Desire and Desirelessness
Desire: bad. That's what was drummed in me as a young suburban, Catholic boy. However, some desires were considered acceptable by mainstream society - the desire to be a good citizen, to help others, to become president. But those desires in the arena of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – these value laden desires were (and are) the source of enormous inner and outer conflict and turmoil. It appears that society is set up to acknowledge all desires that support its continuation and survival as 'good' and all others, particularly ones that have anything to do with any kind of sensual pleasure as 'bad'. A lot has been written about the taboo against pleasure in post-modernist writings.
Of course, as a young programmed Catholic believer, it was told to me that Jesus said that the thought or desire for a particular act was just as much a sin as engaging in the act itself. Thus, I was totally damned! “Man, what a rip-off! – I've created a sin around something (usually a sexual fantasy), even though I only thought about it and never did it?” Talk about the worst of both worlds!
Certainly a lot has been written about the kind of warped mentality that springs forth from the Judeo-Christian psychic world space of guilt, shame and fear, including numerous comedies. And to top it off, as many of us grew into adulthood and embraced Eastern esoteric religions, we absorbed those teachings regarding desire and filtered them through our rose colored, coke-bottle thick glasses, and converted an often completely different point of view into a Judeo-Christian personal mini-cult within our own psyches. When it dawned on me, after many, many years of earnest practice and commitment to Hindu and Sufi teachers and practices, that I was simply relateingfrom a Judeo-Christian guilt-ridden psychic posture, I felt devastated and humiliated. Instead of absorbing the transmission of a teacher/teaching, I was morphing it, mutating it into something that was utterly foreign and warped – absorbing it into my own brand of psychic confusion, turning it on its head.
When I realized that my relation to teachers was simply one relating to the angry punitive Judeo-Christian God (a role which some teachers seemed to enthusiastically embrace), I gave up, realizing that I had to re-orient my entire world view, and have a purging of my past, so that I could truly absorb the real teachings in front of me.
I must also say that guilt, shame and fear are not a monopoly of the Judeo-Christian psychic space – my experience with Hindu and Buddhist scenes made it clear that there was a heaping dose of those psychic attributes normally associated with Judaism and Christianity in the far eastern based religions.
But I digress - the purpose of this essay is not to lambaste the negative results of the religions of the world, but to speak about why desire is normally thought of as a 'negative' trait, or an obstruction to freedom.
The 'Problem' with Desire
So why all the taboo regarding desire in just about every religion and spiritual tradition? Putting aside the 'story' around desire that emerges from classic Judeo-Christian guilt, what would be the esoteric reasons for considering desire something that should be eradicated?
It's been said that this is a desire realm, that the universe is in existence because of desire, and that if we managed to blow planet Earth out of existence, a new one would have to be created (or, alternatively, we'd be reborn in a similar sphere) simply because of our Earth-bound desires. And it has been said that if all beings eradicated desires of all kinds, samsara, the realm of phenomenal existence would be emptied. Though the cosmology or modern astrophysics would probably disagree (i.e. who created the desire for existence in the first place?), there's enough evidence to support that we bring things into existence by the sheer force of desire, most often by acting on those desires – though there have been many occasions of 'synchronicity', where one would be thinking about or hoping about some person, place or thing, and magically circumstances would occur in which whatever was being focused upon comes into one's life. It has happened to me many times.
[For example, there was one occasion in 1981 where I wanted to go see my guru, but he was going to be in a distant city, and I was out of work and out of money at the time. Several days later, I got a job painting a house in which I had previously lived. One day, as I was entering the house, I looked at a pile of mail that the current resident left in the foyer. Sitting on top was an envelope addressed to me from the New York State division of internal revenue, containing a more than overdue refund check. There was the money for the trip!]
The Ego and Desire
The ego can be seen in light of desire, in fact it can be seen as nothing but the mechanism of desire: it's function is to provide inner content (that will ultimately drive behavior) so that an individual can survive and flourish. This is natural part of personal development and there is nothing inherently wrong or incorrect about ego – there is nothing endemically aberrant about wanting to survive! However, certain ego drives generate all forms of behavior (rationalized in any way, shape or form) that represents the most brutal aspects of man's inhumanity.
Underlying the drive mechanism of ego is hope and fear. With every object of desire there is both the hope that it will be obtained and the fear that it won't. Hope and fear are shadows of each other and one does not arise without the other. Classic Buddhist thangkas have dharma protectors standing on the twins of hope and fear, crushing them, and setting individuals free from their bonds. The food of the ego is hope and fear – it thrives on them, can't exist without them, and when hope and fear are extinguished in a realized individual, the ego mechanism is transformed and purified (though still extant).
