This quote pops up on my feed the day after the question of desire arises in a conversation with Jeppe Graugaard. Desire is one of the grand themes, and as such, it is difficult to avoid being overwhelmed by the subject or tangled in the many cliché associations that have clotted around it. What brought focus onto desire this time was two-fold: That money is abstracted desire and that when we seek to find coherent action we need to have ways of recognizing desire with its many disguises and discover how we might be able to let our desires arise in us; see them take shape; and then watch them slip away or dissolve; without being trapped in the compulsion to follow their dictates.
A simple question: Why not continue to be bound by desire? “If it feels good…?”
A simple answer, one that drives to the heart of the Enormity brought about by our Edifice of Thought: Desire blinds us to what-is. It turns our attempts at coherence up-side down. It provides the mechanism by which we continue to believe our failed, bankrupt habits of thought-and-being against all the insurmountable evidence that they have failed us.
Krishnamurti’s phrase hits the mark. Desire hypnotizes us.
Before we can look at desire and money, a question at the heart of the failure of homo economicus with roots going back to the Neolithic; we need to be clear of what is meant by desire. Every public, every commercial utterance, takes as its fundamental assumption, one so sacred to this profane age that it never needs to be examined, that the point and purpose of life is satisfaction. That we lack it, ask Mick, and that the world as it is organized has within its power the potential of giving it to us if we are ruthless enough to take it. This is fundamental to the notion of a pursuit of happiness. It’s behind the cries for The American Dream. Here in the crumbling wreckage of the passing American Century these American expressions, along with the entire press of the American Project from its inception, are still the strongest expressions of this particular take on desire.
This form took shape in a time of revolution. It provided the energy behind the American Revolution, providing the appearance of a goal beyond simply the destruction of the ancien régime. A goal the French Revolution lacked. Tied as it was so tightly to the eradication of a past tyranny that it quickly fell into its own spasms of tyranny and self-destruction. What has taken almost three hundred years to become apparent was that the differences between them, as with all the differences between the various factions that have struggled against each other in modern history, were always ones of degree and flavor and not actual distinctions of any profundity. When we look at the question of desire directly we can see how this has played out.
There is a particular form of unease we lapse into when the question of desire arises. A smarmy quality envelopes our reactions. We want to be both knowing and dispassionate while maintaining an air of false modesty hiding a deep complicity, “Hey! We’re all in this together.” We’re never far from calls to reflect on our “Human Condition.” A guilt-loves-company air of inevitability seeps into and colors our interactions. Desire defends itself with a desire to keep our relationship with desire under wraps. Discomfort with this learned unease, a close relative to learned helplessness, that allows the fog to close over us again so we can get on with seeking our ends in peace functions as one of the padded guardrails that keep us stuck within our existing Edifice of Thought.
Our unexamined loyalty to desire is a basic defense of the status quo, taken in its broadest sense. And, it is through an examination of the mechanisms of defense that we can find a way out of the morass. In one way this path is easily described, Find each defense mechanism as it arises and look at it until it dissolves and then proceed to the next, and the next. This is a gross, oversimplification of what Jeff Shampnois has called a navigation of our Negative Geography, but it does show us a salient point: defense guards us from change, from growth, from maturity and integration. And, looking at the way defense actually operates is a prime heuristic for navigating the Via Negativa.
When we hear the word desire we are likely to claim a binary distinction: Desire is prurient, the opposite of Purity, or sanctity, or some form of moral superiority to be gained by denying desire. This is just another padded guardrail…. There’s a clue to this in Krishnamurti’s statement. Every push towards an end is entangled in desire. Self-denial, the denial of desire in others, every claim of superior knowledge or authority is a form of desire. If anything these differ from the more wanton forms simply by the hypocrisy their devotees hide behind. As with every form of shadow repression and projection, all they claim to be wrong with their chosen adversaries are faults they are unwilling to examine in their own hearts.
