Desire is wrongly maligned in spiritual circles. Many a well-meaning seeker supposes it to be the enemy of peaceful well-being, assuming that to want is inevitably to be attached. Desire needn’t interfere with equanimity. It causes suffering only when it’s encumbered by attachment, by the belief that to achieve the wished-for outcome will solve some problem.
To dwell in the terrain where desire is granted its oh-so-human space — free of attachment (to outcome or to belief): what could be sweeter? Here is where the blessing of being both embodied and not defined by our humanness is able to find expression. Unconstrained by mental constructs, a person is able to sink, body and soul, into a sensory delight, even in (imagine!) pleasure: not as an escape from life’s difficulties; not because the experience seems to carry some meaning or purpose. But simply because of the moment’s unencumbered self. Because the experience feels fully alive, in the now.
To enable such a moment, even to make it a priority. To grant yourself the gift of visiting a place you love, spending time with someone dear to you, reading through old letters, engaging in an activity that brings delight. None of it as a means to an end, but purely for its own sake. Because you are alive. You will not always be. (What are you waiting for?)
To be able to anticipate such a pleasure (if it requires advance planning), without being attached to its actually occurring (knowing, as you do, that nothing is ever guaranteed to happen as visualized, hoped for, planned). It’s the best of all possible worlds.
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This is the delight of being embodied — equipped to experience — without the familiar downside of anguish in the background of desire. It’s the pleasure of wanting something while unburdened by hope or belief.
Discover what it’s like to really want a thing without being attached to whether you get it. To desire without having that interfere with the ease of letting go, if the thing doesn’t materialize. And if it does, to fully be there while the experience is under way, not needing to hold on to it, or to protect yourself against its inevitable end. Nor to be disappointed if the desired thing occurs but not the way you’ve imagined.
You cannot use the tool that built the prison to dismantle it.
Oh, but so much of what we want is more complicated than the prospect of momentary sensory or heartfelt delight. A thing typically is desired because of the hope that it will satisfy some need (to belong, be valued, find security, heal, wake up, manipulate someone, improve a situation). The association of desire with a wished-for outcome can be consciously recognized, but it can also stay underground. Sometimes there’s a deeply buried belief that if such-and-such goes well, an essential “need” will be met, an enduring problem will be solved. The more unconscious this belief, the more at its mercy a person remains.
One of the reasons equanimity eludes us all our lives is that we suppose life must be a certain way if we are to be deeply peaceful.
What if each moment were undertaken simply for its own self? Not as a means to an end. Meanwhile, if it’s otherwise, for goodness’ sake let yourself see what you’ve got fastened onto the moment that’s under way. This is rich terrain for exploration. Don’t leave it unexamined — at least, not if you want to be more peaceful than you’ve been so far.
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As we grow up, and then live our adult lives, many of us learn to mute our desires (whether or not the spiritual orientation is in the picture). We do this to protect ourselves from the pain of dashed hope. A child (and then a teenager) learns to keep her own longings to herself, once she’s come to see they don’t align with her parents’ wishes for her. Later, a painful breakup may lead to caution about getting involved again. At some point life has shown each of us that we don’t always get what we want, and that great pain can come from being disappointed, or from disappointing others. So we lie to ourselves regularly, or actually persuade ourselves that a thing really doesn’t matter, when deep down it matters a great deal. Muted longing tends to be wrongly associated with “maturity.” Averse to perceived risk, we become numb. In effect, the walking dead.
The price is dear when the wish to protect ourselves from disappointment has become primary — has risen above the “risk” of wanting. To live without wanting, without going after what could bring delight: is that really living? Why do we need a guarantee of forever, of perfection? Nothing is perfect; nothing endures. Nor will any given experience solve all of life’s problems. Life doesn’t work that way. (Have you noticed?)
What typically causes pain if something desired doesn’t materialize is that so much meaning has been attached to getting it, to its unfolding the way you hoped. When that dynamic is no longer operating, then it is possible to want with your whole heart: to sit in a concert hall and drink in the music of your favorite musician; to arrange a visit with your long-ago dearest friend; to reach out to your estranged sibling or parent. Because now not so much is riding on how any of it goes. You do it because it matters that you try. If it doesn’t go the way you might have preferred, you don’t swell with regret. Nor is your equanimity ruffled.
As a child develops, a thing he inevitably learns from his elders is that most things are undertaken not for their own sake, but because of what they will “get” you: a good life, admiration, safety, financial well-being. It would be a miracle for any child to reach maturity without having taken on the substantial baggage of each thing as a means to an end, all life experience having some meaning fastened onto it. No wonder adults tick the way we do, given our likely upbringing. No wonder we lose sight of what it is to savor momentary experience for its own sake. To give priority to delight.
All we need do is observe a little child. Or an animal. Neither of whom knows anything of attachment to meaning. They simply live, ever in the moment.
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Consider the value typically assigned to all things relating to food, to money, to appearance. When is a meal ever enjoyed for its delicious self? Not because it’s good for you, not because it will blunt your fleeting misery, or enable you to lose a few ounces. When is the last time money didn’t represent security or status (positive or negative), diminished or enhanced self-esteem, when it was simply — without complication — a practical means of exchange? When have you looked in the mirror and seen yourself simply as you are, not through the lens of beauty/youth/fitness — some judgment or denial, the wish for “improvement,” the lament over having changed? When has your body, your face, been simply itself, sans interpretation?
