It was one of those huge, sprawling towns that are devouring the country, and to get beyond it we had to go for seemingly endless miles along shoddy streets, past factories, slums and railway sheds, through exclusive residential suburbs, until at last we saw the beginnings of the open country, where the skies were wide and the trees were tall and free. It was a beautiful day, clear and not too warm, for it had been raining recently – one of those soft, gentle rains that go deep into the earth. Suddenly, as the road crested a hill, we came upon the river, glistening in the sun as it wandered away among the green fields towards the distant sea. There were only a few boats on the river, clumsily built, with square, black sails. Many miles higher up there was a bridge for both trains and daily traffic, but at this point there was just a pontoon bridge, on which the traffic moved only one way at a time, and we saw a line of lorries, bullock carts and motor cars, and two camels, waiting their turn to cross over. We didn’t want to enter that lengthening queue, for it might be a long wait so we took another road back, leaving the river to make its way through hills and meadows, past many a village, to the open sea.
The sky overhead was intensely blue, and the horizon was filled with enormous white clouds, with the morning sun upon them. They were fantastic in shape, and they remained motionless and distant. You couldn’t get near them, even if you drove towards them for miles. By the side of the road the grass was young and green. The coming summer would burn it brown, and the country would lose its green freshness; but now everything was made new, and there was joy in the land. The road was quite rough, with potholes all over-it, and though the driver avoided as many as he could, we bounced up and down, our heads almost touching the roof; but the motor was running beautifully, and there was no rattle in the car.
One’s mind was aware of the stately trees, the rocky hills, the villagers, the wide blue skies, but it was also in meditation. Not a thought was disturbing it. There was no flutter of memory, no effort to hold or to resist, nor was there anything in the future to be gained. The mind was taking everything in, it was quicker than the eye, and it didn’t keep what it perceived; the happening passed through it, as the breeze passes among the branches of a tree. One heard the conversation behind one, and saw the bullock cart and the approaching lorry, yet the mind was completely still; and the movement within that stillness was the impulse of a new beginning, a new birth. But the new beginning would never be old; it would never know yesterday and tomorrow. The mind was not experiencing the new: it was itself the new. It had no continuity, and so no death; it was new, not made new. The fire was not from the embers of yesterday.
He had brought his friend, he said, so that with his help he could the better formulate his points. They were both rather reserved, and not given to many words, but they said they knew Sanskrit and some scripture. probably in their forties, they were slim and healthy looking with good heads and thoughtful eyes.
‘Why do the Scriptures condemn desire?’ began the taller one. ‘Practically every teacher of old seems to have condemned it, especially sexual desire, saying that it must be controlled, subjugated. They evidently regarded desire as a hindrance to the higher life. The Buddha talked of desire as the cause of all sorrow and preached the ending of it. Shankara, in his complex philosophy, said that desire and the sexual urge were to be suppressed, and all the other religious teachers have more or less maintained the same attitude. Some of the Christian saints castigated their bodies and tortured themselves in various ways, while others held that one’s body, like the ass or the horse must be well-treated but controlled. We have not read very much, but as far as we are familiar with it, all religious literature seems to insist that desire must be disciplined, subjugated, sublimated, and so on. We are just beginners in the religious life, but somehow we feel there’s something missing in all this, a flower with perfume. We may be entirely wrong, and we are not pitting ourselves against the great teachers, but we would like, if we may, to talk things over with you. As far as we can make out from our reading, you have never said that desire must be suppressed or sublimated, but that it must be understood with an awareness in which there’s no condemnation or justification. Though you have explained this in different ways, we find it difficult to grasp the whole meaning of it, and our talking it over with you will be of considerable help to us.’
What exactly is the problem you want to discuss?
‘Desire is natural, is it not, sir?’ asked the other. ‘Desire for food, desire for sleep, desire for some degree of comfort, sexual desire the desire for truth – in all these forms, desire is perfectly natural, and why are we told that it must be eliminated?’
Putting aside what you have been told, can we inquire into the truth and the falseness of desire? What do you mean by desire? Not the dictionary definition, but what is the significance, the content of desire? And what importance do you give to it?
‘I have many desires,’ replied the taller one, ‘and these desires change in their value and importance from time to time. There are permanent as well as passing desires. A desire which I have one day may, by the very next day, be gone, or have become intensified. Even if I no longer have sexual desire, I may still want power; I may have passed beyond the sexual phase, but my desire for power remains constant.’