To be clear, in this time when the prejudice tends to only be visible in one direction it must be said that the current habits of proclaiming identity through proclivity and giving this as cause for celebration is as much a blinder to self-examination as any traditional form of hypocrisy. Another simple heuristic to keep in mind is that if one’s identity can only be maintained by wrapping oneself in self-congratulation and the vilification of one’s oppressors then we are unwilling to see that the observer is the observed and that whatever we find wrong out-there must first be examined as it appears in our own hearts.
This failure to distinguish reciprocity and the weight of our own responsibility cripples all our discourse and ensures that one tyranny will inexorably be followed by its opposite.
So long as we focus on the desires of others and spend our energies criticizing and condemning them for their failures we ensure the futility of all our actions.
Note whether and how your own defenses are set in motion when such questions arise and you will find a way in. Rest assured. No attempt at transformation that does not begin and act within our own hearts is ever anything more than a prevarication. The refusal to accept this simple truth drives the corruption of our age. This refusal is complicit in maintaining the defenses that hold us stuck and drive us past each moment of overshoot into the inevitability that our corruption and deceit: our incapacity to even consider that what may contradict our unexamined desires may be more real than our hypnotic state.
If we are trapped, and the levels of cognitive dissonance required to deny this are rising exponentially these days, by our unexamined relationship with desire then it is essential that we find ways to change this condition.
No Edifice of Thought, certainly no malignant one like the one we suffer under, can maintain itself unless it is well defended. We can see how this operates as soon as we dip into the question of desire. Again, it’s all there in Krishnamurti’s statement: Even as we “seek” as meditators to find a way past our defenses our habits of being and acting betray us into keeping an end in sight. So long as we do we are still captured by desire. So long as we are captured by desire we are hypnotized and blind to its workings.
We keep coming upon a metaphor for enlightenment as a peeling of an onion that we discover a layer and our attention dissolves it as a barrier and then we find another layer and so on and on….
Of course, as soon as we bring in a value like “enlightenment” we have simply replaced one set of desires with another! Krishnamurti was most likely directing his statement at just those who had drilled down this far and were stuck once again. It was his own personal Hell to find himself more and more surrounded by those seeking to be free, ensuring that they were never going to be unstuck. This has been the failure of the Axial Age for a few thousand years. It’s all there in that chronicle of Faith, The Life of Brian. RIP, Terry Jones…. Every seer has had their vision calcified into a Dogma even when their vision was of a release from Dogma. Especially if their vision was of a release from Dogma….
The particular deficiencies of our moment – and this is a moment defined by the enormity of our deficiencies! – are also the sources of our potential strength. As I’ve discovered early on in the work that went into Horizons of Significance, we are in a moment when the evidence of the futility and sheer brokenness of all our previous attempts at finding a way out provides us with a kind of simple map. A map that refuses to be taken for the territory because it is no more than a heuristic: There lies terra incognita and behind us, scorched earth. The futility of once again falling for the same gambits that have failed so miserably and repeatedly in the past is no longer hidden behind anything but a cultivated ignorance. The kinds of traps that caught almost everyone no matter how insightful and powerful their intellect or vision might have been over the last few hundred years are now clearly visible to those willing to see. There are two very clear avenues: We can either willfully fall back into these same traps and succumb to the self-destructive and irresponsible failings that have littered the cultural landscape or we can turn another way.
When a situation is as dangerous as the one we face the simplest of advantages looms large. To know that all of that over there is scorched earth is a tremendous boon at a time like this. A handhold when everything else presents to us as a padded guardrail….
And, this in itself can be just all that is required. When every inkling is of the need for a leap of Faith this bit of ease can be just enough for us to let go.
Desire hypnotizes us. It holds us trapped in thrall to an Edifice of Thought that is at once invisible and whose alternatives are completely unimaginable to us. Desire defends this edifice and its defenses keep us circling back into its maw.
But you see, it is Desire itself that guards our jail. And, recognizing this we loosen its hold on us.
