We do not become genuinely free from a person, a habit, or an entire level of experience until our interest there has been more or less exhausted. Ultimately, interest is the tentacle of attachment that binds us to anyone, anything, any set of internal or external conditions. Interest is the magnet hidden within the core of our personality—that attractive, organizing force that ‘pulls together’ the necessary playing pieces required to get the game moving. The desire or interest that invisibly shapes and animates our personal life must be given an opportunity to play itself out. We tend to see everything through—or by means of—our dominant, value-and-meaning-bestowing interest. It cannot help but blind us—at least in part—to other possible interests, other possible ways of seeing and being in the world.
For many, a time comes when this guiding and sustaining interest begins to falter and limp. Because this core-level, animating desire has hitherto been holding our life together in its mysterious magnetic grip, this experience can feel like the waning and death of our personality. At the same time, however, there will often be a strangely welcome sense of release from those bonds of attachment that have chained us to our personal life trajectory—which may suddenly appear to be lamentably limited and almost dreamlike in its insubstantiality. This sense of limitedness and ghostlike insubstantiality is produced by the mysterious withdrawal of life-bestowing interest, or desire, which has played itself out upon the stage of our personal life. Because the magnetic field, once so strong and reliable, has been noticeably weakened, the various components of our inner and outer lives have little or no binding force to hold them firmly in place. Thus, there is an unsettling sense of dissolution, of disintegration, of falling apart. Because it is beyond our power to miraculously restore the interest level to its former intensity—and equally beyond our power to arbitrarily redirect it to some other truly deserving and inspiring object or aim—we are likely to feel diminished and devoid of vitality. It is difficult to suppress the suspicion that, in following our former, captivating interest, we were duped by life. Now that we are no longer captivated and sustained by our exhausted interest, we look back upon our former enthrallment as no more than an intoxicating spell or deceptive dream. It seems we were chasing after a mirage all those years and some deep thirst within us was never truly quenched by the mirage. All too often, when persons reach this disillusioned state they simply ‘make do’ with the reduced circumstances. They stoically resign themselves to their reduced state. They’ve been ‘licked’ and they icily or resentfully accept it. These unfortunate souls typically go to their graves as withered, vanquished vestiges of their former selves.
For some, however, the period of disillusionment, diminishment, and disintegration is eventually succeeded by a gradual rekindling of interest, but the interest now points in a very different direction. With the first stirrings of this new desire, the person is grateful but perhaps a bit confused. He is grateful for the resurgence of the waters of life, but confused about the peculiar direction in which these new springs of interest and longing flow. The old ways no longer make a strong or authentic appeal—but since they are all he has known, there is ambivalence and hesitation. By and by, however, a new magnetism that is part of this rebirth of desire begins to attract precisely those thoughts, images, books, and persons who can be of assistance in giving shape to the mysterious new stirrings.
Another way of approaching a person’s guiding and animating interest is to explore what that person, down deep, wants more than anything else. I have already observed that it is beyond our power to manufacture or, conversely, to arbitrarily extinguish our personality-defining interests or desires. Does it follow, implicitly, that we have only the most limited discretion over what we desire the most (from ourselves, from our relationships, from life, and from our experience)? What if—because of the great depth from which these guiding and energizing predispositions arise—our conscious egos are cast more in the role of servants than masters where these foundational tendencies are concerned? And while perhaps it would be pressing the point too far to claim that in all cases our wills are entirely overshadowed by these primal interests, it seems that the greater share of propulsion comes from them rather than from the (relatively superficial) conscious will of the ordinary man or woman. Are we not justified in asserting that these deep source-interests are the true engines and drive shafts that keep individuals and human societies plugging along? Moreover, because our foundational human drives and interests are, collectively speaking, in general accord, the merry-go-round continues to spin at a fairly regular tempo. It speeds up and slows down from time to time—and every once in awhile it threatens to grind to a halt, but its resiliency and sturdy functioning is owing in large part to the reliable presence of these universally evident, deep-seated interests, shared by humans everywhere and at all times.
To the extent that these compelling subsurface motors (which, from ‘the surface,’ we are prone to interpret simply as conscious desires) are housed beyond the reach of our conscious understanding and control, we may describe much—perhaps most—of human activity as automatic, unconscious, compulsive, and therefore unfree. But because we are, to a considerable extent, animated by these determining energies—and because we consciously feel vitalizing pleasure in the discharge of these compelling forces within us—we tend to imagine that we act freely, solely by our own volition, when in fact we are riding on the top of waves we did not create and which we cannot stop or redirect. But the sensations of pleasure (of surfing?) and of animation (from unconsciously identifying with the impersonal, supra-human wave that is carrying us) conspire to produce the illusion of freedom. In fact, we are more determined than ever when we are being carried away like flotsam by some passion or animal spirit from ‘on high’—or from the infernal depths.
