor this plan; if possible, tell others about it.

Also list wholesome wants that you would like to pursue more. (Some of these may be suggested implicitly by the list above of what you’ve wanted to avoid.) Hang out with this list for awhile, perhaps discussing it with others. Then make a sincere plan for what you are committing to do about it. Your wholesome wants will help crowd out the unwholesome ones.

I know what I am suggesting here about these two lists is a big deal, much easier said than done. I’ve been grappling lately with a couple of my own items on these lists, and it’s not easy. But we can be aware of our issues forever – even mindfully aware! – while still never doing anything about them.

After you’ve stared at the garden for awhile … it’s time to pull weeds and plant flowers.

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Meditation on money, mindfulness and motorcycles

As a proponent of living mindfully and with a desire to bring mindfulness into my daily life in terms of: communication, work, family life, friendship, abundance, skillfulness and simplicity I have been thinking about mindfulness and money. I’ll write about the motorcycle in a bit.

I grew up with parents who wanted me to “understand the value of a dollar” and to “work for what I got”. These messages have been deeply ingrained. As a result, I have worked hard and believed what I have should be a result of the work I performed, so I had difficulty accepting gifts, especially gifts of money.

That being said, I do desire material things. I like to live in a place that is visually pleasing, preferably near a pond and surrounded by hemlock trees. I like to dress in clothing that is made well and is flattering.

I like to drive my Subaru because I live where winter is long and snowy and driving a Subaru helps me to feel safe. But yesterday, while driving my Subaru, I saw what seemed to be so many Lexuses (Lexi?) and I had a deep desire to have one because as well as being safe when I drive, I like to drive a fast and powerful automobile.

Perhaps for you, it is a house by the ocean, a red Porsche convertible, traveling to exotic places, or a motorcycle you desire.

I love gourmet food and fine dining at restaurants with ambiance. I desire beauty in the form of art, crafts, music, film and dance so I indulge in going to museums, crafts fairs, concerts, movies and dance performances.

I enjoy being generous with my sons, my friends and family members. I am also aware that when I am with people who have more money than I do, I enjoy being treated to meals. I find I am more generous to some people than others. I wish I had more money to be more generous, especially with my sons.

I find, when it comes to being mindful about money I have more questions than answers. I have many questions:

  • What does my upbringing have to do with the way I think about money?
  • What does my upbringing have to do with the way I spend money?
  • What does my upbringing have to do with the level of my generosity?
  • Why do I give to some people and causes more easily and liberally than others?
  • Why am I comfortable accepting gifts in certain situations and from certain people, and uncomfortable in other situations?
  • How do I assign value to what I purchase?
  • How does money fit in with living a life of simplicity?
  • Why is it so difficult to talk about money?
  • How does money fit with the way I feel about myself and others?
  • How do I feel about family members who withhold money?
  • What do I want to teach my children about money?
  • Why do I feel that when people have “a lot of money” their lives are “easier”?
  • Would I be happier if I had more money?

What I do not question, is the importance of being mindful when it comes to money. I do not question the importance I place on living simply even with my desire for material things. And I do not question the value I place on being generous no matter how much money I have.

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Aldous Huxley: “Uncontrolled, the hunger and thirst after God may become an obstacle…”

Aldous Huxley

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.

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