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.


  1. What a beautiful illuminating (surfing!) of Maharshi’s “There is no greater mystery than this: being Reality ourselves, we seek to gain Reality.”! Thank you, your writings are my black bear, my “river we wade through is the Divine afoot in our own watery being.”

    This “conjoining” came up for me yesterday, during/after a talk of Paul Hedderman’s I go to regularly. He gives a corrollary about how spirituality IS the time extending ruse (or joyful ride) by the imagination on separateness to put off what to it is extinguishment. If the goal is to not be that which is (still hoping to be) important by having that goal, well you’d better practice at it for a while, have gurus have it “for’ you, etc! Then after the talk, I riffed with a friend on how this struck me as the same as “happier dreaming”. She’s into ACIM too, so the “it is God’s will that we wake up via happier dreaming” suddenly made the same sense. Because before (especially many years ago, in much unhappier dreaming) it seemed sensible God would do the opposite. But now “happiER” means it’s a tail end of still interested in the dreaming but not to the deep depths of judging/unhappiness to make it that real. Now “God’s will” is simply the experiencing that something doesn’t quite want to end, and there is no (God) opposing! But in that, those opposing prongs get closer together, just AS the not imagining effort/self to keep them apart. Just a tending to.

    Thanks for pronging us along! And thanks for the “impossible”, for letting me see a match being lit under the water.

    1. yeah a lot of this comes down to simply playing or being willing to see it all with a grain of salt or whatever phrase allows us to relax and breathe and chill out on insisting there is anything to “get” in a final, absolute way . . . chasing a mirage is fun until we get tired and then it’s like wondering if maybe there’s another way? And we stop chasing and the mirage stops fleeing and it’s all just there, just floating or appearing or being . . . Or so it seems in this well-lit pocket of the void . . .

      ❤️ 🙏

      Love, Sean

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