monasticism

Desire, as a guide


It is in the very nature of desire that lasting satisfaction cannot be attained.

Desire is an illusory condition created by wounding – the driving force beneath insatiable quests for fulfillment is unconscious pain seeking resolution.

A depth of authentic awareness heals the wounds which generate desire, eradicating its root cause.

When desire ceases arising, abiding peace and contentment can be maintained.

One of the overarching philosophical goals, one of the grand themes, of the mystical process is the eradication of desire (not just in the sexual understanding, but in many spheres of the ego). 

Why? Because desire is the surface level indicator of unhealed wounds. It is the conscious manifestation of wounds that are looking for healing and resolution. 

All the soul-level wounds we carry within express themselves on the surface of our consciousness as desire. Sex happens to be the clearest demonstration of how this process operates, but the same mechanism operates in all the various aspects of the personality. 

The interplays of wounding and desire show up in extraordinary ways – the ego is infinitely, one might say miraculously, creative and crafty. 

While the wounds are always seeking resolution, they don’t know how to heal themselves without our awareness, participation, and wisdom instruction. Without conscious awareness and direction, the ego (though ultimately interested in healing and peace) moves us consistently in the wrong directions.

The wounds create all manner of fantasies (sexual and not), which the ego believes will resolve the pain. The ego, in its faulty thinking, wants to recreate the painful scenario and change the ending. It believes that a replay with a better, non-painful ending, will heal its pain. 

The problem is that the ego is operating under a false assumption, a kind of naivete. Because even when we replay the scenario and change the ending to a happy one, seemingly satisfying the fantasy entirely, the wound still doesn’t heal and doesn’t go away. Nothing at the soul-level is attained by satisfying the desire. And the more experience we have with satisfaction, the more we see the discontent and futility inherent in it. 

This is the insatiable hamster wheel of desire; the endless cycle of samsara: re-creating the fantasy, pursuing the fantasy, even satisfying the fantasy, all of which does not eradicate the desire. It doesn’t heal the original wound, which continues to create emotional pain, clinging, etc. The entire endeavor of the pursuit of desire, in the egoic direction, is futile.

Instead, life keeps bringing us people and circumstances that do in fact replay the scenarios symbolically, retriggering the same familiar pain, refusing us the egoic satisfaction. This is purposeful, so that in seeing the pain clearly, again and again, we may find the courage to face it and heal it. This is why all the major mystical and spiritual traditions focus on its eradication; when desire ceases arising you know that you have healed your wounds. (It’s a backwards top-down way of understanding the spiritual process, but so be it). 

Wounding is what creates fantasy which creates desire. Heal the wounds, fantasies do not arise, and desire doesn’t either. Then the emotional body can be at peace. 

The schools of mysticism go about this process in two different ways – one is by abstention, the other is by exposure and immersion with really deep awareness. The first is what we call asceticism – a very strict abstaining from and self denial of all things we desire. The second is the arena of tantra (the philosophy, not the sexual arts).

I am, and I believe authentic mysticism is, of this second school of thought. There is no need for wholesale abstention, there is only a need for awareness, with the intent to heal whatever is underneath the desire. (In my view, abstention does absolutely nothing to extinguish desire, sometimes exacerbating it by making something forbidden and thus even more unnecessarily desirable.). 

Going deeply into the desire, and trying to quench that desire, reveals the wound that is asking to be healed. If we attend to the wound, we heal that particular thing, then the desire stops arising in the mind and body. I’m simplifying things here obviously, because this is a blog post not a treatise, but I think you get the idea.

The Tao has it in these words: “Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.”

What this means, now in the sexual realm, is that we must understand how sexual desire works, what it is trying to achieve, and then we begin the slow process of ever-deepening awareness in our sexual activity. (It doesn’t end with celibacy, that’s not the goal, but celibacy happens at some point naturally along the way, for a period of time.). In my experience, the entire composition of a person’s ego expresses itself in his/her sexual world – like a micro expression of their ego structure. It’s terribly fascinating and can lead to some incredible discovery.

If you are interested in this area of exploration – I highly highly recommend “The Erotic Mind” by Dr. Jack Morin. His book, coming from a depth of grounding in principles of conscious awareness, explains and illustrates many many many of the drives, patterns, and internal mechanisms hiding within our sexualities. By beginning to understand what desire is doing, what the fantasies are really seeking, we become more and more attuned to the wounding underneath. (It’s really really cool!)

Also detailed in Morin’s book, is something secular sex therapists call “sensate focus.” This sensate focus technique is the highest human expression of sexual connection, lacking any of the egoic objectification problems that plague most of sex. 

I have it on pretty good authority that mysticism steers many people away from their normal egoic sexual engagements, and towards techniques that are centered on this approach.

There is obviously a great deal of avenues here to explore, entire industries of sacred sexuality are growing as we speak, but in our corner of the world, I think beginning with education and understanding is key. Finding Morin’s book was like finding a treasure chest full of answers. I hope you find it helpful as well.

Substance over form


For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substance alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment preceding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.

St. John of the Cross

As far as I can tell, there are two distinct meanings to these words, depending on the depth of spiritual work.

The first is the admonishment against attachment to ritual and sacred material objects, over the substance of those things. It is extremely easy to get lost in spiritual materialism as it distracts from the difficult and painful parts of the path. Those who become too focused on the symbols, as ends in and of themselves, end up reducing spirituality (and the quest for real liberation) to religion and indoctrination. Ritual can be helpful, to focus the mind and intention, to set aside dedicated time and space for the work, but perfecting rituals it is not the goal of the work.

The second meaning is significantly deeper. Given St. John’s writings about the second dark night, and the excruciating purgations of the spirit which take place there, these same words take on a deeper meaning. It is an instruction to the monastic-level practitioner, and echos quite a bit of the buddhist teachings on this subject as well.

It has to do with the internal separation from egoic investment in mystical experience – the substance of the experience is representative, a reflection, symbolic. It is not ultimate truth. It is personal truth, intended to further the discovery work.

Getting attached to the content of mystical experience, using the experiences themselves to feed self-worth or status, turning the content into vanity is also a distraction. We must utilize the content, understanding that it is purely personal, and then detach from the content. We must come to understand the mystical experiences as a visit to a house of mirrors – reflecting for us, in grand design, our own hidden selves, so that we might see ourselves more clearly. To mistake the symbol for the substance, to mistake the experience for the truth, is in fact an error.

Killing off the aspects of ego that cling and attach to mystical experience is part of the process of perfection and purification.