There are a series of what I’ve called hygienes we can deploy. Practices that exercise our abilities to attend to what-is and develop our capacities to engage with coherence. These work to orient us and we can discover where and how we are located, grounded. We make connections of all sorts at all levels of fractal interconnectedness. These compound their effects and our connectedness grows. With it – as cause and effect and something beyond such a simplistic view of agency – we gain strength. Strength as opposed to Power. Strength as an intrinsic aspect of being that recognizes that agency and effectiveness are inextricable from humility and honesty, a radical honesty always open to both what insight and perception bring to awareness and to the ineffable Mystery of all that is forever beyond our capture.
What begins to appear throws every call to desire back into the poverty of despair it crawled out of. We begin to distinguish between what we have called necessities and what we have shruggingly accepted to be frivolities into relief. Beyond this we begin to see that even among the so-called necessities there are levels and degrees and that there are times when no end justifies corrupt means.
Once again we come up against our refusal to look at death. Desire, as Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moon Struck put it so cogently, “I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.” No chasing after desire will change that!
Here is where the power of Grief enters. As Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté have rediscovered, Grief is the way we come to terms with futility. When we are open and vulnerable to the pain of true grieving we are cleansed of our denials of futility. With this comes a new beginning. With this comes the capacity and the strength to change.
Another benefit of living in a “Target Rich” age is that opportunities for grief abound….
The challenge is to not turn grief into a fetish the way we are tempted to by a daily round of atrocity-posts and tweets, seducing us into a never-ending round of pearl-clutching or cuck-shaming or whatever flavor of prejudice appears consequence-free from your perch in society. Another simple heuristic comes to mind: Whatever seems to bring you relief at the expense of another will only cause you to fall deeper into delusion and despair.
Desire blocks our access to Grief. Something as simple as insisting that we miss the object of our loss traps us in futility and blocks the healing power of Grief. It does so because it is incoherent. We are desiring that our wish to continue to get what we thought we were getting from our interaction with another – while turning that other into nothing more than an object of our desire under cover of morose sensitivity – trumps what-is. We refuse to allow the one who has passed, died, gone elsewhere, to exist in their actual state and by doing this we not only trap ourselves in futility but we close ourselves off from any possible continuation of a relationship with that lost soul. As with any corruption, any insistence that a desire is more valuable than what-is, we fall into it at our own peril. No matter how much desire clothes itself in a mantle of selfishness this selfishness is no replacement for a non-compulsive sense of self-preservation and the access to a living imagination and intelligence these bring. Corruption is stupid. And this is how. Stupidity is not a lack of intelligence it is a defense against intelligence. Another of the defenses of our Edifice of Thought and the Enormity it has wrought.
Desire exists. It is part of what-is. As is death. The death we attempt to hide from by succumbing to obsessive desires. Attention-is-Compassion-is-Love-is-Faith acts within us and through us to disarm desire. We either act on an impulse or not. We may attempt to hide within compulsion or not. We may even act to suppress our own or the desires of others, or not. If what happens, what-is, occurs in the light of our attention; open to an awareness of what-is in as broad and integrated a manner as we can bring to a situation, before, during, and anytime after the fact; then we have access to Coherence and we have broken the totality of the stranglehold of our Edifice of Thought.
This is the opportunity our moment presents us. A humble yet still daunting task: So long as we remain hypnotized by desire we are stuck. We can look for ways to come out of its spell; but only if we first allow ourselves to recognize all that is at stake; all that we our vulnerable to, all that we use desire as a means to deny them from our attention. Opening our attention, attending to our Practices with an eye for the traps set for us, we can go somewhere else. Not in the ways our desires hide this yearning to be of a place, yearning for an integration with what-is in a relationship of coherence that we often mistakenly identify with a desire to own a place, to move to a better place, to be someplace else. We discover that we are here. We are grounded in this discovery and subsequent discoveries and the spell begins to be broken.
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