Thinking Out Loud About Desire

We know anything because we can distinguish it from what it is not. Distinctions are being; they are existence. You can look at a maple tree and see how it is a maple tree and not a flower or a sky or a passing car. Maple tree and not-maple tree are how maple tree appears. It is this way with everything.

This is why it is so hard to argue that we can know God or the Absolute or The One Without Another. With what would you compare it to in order to ascertain that it was in fact the Absolute? If you can compare it to something it is not, then it is no longer “Absolute” but relative.

wild morning glory beauty and desire
pale wild morning glory out by the chickens

Therefore, who would want to meet God? The only possible thing you could say about the encounter was that it was obviously a lie. As soon as you knew it was God, you’d also know what was not-God, and so you’d not be meeting the Absolute but a pretentious facsimile.

If we have a desire to meet God or know God, and we can see how this desire cannot ever be met but only frustrated, then we might ask a new question: what shall we do with this desire?

In my experience of inquiry with desire, I learn that desire has two contrary goals, each of which negates the other.

First, there is a desire for a personal experience of God – of happiness, joy, ecstasy. To this end, I pray, do zazen, study A Course in Miracles and other nondual traditions, exercise, practice compassion. I take the self seriously.

Second, there is a desire to transcend personal experience – to undo the self, to be done with vanity and self-improvement and the hoarding of special experiences.

I want both! And yet to have both is to have neither, because they would cancel one another out. To have one rather than the other does not end desire, because I still want the other. And for the life of me I cannot discern a third option.

Thus, desire is forever paradoxical – always making demands of me that cannot possibly be met.

So it is interesting to give attention and see where – in our actual experience – these two aspects of desire appear most closely, nearly touching. Where is the body or other – be it human or animal or landscape or whatever – that intimates an end to the paradox, that suggests I can have my sensual experience and transcend sensuality?

I say “intimates” here because the argument can never be made explicitly. It has to be hinted at. I have to be seduced, because I know that logically it can never work. The two facets of desire are at odds. Any suggestion they can be wedded is as nonsensical as suggesting I can light a match under water.

So the suggestion is that when we are aware of the intimation and the body, the one, making it – the one slyly hinting that in its embrace our yearning will be both satisfied and destroyed – we have to go very slowly and be very attentive. The image is given to us as a gift. By giving our attention in return, we induce sacred relationship.

It is a kind of dance, which on the one hand has to do with logic and on the other with the utter absence of logic, even the opposite of logic. It is like studying a classic text on the moon by day and at night going outside and dancing naked in moonlight, reveling in moonlight.

Those become poles, right? The rigorous study and the reveling? And the work becomes not to privilege the one or the other but just to allow them both their space, their voice, their influence. When they cry out for public witness, we give it. Sometimes I do dance in the moonlight! Really! And when they insist on privacy, we give it. I will not tell you that I am reading _________________ by __________________ nor how I find it ________________________ with respect to ____________  and so am contemplating ________________________ if ___________ says yes.

Obviously I am describing here a sort of balancing of tension – wanting to come very close to the prong of desire that will destroy itself (transcendence) without losing proximity to the prong that extends itself (personal experience). It’s like surfing, maybe. Or running very fast down a mountain. Or crossing the river on a thin wire.

And I suggest that somewhere in that balance, we have the insight that paradox ends when we stop insisting on it, and begin to search for its origins. The two-pronged desire arises where? Why? How?

In other words, having given attention to desire, having to some extent acquiesced to it in its paradoxical wonder and creativity, now I want to meet its mother.

Desire arises as a consequence of our physical and cognitive structure. That is, I have the structure of homo sapiens, and that brings forth a certain experience of world and living in the world, and this includes an apparently paradoxical desire.

But the paradox seems to hinge on my belief in an actual self that can be either transcended or improved. What if that self isn’t real? Isn’t actually there as something that can be improved or fixed or transcended?

If that’s the case, then desire as such is a mirage. The paradox doesn’t present a real dichotomy, but a false one. On that view, when the impulse to self-improve arises (through learning or practice or exercise or diet or whatever), one attends to it. When the impulse to transcend the self arises (through prayer or meditation or forbidden ecstatic union), then one attends to it. No more and no less.

Thus, desire loses its privileged claims to primacy, intensity, individuation, etc. And the demands it makes are similarly deprived of privilege.

