Reflections on Desire and Desirelessness (11/27-28/11)

What would living without desire be like? Ramana Maharshi says: ‘Desirelessness is wisdom.’ What can he possibly mean by this? What enables the state of desirelessness to arise? What is the deep, inner relationship between desire and ego-consciousness? Can the ego, itself, seek (or desire?) desirelessness, or is such a thought as absurd as that of an empty stomach that craves no food or a dry sponge that craves no water? If it is the ego’s nature to desire its own preservation and continuance, then we must look elsewhere for the source of desirelessness, must we not? Obviously, this move presupposes the possibility of a standpoint other than that of the ego. While the possibility of such a standpoint will be granted, its actual existence is not automatically given. In order for such a standpoint beyond the ego to be established and stably inhabited, it must—like any human capacity—be cultivated and exercised. But ‘who’ cultivates and exercises such a capacity? Strictly speaking, it cannot be the ego, as defined, since to do so would be to strive against its inherent interests. And yet something within us—some or most of the time—strives to cultivate, exercise, and stably establish a standpoint beyond the ego. Is it desire of some sort that moves some of us, some or most of the time, to liberate ourselves from ego-enthrallment—or mightn’t it be ‘seeing through’ desire that aids us most?

Certainly, from the standpoint of the ego, nothing sounds more preposterous than renouncing desire—the very motor which drives and propels it through life. At best, it sounds like naïve foolishness and, at worst, it sounds like suicide. And yet, for some of us, liberation from our usual thralldom to the ego is considerably more joyful than the fullest gratification of the ego’s cravings and yearnings. Why is this? How does this happen? Is it, in part, because we have seen through the ego sufficiently to know without a doubt that—as far as the ego’s desires and needs are concerned—‘there is a menacing serpent coiled under every alluring flower?’ Have we not come to see and understand—after much painful disappointment and disillusionment—that whatever is gained or won in the deceptive realm of ego-goods is matched by a loss that is somewhat greater, so that, in the end, the more you win, the more you are bound to lose? And mightn’t it be said that to possess something is to be possessed by it? Even the struggle to hang onto what has been won—or to sustain our pleasure in what we possess—soon begins to cost us more than could ever be repaid to us by the pleasures we hope to gain from our efforts.

When we see through the ego, it is this law of ultimate and ongoing disappointment of our hopes and desires that we uncover. We awaken from the grand deception that we have been encouraged to believe in for as long as we can remember. The lie that we have been taught—a lie that practically everyone we know and love also believes in—is that happiness and satisfaction lie ahead, on the path created, as it were, by our desire. We sustain our particular path-generating desire like a man compulsively shoveling coal into the furnace in the boiler room of our ego. We fear that if that fire should ever go out, we are done for. If it dwindles down, others will openly or secretly mock and disparage us. There is fierce pressure, then, from within and from without, to feed and fan the flames of desire that give strength and a sense of forward propulsion to the ego. From this standpoint, desirelessness is ignominious death, worthlessness, contemptible ineptitude and irresponsibility. Only fools and deluded ne’er-do-wells entertain such preposterous notions.

Desire may be likened to the positive pole of an energy field—or polarity—that has fear (or aversion) at the other end. In connection with spiritual freedom, it makes little or no difference, ultimately, whether we are preoccupied by ‘positive’ desires or ‘negatively-charged’ fears/aversions. Both are correlative and interdependent—and both are inimical to neutrality, a key to unlocking the gate that leads beyond ego-enthrallment. It is practically impossible, however, to talk about cultivating neutrality from the ego-standpoint without sounding paradoxical or self-contradictory. Such difficulties arise from the same source we glanced at earlier: How does the ego desire desirelessness when its very ground and generative source is desire itself? But we must now add ‘fear-aversion’ to the picture, since this constitutes the unavoidable and necessary other half of any ego-situation. Fear is merely the inversion of desire and desire is simply a fear turned upside down. Together they create a magnetic energy field (like the pull of gravity) that attracts attention. ‘Attention’ is synonymous with psychic energy. When our psychic energy is seduced by the magnetism generated by the desire-fear polarity, ego-consciousness appears to be the natural offspring. Only by dissolving the enchanting spell of the desire-fear gravitational field are we able to lift off ‘planet Ego,’ to employ a rather humorous image. But, of course, as long as we are under the captivating spell of those desires and fears that orient and motivate our thought and action, there will be no will or initiative to exit the battlefield where our life is being (exhaustively) played out. Some part of us must already be off the field—out of the game, watching as an uninvolved observer who has ‘no dog in that fight’—before there can be any conscious will to liberate ourselves from our own personal myth of Sisyphus.

As alleged before, the possibility of such a standpoint—beyond the fear-and-desire-driven ego struggle—is present in each and every one of us, but the actual, inhabitable standpoint has been occupied only by a relative minority, if only because of the enormous difficulties and concentration involved in such an uncommon quest or enterprise. While most of us busy ourselves plotting and planning strategies for getting deeper into the desire-and-fear-driven ego-adventure, only a few ever seem to be devoting their best energies to the opposite path—the narrow and steep way that leads out of that all-too-absorbing misadventure known as ‘normal life’ for most modern men and women. The Sufis tell us ‘we must die before we die.’ ‘Death’ here can be taken to mean that very neutrality that is required by our souls in order to wriggle out of the tenacious grip of desire and fear—the Scylla and Charybdis on opposing sides of the narrow straits of ego-hood.

*****

When the ego contemplates desirelessness, it quite frequently imagines a condition of torpor, listlessness, or death-like inertia. This due, of course, to the ego’s application of the familiar terms and conditions of its own nature and modality to the higher Self, which is of a completely different order. It is true, in a sense, that as soon as the ego stops moving, it is ‘dead’—like a wounded wildebeest or stalled baby elephant on the savannah, easy prey for a big cat. But it is only out of this ‘death’ of the ego that the higher Self can be born—i.e., to become the new platform or center of gravity for conscious orientation. In certain respects, the two cancel each other out. We can be ‘situated’ in one or the other but not both at once—or so it would seem. The ego has an agenda, the higher Self does not—or at least it is content simply to be and not to have to act or to pursue something or someone in the luxuriant fields of time and space. This is why the ego may be symbolized by the line or arrow, and the Self by the circle or womb. (sperm + egg = creative principle behind ‘the ten thousand things’?)

The higher Self innately knows that everything it could ever need or want is already present ‘here and now’ (if potentially) and that there is no need to ‘go out’ hunting for anyone or anything. Before acquiring the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve had no need to labor or to hunt to provide for themselves. All was within easy reach. (Being at one with God = being at one with the Self.) But with the splitting of the primordial unity—both of man and of the cosmos—into opposing discordant halves, the blissful paradise was no longer ‘home’ for our first parents. Consciousness of duality was reflected in their expulsion from the garden of blissful union with God. Henceforth man had the capacity to ‘walk with God’—or to walk away from Him—but a capacity, like a mere potential, is ambiguous, unclear, neither one thing nor another. The choices we make transform our capacities and potentials in actualities, and it is these actualities that define us, and to a large degree, decide our fate.

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