So, yogis, what do you think of desire?
A few years ago I wrote the following words after I commented on a post on Brahmacharya in a Facebook group. In my humble opinion this is a Yoga concept that is often interpreted badly as sexual abstinence, but that’s actually a whole different rant than what I felt moved to say. Because as the discussion rocked down to the very core, as online ego-clashes are wont to do, someone voiced the opinion that Brahmacharya is about the removal of desire. I loved the comment of a friend who simply replied, “Good luck with that!”
Desire is a massive issue in most of our lives, and I’m not just talking about sex. The gazillion dollar diet industry shows the power of our desire for food in our lives (and desire for culture’s ideas of the ideal body shape). And perhaps that is the trickiest of all to navigate, because we can live without most other things but we need food to survive. We also have desires for pleasure and comfort that manifest in so many other forms such as our use and abuse of substances (especially alcohol, recreational drugs and some pharmaceutical drugs), TV, the Internet (guilty), relationships and many other lifestyle choices.
In many Buddhist circles you might hear a quite lazy, simplified viewpoint that the Buddha said you need to get rid of your desire. I have heard Alan Watts say, quite wisely, that the Buddha did so just to get people to go away and try it and realise how dumb that is on an experiential level. Unfortunately there was some guy sitting behind him writing things down and turning these life experiments into rules.
Desire is not a bad thing. Desire is the primary motivating force in the Universe. Even at the simplest level of operation, nothing happens in our physical universe without desire—objects move together because of the attraction coming from gravity, and electricity happens because the electron is attracted to the proton. In our society, nothing is created without passion. Babies are made and humanity continues because of our basic sexual drives and the wishes of men and women. Temples are made, inventions created and personal transformations achieved all because someone has the desire to do it at some level.
It’s not desire itself that causes us problem, but our attachment to the outcome of our effort in meeting those desires. Eating chocolate cake isn’t a problem. Being unable to eat chocolate cake when you want to is the problem. Taken to extremes, that need for chocolate or heroin or cigarettes all the time can become a danger to our very existence which we label addiction. So what do we do about that? Do we work to get rid of attachment to results too?
Well that’s not a bad idea if you can do it, but again it’s a life-experiment and one that isn’t guaranteed to work. Reining in attachment to results is fine if you can do it but as with most things there are good ways to go about that and bad ways too. Or perhaps it is better to say that some ways suit some people, and others are not so useful. We could go the renunciation route and get rid of our attachments by avoiding the things we crave, detaching from them until the craving subsides and then re-engaging with them from a position of “control”. This is the usual Yoga approach of restriction/control with awareness, also found in the Sutrayana approaches of Buddhism, and is designed to protect you on the spiritual path.
Yet, it has always felt false and unnatural to me to be so restrictive, especially in terms of sexual energy and connections. I find it hard to justify the idea that we control anything in life when the wild and chaotic nature life itself has shown me it doesn’t quite work that way. I’ve also noted that some practitioners engage in such controls in a way that seem to border on repression or suppression, and that doesn’t feel psychologically healthy for me as an individual. I accept that this is probably just my own personal unsuitability, as I’ve seen some people whose individual nature makes them natural renunciants. But many more of us feel that our nature lends us to a different way, and we really should do what is right for us at an individual level, not just follow the crowd.
This probably why I have always been interested in Tantra. Beyond the western world’s obsession with the word as a pseudonym for free love and open sexuality, and reductio ab absurdum of a very powerful approach to personal transformation, Tantra (found in Hindu and Buddhist approaches) offers a different perspective. Tantra chooses to find spiritual progress by engaging completely with every aspect of life, including your desires and attachments and addictions; by going into them deeply until you “pop out the other side.” This includes all of our psychology including our neuroses or shadow aspects—the parts we usually bury, the parts that modern society abhors, the parts we feel ashamed of airing in public—of which sex, sexuality and sensuality are often the biggest.
Tantra is not mindless hedonism. It is engagement with awareness. The bringing of presence, of intentional consciousness, to our activities is key. For those who know me and my work in yoga and meditation, I’m sure it’s no surprise to find that I also firmly believe that such awareness must also be embodied, not just mental play. You have to directly connect with the feelings and sensations of your life, to listen in to your body, in order to hear the lessons that experience is trying to gift you.
So sex and relationship, the desire for these and the attachment to the desire for these, are not wrong. They are simply the platform for connection to your direct experience, your curriculum for learning in this lifetime. Every such experience gives the treasures you deserve to enjoy along the way. The main trick is learning to accept each individual aspect of ourselves, learn to love it and indulge in it, without becoming tricked into believing that this experience, this desire, this attachment, is actually me.
We learn to let experiences arise and end, enjoy them while they last but not grasp on to them once they dissolve or make them part of our identity. This includes negative experiences too, in which case we learn not to resist what is actually happening, no matter how disturbing, and let the experience run through us. (Please note that this part is tricky and would warrant an article or three of its own, and I am not advocating doing nothing about bad experiences as that isn’t helpful, it is simply about accepting things as they are rather than pretending they are otherwise). The skilful means that arises from our natural wisdom (in the body) helps us negotiate these experiences, good or bad, without becoming lost and disconnected from our deepest, truest nature.
This isn’t easy but it begins with finding the doorway of acceptance. We react badly to the idea of accepting the facets of our being that we are ashamed of, or that society has taught us to consider unworthy. That itself is the very trap that keeps us stuck in the swamp of shame. The parts of us that we do not want only want the same as every other aspect of our being—to be loved. To make peace with our desire, our attachments, our addictions and our “flaws,” we must learn to love them first. And this, in my experience, can best be done by getting to know them fully, by engaging deeply with them (i.e. through deep embodied awareness) and by following them right down to the very core of our being.
If we do not, then we suffer. If we reject these aspects and push them away, we become destructive—to ourselves, to those who love us, to all around us and our greater environment. We suffer until we break down, become exhausted, and then finally let go and accept. It is, of course, a different path but it is a treacherous way to go, with higher stakes and lower returns. Of course it is worth noting that this acceptance does not mean that your shadow aspects’ desires need to be fully acted out. We may have fantasies so dark that it would be harmful to ourselves or others to physically see them through. That can do more harm than good, so we need a bit of wisdom when considering how to proceed.
So how do we know which way to go? What can tell us, in the midst of intense suffering, whether we are following a deluded path right back into the swamp or if we are really making our way out? Where are the signposts for this roadtrip?
They are right there lurking in your body. Come back to your body and feel your sensations, notice if they seem open or closed. Acceptance is open, but resistance and rejection are closed. You can fool your mind. You can delude yourself that you are open and that your path is true. But if your body is closed then that is obviously not the case.
Breathe deep. Feel your heart and hara open out to life. Accept what comes and look again. Get up and dance and sing, shout and rage, shake your body and jump until it opens and opens and opens some more. And then listen. Feel. Engage. Love.
And remember that in such love, as Mary Oliver tells us, you do not have to be good.