Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Where to start? Bart points out the need to define "desire." Carelessness about this terminology leads to a lot of misunderstanding of the Dharma -- and here I am being careless with it. So here's a shot at being more careful.

The "desire" that the Buddha instructed us to abandon is attachment. It arises from the first, disastrous mistake of taking ourselves seriously -- taking ourselves at face-value. I mistake "Dale" for an essential, unique, permanent essence: there is some mystical "Daleness" that makes me Dale. When, having made this mistake, I desire something, I want to make it mine, incorporate it into the the territory of Daleness. The anxiety to annex this something is intense. If I'm successful in incorporating it, then my Daleness is reinforced and validated; if I'm unsuccessful it's threatened, and its domain is shrunk. Hence the apalling surges of emotion involved in "falling in love." What's at stake, as it seems to someone who has fallen in love, is nothing less than existence itself.

So if we take away the mistake -- if we take away the ego -- is desire still possible? And if so, what does it look like? (Back when I was a graduate student I remember this being a hot issue in Feminist theory: is there such a thing as a desire that is not founded in lack? I haven't kept up, so I have no idea where the theorists have gone with this one.)

I don't think all Buddhists would give the same answers to this. My answer is a hesitant, "yes, but..."

Yes, enlightened desire is possible, but it would look so different, it would scarcely be recognizeable. It would be a desire that didn't narrow down and fixate: a desire that didn't want to absorb or appropriate its object. I think I've had glimpses of this sort of desire -- I've had luminous moments of it, moments of intense love that wasn't exclusionary or proprietary, and which overflowed all ordinary borders and distinctions. And I conclude from those moments: yes. Enlightened desire is real. In fact it might not be going too far to say that enlightened desire is reality.

Okay. But dropping down to the sphere of daily life -- what's to do? What do I do with these daily impulses? Alan Wallace, in Boundless Heart gives the advice that's been most useful for me, about dealing with sensual pleasures: to wit, that if giving them up makes you feel seriously deprived, then you're probably pushing it too hard. If you're not in a cloistered setting, no attempt to simply drop pleasures altogether is likely to do anything but generate turbulence and resistance, and it's more likely to derail your spiritual practice than to support it.

Of course, Wallace is talking about pleasures such as eating ice cream, pleasures that don't harm anyone. Consuming porn and frequenting strip clubs does harm people, I think. That's a controversial issue, and there's been silly extravagance on both sides of it, and a tendency to ignore the input of the only people who really know -- to wit, the sex workers themselves, the models and dancers. I've talked with a lot of dancers about this, and I think the amount of harm varies wildly, depending on the circumstances and on the worker. Most of the dancers I know could find other work easily, and for them it's worth it to escape the nine-to-five work world (which is not exactly free of degradation and harm itself.) The common lurid picture of exploited women drowning in self-contempt and destroying themselves with drugs bears little relation to the reality as I've seen it. It's not clear to me that I'm exploiting these people more, or in a worse way, than I'm exploiting the people who harvested the romaine for my salad, or the people who made my tennis shoes.

But I'd rather be done with it. And I suspect that with this, as with the binge drinking that I used to do, as I get the better of the compulsiveness and leave the activities behind, I'll find that they were more destructive to me personally than I understood at the time. More expense of spirit than I had reckoned; more wear and tear on my relationships.

Once again, the mysterious relation between doing Ngondro and being able to refrain from compulsive activities of all sorts. Is it cause and effect? Or just that when I'm in a "good phase" all things are easier, both refraining from compulsive stuff and maintaining my practice? I wish I could think of an experiment that would give me a good answer to that.

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