The Skillful Use Of Desire In Spiritual Practice
For any moment of our existence, there is, on the one hand, the “content”—the specifics of what is arising in our conceptual and perceptual fields—and, on the other hand, our awareness of that content.
In Indian mythology, these dual aspects of human experience are described by way of a metaphor. The human bodymind is likened to a tree, within which there are perched two birds. One of the birds is enjoying the smell of the blossoms, building a nest, and eating the fruit of the tree. The other—perched higher up—is simply observing, witnessing all that is unfolding, without becoming actively involved in it.
When the awareness aspect of experience is largely dormant, we can feel caught up in or overwhelmed by the particulars of our life experience. We might have a sense of being passionately involved with our life, though it can also feel rather claustrophobic.
A more active awareness, or witnessing function, can support feelings of spaciousness and relaxation. We’re able to access the view of that second bird: simply observing, without being engulfed by, the content of our human experience—our waking dream.
To varying extents, we can all make choices – moment by moment – which result in the fruits of increased worldly pleasure and power. In other words, if we’re skillful – have a certain clarity with respect to the mechanisms of cause and effect – we can rearrange the “contents” of our life experience. This is an aspect of what we might call “happiness” – and is what most humans are doing (yes?) most of the time. It’s that first bird, wholly engrossed in the creation and enjoyment of the fruits of life, working continually to “make things better.”[Note: The first step in “making things better” is of course “making things,” i.e. “making matter” out of the sea of energy, shifting our perceptual lens to the “particle” as opposed to the “wave” setting.]
But it is in the view of the second bird – awareness – that our true freedom, along with an uncaused happiness, is to be found. When the witnessing function has been resurrected, I am able to choose how I relate to my various life experiences. Whether the experiences are pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, this choice – and thus my freedom – remains. While still fully experiencing the contents of my human life, I no longer get lost within them. There’s a sense, instead, of being awake within my waking-dream.
These reflections arose out of the question: what is happiness? The Buddhas and Immortals—along with being immensely powerful, and occasionally fierce—are portrayed also as having access to great joy, humor and care-free ease. They are, by and large, extremely happy. But what exactly is the nature of this happiness?[First answer: what we experience, quite naturally, when we no longer feel the need to ask the question!?]
Gross National Happiness
A while back, the newly-enthroned King of Bhutan announced a policy of Gross National Happiness. This was a signal to the rest of the world that the priority of this Buddhist country was the happiness of its citizens, rather than the monetary profit or “worth” designated by the Gross National Product. This was greatly inspiring to me. How wonderful! – I thought. Yet the question remained: what is happiness? And more specifically: how is it related to the treading of a spiritual path?
Returning to our pair of bird-friends: It would seem that there are two kinds of happiness: (1) the happiness that arises from the enjoyment of pleasant experiences, when the content of our life is unfolding a way that pleases us; and (2) the happiness that is our capacity to be free, regardless of the content of our life experience. The former is happiness-with-a-cause; the latter a kind of causeless (or “eternal”) happiness. The former we work to gain and possess (and hence can also lose); the latter is simply who we are, in the core of our being. (A far cry from the “original sin” notion of the Judeo-Christian traditions!)
Having Our Cake & Eating It Too
In relation to our spiritual practice: Much of what we call “suffering” is intimately related to our unskillful (i.e. unconscious) pursuit of happiness#1. Ironic. The good news is that we can, indeed, have our cake and eat it too. How does this work?
By skillfully harnessing our desire for happiness#1 – so that the energy thus generated becomes a means for awakening happiness#2. Kind of like: the “lead plane” which pulls a glider along, until it has found its own groove – and can sail along freely, on the currents of air. Or even better: like rocket booster-engines, which propel the rocket into orbit (into a whole new atmosphere) and then themselves fall away.
The lead-plane and booster-engines represent skillfully-employed happiness#1. The glider-freely-flying and rocket-in-orbit represent happiness#2. The energy generated via my desire for happiness#1 becomes a cause for the kind of phase shift that propels me into happiness#2.
In other words, my aspiration to use the activities of my daily life as support for spiritual unfolding generates a kind of energy, or “merit,” which, over time, boosts me into the wisdom and freedom of happiness#2. Wei Wu Wei would call this transition the movement from the horizontal to the vertical, from time-and-space into a timeless dimension. It is the skillful use of spiritual technology to eventually transcend any specific spiritual form.[Note: To actually accomplish this is not necessarily a simple thing (if it were, we’d all be Immortals!)– would seem to require some combination (unique to the specific practitioner) of great luck, boundless grace, and/or a Teacher with skills of the order of a spiritual rocket-scientist, and/or with whom our karmic connection is strong. But I digress …]
At this point, the metaphor kind of breaks down (as all metaphors, at some point, must). Once a rocket is in orbit, its booster-engines are fully gone – no longer needed or accessible. On the contrary, once our rocket of happiness#2 is in orbit, we, as human beings, actually still have access to (a wonderfully upgraded version of) happiness#1.
Haagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond
I can still put into motion (knowing all along that there is no actual independent “doer”) the causes which will bring to my table a bowl of Haagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond. Can still “will” my hand to pick up the spoon, scoop a bit of the ice cream from the bowl, and transfer it to my mouth.
But now, because I’m not depending upon the ice cream for ultimate happiness (i.e. have ceased to over-estimate its “reality”) I enjoy it even more deeply. And now, because I see within the bowl of ice cream (as well as the one consuming it) the entire universe (i.e. have ceased to under-estimate its “reality”) I enjoy it even more deeply. Very cool (to say the very least) – I’m now doubly – perhaps even “infinitely” – happy![Final Note: Rare saints aside, what would seem to be required for this process to work–for the pursuit-of-happiness#1 to act as a booster engine for happiness#2–is the“fuel”of having ones basic physical needs met: e.g. adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, health care. Somehow, here on planet Earth, we’ve created a global community in which two out of every three people are challenged to subsist on less than two dollars per day – which, to my ear/heart, doesn’t really seem like adequate“fuel.” The good news is that there are also somewhere around 795 billionaires on the planet. Which means that, collectively, there are more than enough resources to bring everyone up to a kind of baseline which would provide sufficient access to happiness#1, to allow, somewhere down the line, that boost into happiness#2. How exactly this might be accomplished, I’ll leave to the rocket-scientist economists☺]