In my own experience I have come to recognize something like a provisional hierarchy whereby my desires (and their objects) may be classified in terms of how much freedom they afford me. Pleasure and pain are to be found at all levels of this ‘ladder’ that stretches from the crude sensory level to the loftiest spiritual heights, with everything in between: the joys and sufferings of the feelings, the delights and terrors of imaginative experience, the soaring and the drudgery of thought. From the material or bodily level, where the sense of strict causality and determinism is most strongly registered, as I climb the ladder through ordinary feelings, conceptual thinking, and metaphorical imagining, towards autonomous and formless spirit, there is a distinct sense of ascent from relative bondage towards relative freedom. Perhaps because I value freedom as highly as—if not more highly than—pleasure, security, fame, and whatever else there is to allure me, I find that I am almost always searching out new ways to enhance my freedom with respect to my ‘lower attachments.’
It has taken a long time—and many bitter mistakes in the rough and tumble world of human experience—to learn a very simple lesson: ‘lower attachments’ is not quite synonymous with external objects, persons, and circumstances. It is not, therefore, the cigarettes I’m addicted to, or the dead-end relationship I keep going back to because the sex happens to be so hot. It’s not the job that I hate but can’t quit because I have come to depend on the large salary. On an even subtler level, these ‘lower attachments’ are not even internal objects, like recurrent guilt feelings or obsessive memories that keep tormenting me. The simple but crucial lesson I finally learned is that an attachment may be called ‘lower’ whenever it seduces me into believing that I am inextricably bound by it. Of course the objects of binding attachment can, and do, occur on all rungs of this hierarchical ladder that stretches from the body through the heart, the mind, and the imagination, all the way to the gateway into the Self, or spirit.
The Self, we are assured, is boundless—as God is said to be. The word bound or boundary signifies limit (like the bounds of the schoolyard) and, at the same time, to be bound can mean to be determined or to be enchained, as with leg irons. Generally speaking, then, a lower attachment is any thought or desire that imposes artificial limits or bounds upon the Self, which in itself is boundless. The binding thought or desire interposes a cloud or veil between the mind and the Self. Thus, Ramana Maharshi says that ‘desirelessness is wisdom.’ And it makes sense: after one has plunged headlong into the source of everything, how could one desire more—or anything else?
Here we approach the profound mystery of renunciation of desire. It seems that we cannot legitimately be expected to renounce our ordinary desires—which, we are told, obstruct or divert us away from the bliss of the ever-present Self—unless and until we have actually had a genuine taste of that supreme happiness and serenity of the unbounded Self. And yet, it seems highly unlikely that we will ever get a taste of this bliss so long as we are being led around and compelled by our ordinary desires—our lower attachments—our Self-bindings. It is for this reason that I am inclined to believe that unless and until our ‘determining’ and ‘binding’ desires are exhausted, we stand but a slim chance of experiencing the supreme happiness of the Self which may be said to reside at the center of our being. We are too busy looking the other way—namely, towards the periphery, where our lesser, ordinary desires project themselves into more or less alluring (or merely stabilizing) objects, persons, and circumstances.
When we—for one reason or another—come to believe that our happiness depends upon obtaining this person, that car, this salary or that office and title, we are almost sure to suffer eventual disappointment in one way or another. Either we won’t get what we want after much toil and trouble, or we’ll get it and its luster will fade and disappear over the course of time—so that it comes back to haunt us. Either way, we are likely to feel cheated by life. Stoically resigning ourselves to this tepid and lackluster state of affairs is no real victory, even if it isn’t as absurd and immature as trying to fool ourselves into believing that we are still happy with our lot when, plainly, we are not.
The mistake—made at some time or another by virtually everyone who has ever lived—is to equate true happiness merely with the attainment of certain external conditions, or with the acquisition of something peripheral to the Self—something other than abidance in the Self in a state of imperturbable peace and contentment. The counterfeit happiness may take the form of a social attainment, or an erotic, or familial, or financial, or sentimental, or political, or intellectual, or artistic one. But ultimately all such pursuits pull us away from the quiet center, where genuine contentment and stillness are to be found. The objects and prizes of our external quests for happiness turn out to be pale and ephemeral when compared with authentic inner peace and stillness. But for most of us, the habit of pursuing all the deficient and ultimately disappointing peripheral forms of pleasure and happiness is so thoroughly established that it is harder to break the habit than it is simply to endure the inevitable disappointments—and move on. The momentum behind our de-centered state of periphery-preoccupation is usually so strong and so well-established that we can scarcely stop it, let alone, reverse its direction—and it is only with this ‘pivoting’ or ‘about-face’ that we are turned towards the core where authentic fulfillment is to be realized.
Overcoming one’s doomed and dead-end desires cannot truly begin until we fully understand how we are unconsciously colluding in our submersion into error and folly. And our job is made all the more difficult by the fact that the actions of our parents, teachers, and friends—along with the blinkered norms of our culture—are continually telling us that our happiness is to be found in worldly possessions, social success, vain honors, and fleeting pleasures. What little communal support we have for our solitary efforts to turn a skeptical eye—and eventually a defiant will—against the siren song of the world! But then, why should the world want to contribute to its own demise by encouraging us to become disenchanted with its false advertisements and promises? At any event, it should scarcely come as a surprise that truly free spirits are exceedingly rare, considering what they’ve always been up against—both inside and