Consciousness & happiness

Friday, November 07, 2008

Black Cat of Desire

The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat.
--attributed (like so much else) to Confucius

Do you ever get confused about the official Buddhist take on “desire”? I sure do. As I understand it, if my desire to end desire is sincere enough, then I just might end up with not desiring anything, in which case the whole exercise would be moot, because now I’ll have gotten what I don’t want…

Second-guessing the Buddha on the topic of “desire” might seem pretty brazen, if not for two mitigating circumstances. The first was his insistence that we were lights unto ourselves, and not to take his word for anything. The second is that he came up with the Four Noble Truths a couple of thousand years or so before the birth of the modern science of evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain much of our behavior now in terms of the psychological adaptations that evolved to solve problems way back then, in the environments of our ancestors.

Prince Siddhartha’s suite of Noble Truths was his response to the undeniable fact of human suffering. We suffer, he said, because we live in a state of desire…but we can eliminate that state by following the eightfold path. What he may only have dimly grasped is that our brains are hard-wired to desire. It was desire that got our ancestors through the bad times of drought and famine, and now we’re stuck with it in our genes. Because of our genetic mandate to be dissatisfied with what we’ve got, we humans are both blessed and cursed with insatiable desire, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. Seeking an end to desire is like looking for that non-existent black cat in the dark room.

The blessing, of course, is that we probably wouldn’t be here to discuss it if our ancestors hadn’t lived in a more or less chronic state of dissatisfaction. That’s what worked, back when our forefathers and mothers were struggling to survive on the African savannah a million or so years ago. Any incipient trait for contentment with the status quo would have usually led to one's genetic line being abruptly severed, as Ms. or Mr. All-blissed-out got eaten by a passing sabertooth tiger. The ones who survived and reproduced--that is, our ancestors--were the ones who spent their days worrying about where the next meal was coming from, whether the water hole was about to dry up, what was needed for the tribe to survive. Anxiety and desire were successful traits for survival back then--and today we’re born, not as blank slates, but with brains genetically programmed to worry and want.

So desire for more was an undiluted blessing back when life was really tough, whereas nowadays, when most of us have at least the basics of food, clothing and shelter taken care of, the constant curse of craving for more, newer and better can dull us to the bounty of the present moment. Instead of dancing around gratefully in what physician-poet Lewis Thomas called “a contented dazzlement of surprise,” I’m more likely to find myself noticing what’s wrong with my life, and what I imagine I need to make myself happy.

So is meditation the answer? After all, that’s why many of us were attracted to the practice in the first place, in the hopes of silencing the chronic voice of dissatisfaction in our lives. Isn’t meditation supposed to be the antidote to our hunger for something else, the answer to our craving for more?

This is where cracks in the logic of the Noble Truths become apparent, as the spotlight falls upon the paradox of desiring an end to desire. It seems to me any effort I put into my meditation practice is doomed to failure. Effort only serves to reinforce my discontent with what I’ve got--in fact, it’s my effort that’s the problem! My experience as a meditator is that trying to achieve a less grasping, calmer, happier, more compassionate, more aware state is just about the worst possible approach to practice. As Buddhist teacher Bon Ryun puts it, “Trying to make yourself have a clear mind is like trying to make muddy water clear by stirring it.”

Not only is the notion of “desiring an end to desire” pretty nutty, but it takes me right out of an appreciation of this: this moment, this life, the way it actually is. Perfect equanimity is impossible—my genes have seen to that—but I can at least acknowledge the fact, and make the best of it by surrendering to the reality, accepting what is (including my resistance to it!).

“Surrender” and “acceptance” are pretty tricky concepts. They make it sound like there’s something to be done, some goal to be achieved--which is my problem in the first place. In fact, it’s more like surrendering to the realization that there’s nothing to be done (not even surrender!), and making the best of the situation.
Making the best of it, for me, takes the form of noticing, what Jiddu Krishnamurti labeled “passive awareness,” open to undifferentiated everything and nothing. That’s what meditation is for me: it’s still active, in the sense that I deliberately set it up, by stopping my usual daily activity in order to sit or walk quietly. But in practice it’s passive, meaning I’m open to the adventure of whatever pops up (not unlike my iPod set to “shuffle”).
So…does it work? [Spoiler alert!] Somehow, against the all the odds of logic, this “sit down and shut up” approach does pan out for me, in the sense that I've stopped beating myself up with debilitating self-criticism for not achieving my spiritual goals (whatever that might mean!). And itworks in the deep sense that I seem to have accepted that my desire for desireless will be forever unrequited and my hope for change will never change.

Now you’ll have to excuse me while I look for a certain black cat. Answers to “mu.”


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