Monday, September 12, 2011

The obliteration of desire

Last night my wife Neal and I watched the Japanese movie "Zen," a film about Dogen's life and his role in revolutionizing Buddhist practice in Japan.

This morning I woke up before 3 a.m. in order to catch a flight to El Salvador, and in the wee hours of the morning, the question I pondered was that of freedom from desire- one of the major themes in the movie.

Gurdjieff, as readers may know, indicated that a man's task, should he wish to meaningfully develop his inner life, was to struggle in such a way that his "non-desires prevailed over his desires." This distinctly Buddhist suggestion in a teaching which does not overtly display Buddhist influences (although their principles are subtly woven into its warp and weft) is worthy of examination.

What does the suggestion mean? And is it at all possible for a man or woman to initiate a situation where one antithetically desires one's non-desires?

Here we have the makings of a Zen Koan.

I'm not sure how many have had a life experience in which a major area of attachment or identification, a truly fundamental motive force in one's inner psychological landscape, has suddenly and completely ceased to exist; my instincts tell me, however, that such events are intimately related to both the question of desire, and its transcendence.

Long-time readers of this space may recall that I spent most of my younger life as a visual artist, before a transformational experience that, quite literally overnight, obliterated my interest in creating visual art- I absolutely lost all desire to pursue that activity. More recently, my interest in composing and playing music- another major life- interest- has also all but disappeared, although that has sloughed off more gradually. Nonetheless, it's evidently gone... leaving me to wonder what else will be shorn from this particular sheep over the rest of its life span. (It reminds me of Betty Brown's remark to me, made very late in her life, that the things we love the most are the first things that have to go.)

Examining the inner state of desire versus non-desire relative to these two former interests, there's a clear understanding of how they were desires- but are no longer desires. There has been a divorce: a letting go, an organic state of change that completely severed my attachment to these activities. There is a fundamental difference in my inner state; a part of me is gone, and in its place, a new form of freedom has appeared. A paradoxical freedom, perhaps; in gaining freedom from my identification with art and music, I have lost the self-affirmation that (apparently) arises with the authority of such creation.

Yet surrendering this authority of creation not only seems right and even necessary, it leaves room for a new appreciation of life which is more firmly rooted in the possibility of an authority of seeing.

The change has caused me to question both why I was so strongly identified with (attached to, as Buddhists would say) these two creative impulses, and what changed in me that caused that attachment to disappear. I didn't "do" anything directly to bring about such a change- and above all, no direct approach to that question was ever undertaken. My identification with art and music was so thorough that the very idea of ending my relationship with them was absurd. I never, in other words, "set out" to become free of these desires. On the contrary, I built my world, and my supposed validity, on them. I wanted the desires... Which is perhaps stating the obvious, but there you are. How often do we really examine that?

The experience causes me to suppose that man cannot, under the force of his own will, relinquish desire- and indeed this was a theme in the movie about Dogen's life. It's a case, rather, of "thy will be done-" all a man can do is engage in an ongoing effort to Be. Should those efforts lead in the right direction (by whatever means) non-desires have a chance of beginning to prevail-but not by the action of the doer; rather, and only, by the action of the done.

I feel sure no forced change can effect this; only Grace can have such action, and it is chiefly in cultivating the attraction of such Grace that our hope lies.

I stand confused, within attachment and identification. I believe, steadfastly, that the doing lies within the doer; yet without any doubt, in truth, the doer is always (and only) found within the done.

The state of desire, where the doer believes the doing is within him, is the state Gurdjieff called sleep; it is the world of illusion, an inversion of both the truth and the facts, a belief in one's own authority. Only when experience turns itself on its head and the doer finds (sees) himself within the done does reality begin to manifest itself.

We are not born to do; we are born to receive what is done.

Man cannot do; he can, however, discover himself within the done: and that is a different self than the one who presumes to do. Non-desire, when and if it prevails, constitutes the arrival of a pivotal moment of freedom, where attachment no longer dictates action.

This moment of non-attachment is quite different from indifference, however; and that is perhaps a subject for another essay.

May our prayers be heard.

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