So back to the beginning then. What shall we do with our desire to know/see/experience God?

I think we have to demote it to equality with our desire for a slice of cake, a deep kiss, a walk in the woods, the feel of the river on our feet and ankles, the sight of a black bear, Emily Dickinson poems, toads in the garden, violets, snakes et cetera. It’s one of those, and one with those.

But this demotion is also a bringing-forth, because it implies that our desire for God is natural and readily met. Indeed, by placing it in a family of other longings, we open the possibility that “God” is not other than “a slice of cake, a deep kiss, a walk in the woods, the feel of the river on our feet and ankles, the sight of a black bear, Emily Dickinson poems, toads in the garden, violets, snakes et cetera.”

red lily paradox of desire
solitary lily out front off Main Street

Whatever happens when the black bear lumbers across the trail before me, or when we unfold in one another’s arms, or wade through the river at dusk, or share dessert on the back porch, it is also what happens when we encounter God. The satisfaction, joy, happiness, pleasure is the same.

It is a fairly short step from this fact to the suggesting that the sight of the black bear is itself a sight of God, a glimpse of the divine. And that our kiss brings forth the Lord as Alleluia, and the river we wade through is the Divine afoot in our own watery being.

I don’t suggest that we are seeing the whole! I suggest the whole remains forever beyond our grasp. Always I suggest that! Yet the glimpses we obtain – over and over in our living, this very living we live right now – are themselves sufficient. We are letting go our insistence that God somehow exceed the range of our being and experience. Desire is met and lit accordingly.

July 2019 Housekeeping

Some random thoughts near the end of July . . .

garden1. I sent a newsletter out, this time musing on the nexus between collard greens, being and love. The garden has been both bountiful and beautiful this summer, more than ever reminding me of the collaborative nature of our living. Correlations with A Course in Miracles abound.

If you’d like to sign up for the newsletter, please do.

2. Back in March, I mentioned my interest in beginning a dialogue group loosely-focused around ACIM. Nobody responded to that but I remain interested! Or even a once-a-year camp in the backyard and talk about God around the fire thing.

Something in me moves now in the direction of sharing not only in writing but in something closer to a circle of friends, brothers and sisters bound for glory, serious students thinking aloud together . . . The description matters less than the sharing, but you get my drift.

gardenAnyway, I reiterate my interest and willingness to organize, host, talk first and so forth. I’m not averse to an online arrangement, but that’s more complicated given my rural location, lack of reliable internet access, et cetera. It’s always nice to just share space in a dialogic way.

In any case, if you’re interested, let me know. I’m here. I’m glad you’re here, too.

Lenten Writing: Love is our Praxis

In “Autopoiesis, life, mind and cognition: Bases for a proper naturalistic continuity” Villalobos suggests that “the autopoietic aphorism ‘to live is to know’ . . . means that cognition, in its most basic and embracing sense, corresponds to the praxis of living.”

I put the essay down – I am reading and writing and cooking at once, the house empty for a few more minutes – and think again how a sense of how to live naturally appears in our living. Nobody has to teach us how to breath digest food or fall asleep. We don’t have to learn how to think or communicate or have preferences.

Critically – and invoking Maturana – we do not have to learn how to love.

Love is our natural praxis, even if it is blocked or impeded or confused or what-have-you. We are homo sapiens amans.

If we have to learn anything, it is how to recognize what we already know how to love and be happy. Basically, we need to get out of our own way.

So to live praxically – to be praxical – is to love, but in a natural way, not an affected way.

What do I mean by “affected way?”

I mean that it is possible to invent “kinds” of love, and then based on that categorization, to segment who gets what love and how much and when they get it, and then – and this is where the conflict begins – assume the order we’re applying is God-given, correct in some absolute sense, reflects a Platonic ideal, et cetera.

Love as we practice it – praxical love – reflects equality, consent and freedom. It is aware – or, at a minimum, aspires to be aware of – all others, not merely the others with whom it happens to be in physical contact. Our spiritual partners, sexual partners, intellectual partners, poetic partners, noumenal partners . . .

Those relationships – which vary in form – do in fact reflect a pure or ideal love that (if we are tracking A Course in Miracles) is God-given, God-lit, grace-filled.

We could call the form a symbol of the love; symbols enhance communication when they are viewed pragmatically and taken seriously. They become problematic if we conflate them with Truth, if we take them literally.