That is so. Childish wants become mature desires with age, with habit, with repetition. The object of desire may change as we grow older, but desire remains. Fulfilment and the pain of frustration are always within the area of desire, are they not? Now, is there desire if there’s no object of desire? Are desire and its object inseparable? Do I know desire only because of the object? Let us find out. I see a new fountain pen, and because mine is not as good, I want the new one; so a process of desire is set going, a chain of reactions, till I get, or fail to get, what I want. An object catches the eye, and then there comes a feeling of wanting or not wanting. At what point in this process does the ‘I’ come in?
‘That’s a good question.’
Does the ‘I’ exist before the feeling of wanting, or does it arise with that feeling? You see some object, such as a new type of fountain-pen, and a number of reactions are set going which are perfectly normal; but with them comes the desire to possess the object, and then begins another set of reactions which bring into being the ‘I’ who says, ‘I must have it’. So the ‘I’ is put together by the feeling or desire which arises through the natural response of seeing. Without seeing, sensing desiring, is there an ‘I’ as a separate, isolated entity? Or does this whole process of seeing, having a sensation, desiring, constitute the ‘I’?
‘Do you mean to say, sir, that the ‘I’ is not there first? Isn’t it the ‘I’ who perceives and then desires?’ asked the shorter one.
What do you say? Doesn’t the ‘I’ separate himself only in the process of perceiving and desiring? Before this process begins, is there an ‘I’ as a separate entity?
‘It is difficult to think of the ‘I’ as merely the result of a certain physio-psychological process, for this sounds very materialistic, and it goes against our tradition and all our habits of thought, which say that the ‘I’, the watcher, is there first, and not that he has been ‘put together’. But in spite of tradition and the sacred books, and my own wavering inclination to believe them, I see what you say to be a fact.’
It’s not what another may say that makes for perception of a fact, but your own direct observation and clarity of thinking; isn’t that so?
‘Of course,’ replied the taller one. ‘I may at first mistake a piece of rope for a snake, but the moment I see the thing clearly, there’s no mistaking, no wishful thinking about it.’
If that point is clear, shall we get on with the question of suppressing or sublimating desire? Now, what’s the problem?
‘Desire is always there, sometimes burning furiously, and sometimes dormant but ready to spring to life; and the problem is, what’s one to do with it? When desire is dormant, my whole being is fairly quiet, but when it’s awake, I am very disturbed; I become restless, feverishly active, till that particular desire is satisfied. I then become relatively calm – only to have desire begin all over again, perhaps with a different object. It’s like water under pressure, and however high you build the dam, it’s forever seeping through the cracks, going round the end, or spilling over the top. I have all but tortured myself, trying to go beyond desire, but at the end of my best efforts, desire is still there, smiling or frowning. How am I to be free of it?’
Are you trying to suppress, sublimate desire? Do you want to tame it, drug it, make it respectable? Apart from the books, ideals and gurus, what do you feel about desire? What is your impulse? What do you think?
‘Desire is natural, isn’t it, sir?’ asked the shorter one.
What do you mean by natural?
‘Hunger, sex, wanting comfort and security – all this is desire, and it seems so healthily sane and normal. After all, we are built like that.’
If it is so normal, why are you bothered by it?
‘The trouble is, there’s not just one desire, but many contradictory desires, all pulling in different directions; I am torn apart inside. Two or three desires are dominant, and they override the conflicting lesser ones; but even among the major desires, there’s a contradiction. It’s this contradiction, with its strains and tensions, that causes suffering.’
And to overcome this suffering, you are told you must control, suppress, or sublimate desire. Isn’t that so? If the fulfilment of desire brought only pleasure and no suffering, you would go merrily along with it, wouldn’t you?
‘Obviously,’ put in the taller one. ‘But there’s always some pain and fear as well, and this is what we want to eliminate.’
Yes, everyone does, and that is why the whole design and background of our thinking is to continue with the pleasures while avoiding the pain of desire. Isn’t this what you also are striving after?
‘I’m afraid it is.’
This struggle between the pleasures of desire and the suffering which also comes with it is the conflict of duality. There’s nothing very puzzling about it. Desire seeks fulfilment, and the shadow of fulfilment is frustration. We don’t admit that, so we all pursue fulfilment, hoping never to be frustrated; but the two are inseparable.
‘Is it never possible to have fulfilment without the pain of frustration?’