Categorizations of Desire
Desire comes in various forms, and the types of desires are innumerable, from the most beatific to the most hideous, depending upon the consciousness of the individual. But here is a simple categorization of the types of desire:
Ultimately, there's no difference inherently between any of the above categories, save the target of the desire. The mechanism of desire is the same: an apparent self (or a group of selves) wants to obtain some perceived goal or object (illusory or 'real') or remove the perceived distance from itself and its target.
Spiritual Orientations to Desire (and Form)
For those not familiar with a particular taxonomy given by those from the Dzogchen Buddhist lineages, these good fellows have broken down orientations to desire, and form in general into three separate divisions, in order of profundity:
Desires and attachments are negative quality and thus anything that may bring up or enhance such must be physically avoided. Thus the classic approach of renunciation – the issue of sexual desire is approached by avoiding sex, becoming a chaste monk or nun. Generally a world negative view, since just about everything in the world tugs at our senses in a seductive way.
The Tantric approach is to transmute a 'poison' into a benefit. In the most famous strategy of tantra, in sexual tantra, passions are transformed into a transcendent form, and spiritual growth is established by utilizing what is commonly avoided in the sutric approach, above. It is analogous to the western alchemical approach of turning lead into gold.
The Dzogchen approach (but not exclusively Dzogchen) is to allow whatever arises, whether it is considered 'good' or 'bad' to simply arise in awareness, to let the experience be there without necessarily acting upon it and to watch it disappear, like the rising and falling of waves in the ocean. This mature approach gives the benefit of breaking the mode of labeling and relative conditioning, as well as giving enough space (and time) to all phenomena so that their underlying nature can be directly known. This quality of non-aversion (in addition to non-acceptance) undermines the solidity of anything that arises, and disempowers it allowing one to see the empty and open nature of all arisings.
Desirelessness is considered a profound and ultimate condition that is sought by those on the spiritual path, but how does a desire laden individual become desireless? And is that really the ultimate?
As stated above, any attempt to become desireless is a futile strategy, as it is born of desire itself – the desire to become desireless. As stated in both modern psychology and esoteric spirituality, that which one tries to avoid simply gives it greater life and solidity. Thus trying to become desireless, if attempted enough, will turn the whole world into a fire burning passion pit. And there are numerous examples, particularly in the Catholic Church, where the vow of celibacy had been turned on its head, creating very serious and damaging pedophiles.
The desire for what is other than arising must eventually be transcended - it is the great obstacle to pure awareness, and a source of subtle tendencies and resistances that form a backdrop of stress and suffering felt internally.
The issue or problem of desirelessness boils down to a severe misunderstanding of what one is essentially: Desirelessness is not a condition or state to be reached. Desirelessness is already the case as a quality of one's inherent nature. You are at the core desireless.
Desirelessness is our natural condition, as it is essentially identical to intrinsic awareness. Witness Consciousness or Rigpa, not being a thing or phenomena, is simply a non-dual capacity of awareness. It is self-aware, not supported by any causes or conditions, and it is dispassionately aware of objects, recognizing their nature to be inherently identical to itself: empty, open, radiant. Witness Consciousness or Rigpa is not something that has to be searched for, obtained or attained, it is inherently the core of ordinary awareness, when an individual possessing awareness has been freed from karmic obstructions that prevent the recognition of its inherency.
Thus one does not have to achieve desirelessness, simply recognize, identify with and stand as basic awareness. This may grow in capacity over time over all situations through effective practice. Or this may occur in a more haphazard fashion, as one bottoms out from the endless addiction to seductive objects in the phenomenal realm. This wonderful event, which may be initially disguised as profound despair, is a style of the 'dark night of the soul' where hope is burned through all the way, giving rise to a transcendent hopelessness that is equivalent to desirelessness. Then true equanimity has occurred.
Desirelessness and Passion
Desirelessness does not make for some deadpan, extinguished, passionless existence, but in fact the space in which desirelessness occurs allows for transpersonal passions to arise, which are impersonal and universal and because of their lack of limits are far more profound than ordinary human passion based upon an assumed separate self. These may be compassion, joy, love, non-attachment, bliss - these are synomymous with freedom itself.
Thus if one has truly grown (and not generated a bypass or ended up down some conceptual dead-end of trying to mimic desirelessness) one does not become passionless - it is that ordinary passions are subsumed over time by transpersonal passions and desires. Even if the persona of a realized teacher appears to have an impersonal, dispassionate quality, this is in contrast to the bliss and radiance that the individual imparts and makes him or her very attractive to people seeking the bliss of the truth.
Any quality of 'dry' passionlessness found in an individual is a function of conscious or unconscious repression of known (or unknown) passionate qualities or the inability to be in touch with ordinary and extraordinary passion. The paradoxical thing is that the more you stand in the still, open quality of basic awareness, which may seem 'dead' (from the point of view of ordinary concepts), the more alive you become. This is due to the fact that binds and contractions which prevent more profound qualities from being present are released.