May I edit this living – this life – so that its symbols align more harmoniously – coherently – with God-lit love?

Would that be “right” praxis?

Yet, for all my wordiness I do not know this love very well, neither source nor symbol, content nor form.

I am often confused and conflicted. Am often estranged from those I long to hold close, arguing with those who I long to praise, talking over those I wish only to hear. I am lonely a lot. I am prone to religious fantasies.

Is characterizing my living this way a move – however clumsy, however uncertain – towards a coherent praxis of love? That is, isn’t the one who is confused about love the one for whom a loving praxis is most required?

[Or am I playing again, setting up a straw man – a straw spiritual pathos – to elicit sympathy and otherwise distract from the clarity that is right here right now insisting there is no other?]

When I say that love is our natural praxis, I assert that there is nothing to do but trust one another, attend gently and efficiently what arises, and be prepared for sudden changes in the dance. New partners, new steps, new music . . .

As this Lenten Writing has slipped my intentions, been less a lantern lighting the dark months until Easter and more a moon between clouds: here, briefly – brightly and clearly – and then gone, long enough you wonder is it there still.

But Lent goes on, even when by the calendar it is not Lent, as writing goes on (writing is my praxis – how silly to ever imply otherwise!), even when it is not Lenten Writing, and the going on is the actual light, the actual luminosity (what Henry said, here paraphrased, how Christ is the light in which all things – including Christ – appear).

One writes and sees what they write and says: okay, so I am learning how to let love be love. That is good to know! On this, the fifteenth day of Lent, and the first day of Spring, may all things – green and wordy and otherwise – be like unto their Creator.

March 2019: Housekeeping

This little post is more in the nature of a long-winded housekeeping note than anything else.

1. I sent out a newsletter (correlating a little poem of Emily Dickinson’s with ACIM principles of love and service). If you’re interested, you can sign up for the newsletter.

2. I have been rewriting old lesson posts. I began writing them back in 2011; my sincerity and devotion to that project were sound but the writing itself was rushed and a bit more biographical than necessary. Hence, rewriting.

Rewriting is not merely editing what has already been created. It is creating again. It makes something new. The process has been helpful to me, particularly in the way it has reminded me of Tara Singh’s observation that any one lesson of the course can awaken us from the dream of separation.

This is not to deny the lessons’ cumulative effect, nor to urge anyone to abandon a traditional linear approach to the curriculum. What works is what’s helpful! I merely testify to an ongoing experience of the richness of the material. It retains the viability of living scripture.

The rewrite has reached the first five lessons, if you are curious:

Lesson one
Lesson two
Lesson three
Lesson four
Lesson five

3. I would like to begin an ACIM dialogue group. My preference is to meet physically, perhaps once a month or so, for a sustained course-related sharing. I envision something along the lines of a Bohm dialogue-inspired workshop, with folks who share my approximate approach to and intensity with course material (which approach, Lord knows, is not for everyone).

I wonder if there are folks in an approximate radius to me who would be interested? I live in western Massachusetts. I am happy to travel a little (a few hours drive, say), and to be responsible for organizational details and coordinating.

If you’re interested, feel free to drop me a line or comment. Sometimes a sustained community can be a helpful resource in terms of insight and application.

4. Finally, I was going to add this material into the newsletter, but keeping that project simple matters, so I’ll post it here instead. It’s a couple of paragraphs from Eleanor Rosch, a scholar and writer whose work (especially when it comes to the nexus between religion and psychology) I find both challenging and nurturing.

To try to isolate and manipulate single factors that actually operate only systemically is like killing a rabbit and dissecting it to look for its aliveness. This is . . . a question of the kind of mind with which one perceives the world, whether in life or in science.

Opening to the wisdom in not knowing may be even more important than opening to experiences within knowing. Acknowledging not knowing is what evokes the genuine humbleness prized by every contemplative and healing tradition.

(from More Than Mindfulness: When You Have a Tiger by the Tail, Let It Eat You).

The emphasis here is primarily on epistemic humility – that is, beginning with what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know. Secondarily, it observes that what we perceive as distinct and separate tends to be an integral aspect of a system, and cannot be meaningfully considered apart from that system (nor, really, exist apart from the system – this includes, by the way, our self).

Given those premises, how shall we gaze at the world? With what sort of mind shall we approach our loving and living?

Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing with me.