When is a love relationship ever animated by plain delight in one another’s company? Driven not by expectation or habit, by resignation or unrealistic ideas of fulfillment, but because the two of you simply love and enjoy one another. No power dynamic at play. No self-protective concealment or manipulation, no perenially unmet needs. Because no needs. (Is it any wonder most relationships are doomed to rampant dissatisfaction? They are asked to solve so many problems.) Yes, love carries risks. Death, for instance. Unforseeable developments. What is the price of “protection”?
It is rare, in adult experience, that anything is engaged in for its own uncomplicated sake — rare that no meaning is ascribed to it. Given the way we tend to be socialized, it’s a plain miracle if any trace of that childlike simplicity manages to survive adults’ attempts (however well intended) to “help” us grow up, be “successful” adults.
Just the same, it’s never too late to enter — even to dwell in — this childlike, creaturely delight, where “meaning” is . . . meaningless.
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The landscape of spiritual inquiry holds two realms bearing open-eyed curiosity and exploration, if you want to get anywhere likely to alleviate chronic suffering. Both have to do with the assumption of one thing being inevitably attached to something else — with failing to recognize that you even carry that underlying belief.
Here is one chronic assumption: That any life experience will inevitably set in motion some mind-based interpretation (often stirring an emotion). Yet these are two discrete events. Blessed freedom comes from seeing this — not in your head (useless) but from observing it via conscious awareness, in a real and bodied way.
The other erroneous assumption is this: Desire inevitably includes attachment to outcome (hence its bad reputation, in spiritual circles, with the attendant misplaced effort to expunge self of all desire). It appears impossible to want without its being fueled by the “need” to get the thing, without the inevitability of disappointment or the wish to cling to (or repeat) the experience.
It is not inevitable that desire include attachment, nor does a given experience have to start the familiar mental-emotional machinery. In both cases, these are distinct phenomena. Part of the joy (and relief) of inner exploration is the discovery that much of what we’ve supposed to be all-of-a-piece is in fact otherwise.
How our sumptuous humanity does come alive, at such revelations!
When you consider how habitually we do assign some interpretive value to everything we (and others) do, it’s not hard to see why there’s little space for uncomplicated delight. Who has time for that, with all the need- and meaning-driven activities that consume our attention?
Meanwhile, anyone willing to be altogether honest with themselves can see that the energy animating (driving!) our daily lives seldom bears the desired fruit. Then death comes knocking at the door. What has it all gotten us? What have we missed?
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Always the question comes: So, what do I do? How do I get rid of the attachment, the underlying belief? But no. The value of entering this terrain is not so you can “fix” yourself. Not so you can change anything at all. It’s to discover how attached you are: to see what belief underlies attachment to a given outcome. How the force of desire has to do with how much you imagine a thing will mean, accomplish, etc. (or how awful you’ll feel if it doesn’t materialize).
Least of all should you try to blunt the force of a desire (which is what many a dogged seeker does). When that happens, you’ve piled lying-to-self onto the heap of already messy attachment, meaning-giving, unconscious belief, and all the rest of what keeps a person going in endless repetitive loops. Anyhow, do observe that it’s the mind that means to “correct” the deep human impulses at play — the spiritual mind that supposes it knows what’s best. It’s almost funny, when you consider that the very same organ is what assembled all the mess in the first place.
You cannot use the tool that built the prison to dismantle it.
But you can turn on the light: simply by making all the inner space necessary to look authentically at how things are presently operating inside the prison. Truly seeing, without resistance or any sort of handling (or denial), is a potent environment in which actual change can occur, seemingly all on its own, and on its own schedule (not the mind’s). It’s the only way real and enduring change ever happens.
While you are ensnared in the persistence of desire-with-attachment, observing that dynamic at play can shine an illuminating light on the habit. Let yourself be curious, to explore without judgment, the difference between unencumbered desire and perceived need. To gently tease apart things that are not all-of-a-piece.
In and around open-eyed episodes of inner seeing (without recoiling from some uncomfortable truth), you may stumble into spontaneous moments of outward noticing: the colors of flowers along a walk, the expression on a loved one’s face, music heard playing in the distance. You might observe yourself relishing the relief of sinking exhausted into bed at the end of a long day. Welcome such a moment. You didn’t bring it into being; it just arrived, the way each moment of life does. Don’t hurry it to a conclusion. Allow yourself to linger in the pleasure. Perhaps you’ll surprise yourself by hatching a plan to arrange an encounter (on Zoom or even in person, who knows?) with a beloved friend you haven’t seen in ages.
Go for it! Grant yourself permission to set aside some of the habitual meaning-saturated nonsense for half a day. It won’t kill you. It might even feel deliciously alive.
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You may discover, along the way, that some of your familiar desires (or perceived needs) seem to have dwindled or altogether disappeared. It’s turned out those things were only ever ached for (or resigned to) because of their perceived significance. Once you stop needing to manage the future, to accomplish a certain thing, a lot falls away. Things you’ve always done because someone would be confused or disappointed if you didn’t, or because it’s always been “your way.” When each piece of life ceases to carry the terrible burden of meaning, a lot of ease and open space enters the picture. Ordinary delight has more room to flower in, sometimes spontaneously. The tendency to cling to anything, to want it to last or recur, is able to soften to the stillness of plainly savoring. Even as you know nothing ever lasts.
Such a revelation. Such a radical relief.