Love,
Sean

Love in a Reflexive Domain

In a reflexive domain, the actors can and do act on both themselves and on the domain. In a reflexive domain, the domain is responsive. So living in a reflexive domain means that living is fundamentally relational.

Our selves are a reflexive domain; our relationships are a reflexive domain; our communities are a reflexive domain; our world is a reflexive domain; the universe is a reflexive domain.

But it’s important to notice that interacting with or on oneself is of a different nature than acting with or on others or on the universe. In order to look at yourself, you have to separate yourself into observer and observed. But of course this is an imaginary construct; you cannot actually be separate from yourself.

This construction – this separation into observer and observed – is already the case. It is how we live; it is how the human structure organizes itself. In that sense, the observer/observed divide is not inherently a problem. It’s natural.

No, the problem, to to speak, is when we conflate this construction with life and world itself – i.e., we deny that the observer/observed divide is a structure-contingent construction and believe it is instead a truthful 1:1 reflection of reality itself.

That denial is an investment in incoherence, and the subsequent belief doubles down on the investment. Not only does it appear that you are a discrete entity in the world, but you start to act that way; in fact, you try to enforce that way.

A lot of our psychological distress arises because of this conflation/confusion. In turn, our psychological distress causes us to act in ways that harm others in our shared reflexive domain.

If you want inner peace and world peace, then you have to address this issue. You have to give attention to it in your experience, where and as it arises. Nobody can do it for you.

So we want to look closely at this belief that the observer/observed divide is real. We want to be sure our beliefs are consistent with what is actually going on, to the best of our ability. We want to be coherent.

I think that dialogue in this sense is helpful. It has been for me. Looking at the situation in many ways and from many angle is helpful. The observer/observed divide is not only a spiritual situation, or a psychological one, or a sociological one, or a linguistic one. But all of those perspectives can help us to flesh out and better comprehend the situation.

Again, we are simply understanding that the self and the world are constructions that arise from our structure, and that any experience of separation is imaginary. There may be grounds for the imagining, but there are not grounds for the opposite – i.e., calling the experience “real” or “true.”

Clarity in this sense enhances our ability to inhabit the world we construct with others in sustainable and loving ways. This is a natural state of being but we are – individually and collectively – estranged from it.

So we experience the self as divided but we also experience it as whole (because it is always both). The two aspects co-exist and mutually specify one another. It is a decision to say one is right (wholeness) and one wrong (divided or partial).

What we want to question is the decision.

Wholeness and separation happen; both are viable. The emptiness of the sky specifies the moon within it; but the moon specifies that which is not the moon but rather the emptiness of sky. In fact, we experience them at the same time. They bring one another forth.

Certainly one can prefer the moon to no-moon, or an empty sky to a sky with objects in it, but that doesn’t change the underlying fact that the moon and the sky are one-appearing-as-two.

This treatment invokes an interesting trinity. The moon, the sky and that which observes the two. That is, there is the duality of observer and observed and the observer that observes the two-as-one. There is X. There is Y. And there is that which perceives [X and Y]. Call it Z.

Of course, this move is not finite! We can also say: there is X. There is Y. There is Z (which observes both X and Y). And there is also A which observes Z (which observes X and Y).

Naturally, this evokes B which observes A (which observes Z (which observes X and Y)).

And on and on it goes.

This is a way of saying that we can always expand the domain in which one observes both the self and the other. It is infinite, or appears to be. Certainly we cannot stipulate to the end of it.

But can we stipulate to the beginning of it?

It is not easy to explain how the self comes about. What precedes the awareness that calls itself “I?” We can introduce concepts like conception and birth and infant consciousness and conditioning and so forth but these are concepts that arise within – or subsequent to – “I.”

We can say “there is only awareness” or “there is only consciousness.” One might prefer one narrative to another but . . . the narratives propose possible beginnings. They do not denote the one true beginning.

So the awareness that is the self is a bit of a mystery, and one has to go slowly with it in order to be clear what it is and how it functions. This “going slow” is in the nature of dialogue, of exploration, in which the very act of exploring brings forth both map and territory.

Of course it is the case that some folks claim to have gone beyond the “I.” The self as such drops out. This experience of “beyond I” is more or less isomorphic across human culture and history. Clearly it happens, or something happens that makes a lot of people tell a similar story about the happening.

But we do we posit this as an ideal, don’t we? Who doesn’t want to be enlightened? Yet certain elite folks can run 4-minute miles, but nobody is getting rich persuading ordinary folks that they, too, can run a 4-minute mile. Or should run one.

Why should the so-called spiritual domain be any different? I don’t hate on myself because I can’t run a 4-minute mile. I don’t stop running.

We are all welcome to our living, and this welcome is equal unto all of us, regardless of the special skills or abilities our particular structure includes.

It’s helpful to remember that the domain of the one who runs a 4-minute mile includes the one who builds and operates stopwatches, and the one who builds and operates means of record-keeping.

That is, 4-minute miles are only possible because of folks who figured out how to build things, and how to build them consistently and uniformly. Don’t even get me started on the technology of running shoes . . .

The key observation is that always the one specifies, or makes possible, the other. This is always the case. If we understand this, then our need to be “one” *or the “other” subsides. What is the significance of X or Y when there is Z? Or Z when there is A?

Where you are – geographically, psychologically, spiritually, athletically – is where you are. What could be simpler?

Thus, the spiritual prerogative to wake up or become enlightened is simply a concept brought forth by what is already both awake and full of light. It comes forth in a domain of its own making, and is naturally transcended by new domains.

In a sense, “awakening” and “enlightenment” and “Christ-mind” and “Heaven” and all those related terms apply to a domain that is already being eclipsed by new domains. This is how our living progresses; this is how being functions. The lights are already on; there is no need to turn them on more. You can’t.

Wanting or desiring the state we designate as enlightened/awakened is what brings those states into existence, and brings into existence as well those who profess to have accomplished those states, and those who profess to have the secret to accomplishing those states, and those who seek those states. The unenlightened specify the enlightened, and vice-versa; absent the one, the other doesn’t exist. On this front anyway, there is nothing left to do.

I am suggesting one enlarge the domain of experience. See the observer/observed split. See the seer. It’s nothing special. Rather, one simply sees that the self as such is a recurring feature of an ever-expanding domain of which one is a part and to which one is subject.

As Louis Kauffman says, “the world is everything that is the case, and the world evolves according to the theories and actions of the participants in that world.”

Of course, all this is explanatory and academic. It’s like sitting in a classroom and listening to some guy lecture you about the importance of bridges. After a while, you want to build a bridge.

How shall we build a bridge?

At a practical here-is-a-thing-you-can-do level, if you want to be happier, even truly deeply happy, then one thing to try is to look closely at your descriptions of self, world and other. How do you describe the world? Your self? Other people? Objects in experience? Experience?

“Description” in this case refers not only to a verbal portrayal of this or that sensual experience (seeing a rose, hearing a melody, smelling a cake et cetera) but also reaches the levels of category (flower/valentine/partner/love), explanations of origins (seed, water, sunlight, soil), and so forth.

For example, who do you love? How do you love them? How do you classify that love? Why is it love and not lust or mere affection? And so forth.

On that view, “description” is vast and tangled. Examining it is more like visiting a jungle than looking up the word “Jungle” in a dictionary.

I think this is one of the interesting aspects of psychotherapy, that it allows us – when we are committed to the process which includes a devoted therapist – to really dig down into our descriptions and see them clearly: how we feel, the language we use, the mythologies, how our narratives evolve, the featured characters, recurring themes.

When psychotherapy is effective, the whole culture – the whole history of being human moves in it and in us as well.

Of course, psychotherapy is not the only way to go about examining our descriptions. One can read deeply, one can have a writing or other artistic practice. You can study A Course in Miracles which redefines and reorganizes your thinking and its contents . . .

It is a question of fit and effectiveness. What works? What helps you go deeply into your descriptions?

The reasons we go into our descriptions in this way is because when we see them clearly, in all their dimensionality, to the fullest extent possible at a given time, then we can begin to revise them. Or at least not be so in the dark about them. Before we can make a change, we have to want to make the change, and this means seeing clearly what we are doing and what the effects of our doing are.

So as we go into our descriptions, we can say something like, well, this is not actually an accurate (or effective or resonant or what-have-you) description so I am going to update (or delete or edit) it.

This is about becoming more coherent, which is another way of saying become more consistently and sustainably aligned with the loving being we naturally are.

And really it is about becoming more aware and sensitive to the reflexive domain that is our living: it is about living harmoniously with our living, and loving it was we live it.