Don’t you know? Haven’t you experienced the brief pleasure of fulfilment, and isn’t it invariably followed by anxiety, pain?
‘I have noticed that, but one tries in one way or another to keep ahead of the pain.’
And have you succeeded?
‘Not yet, but one always hopes to.’
How to guard against such suffering is your chief concern throughout life; so you begin to discipline desire; you say, ‘This is the right desire, and the other is wrong, immoral.’ You cultivate the ideal desire, the what should be, while caught in the what should not be. The what should not be is the actual fact, and the what should be has no reality except as an imaginary symbol. This is so, isn’t it?
‘But however imaginary, aren’t ideals necessary?’ asked the shorter one. ‘They help us to get rid of the suffering.’
Do they? Have your ideals helped you to be free from suffering, or have they merely helped you to carry on with the pleasure while ideally saying to yourself that you shouldn’t? So the pain and the pleasure of desire continue. Actually, you don’t want to be free of either; you want to drift with the pain and the pleasure of desire, meanwhile talking about ideals and all that stuff.
‘You are perfectly right, sir,’ he admitted.
Let’s proceed from there. Desire is not to be divided as pleasurable and painful, or as right and wrong desire. There’s only desire, which appears under different forms, with different objectives. Unless you understand this, you will merely be struggling to overcome the contradictions which are the very nature of desire.
‘Is there then a central desire which must be overcome, a desire from which all other desires spring?’ asked the taller one. Do you mean the desire for security?
‘I was thinking of that; but there is also the desire for sex, and for so many other things.’
Is there one central desire from which other desires spring like so many children, or does desire merely change its object of fulfilment from time to time, from immaturity to maturity? There’s the desire to possess, to be passionate, to succeed, to be secure both inwardly and outwardly, and so on. Desire weaves through thought and action, through the so-called spiritual as well as the mundane life, does it not?
They were silent for some time.
‘We can’t think any further,’ said the shorter one. ‘We are stumped.’
If you suppress desire, it comes up again in another form, doesn’t it? To control desire is to narrow it down and be self-centred; to discipline it is to build a wall of resistance, which is always being broken down – unless, of course, you become neurotic, fixed in one pattern of desire. To sublimate desire is an act of will; but will is essentially the concentration of desire, and when one form of desire dominates another, you are back again in your old pattern of struggle.
Control, discipline, sublimation, suppression – it all involves effort of some kind, and such effort is still within the field of duality, of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ desire. Laziness may be overcome by an act of will, but the pettiness of the mind remains. A petty mind can be very active, and it generally is, thereby causing mischief and misery for itself and others. So, however much a petty mind may struggle to overcome desire, it will continue to be a petty mind. All this is clear, isn’t it?
They looked at each other. ‘I think so,’ replied the taller one. ‘But please go a little slower, sir, and don’t cram every sentence with ideas.’
Like steam, desire is energy, is it not? And as steam can be directed to run every kind of machinery, either beneficial or destructive, so desire can be dissipated, or it can be used for understanding without there being any user of that astonishing energy. If there’s a user of it, whether it be the one or the many, the individual or the collective, which is tradition, then the trouble begins; then there’s the closed circle of pain and pleasure.
‘If neither the individual nor the collective is to use that energy, then who is to use it?’
Isn’t that a wrong question you’re asking? A wrong question will have a wrong answer, but a right one may open the door to understanding. There’s only energy; there’s no question of who will use it. It’s not that energy, but the user of it, who sustains confusion and the contradiction of pain and pleasure. The user, as the one and as the many, says, ‘This is right and that is wrong, this is good and that is bad’, thereby perpetuating the conflict of duality. He is the real mischief maker, the author of sorrow. Can the user of that energy called desire cease to be? Can the watcher not be an operator, a separate entity embodying this or that tradition, and be that energy itself?
‘Isn’t that very difficult?’
It’s the only problem, and not how to control, discipline, or sublimate desire. When you begin to understand this, desire has quite a different significance; it is then the purity of creation, the movement of truth. But merely to repeat that desire is the supreme, and so on, is not only useless, it is definitely harmful, because it acts as a soporific, a drag to quiet the petty mind.
‘But how is the user of desire to come to an end?’
If the question ‘How?’ reflects the search for a method, then the user of desire will merely be put together in another form. What’s important is the ending of the user, not how to put an end to the user. There is no ‘how’. There is only understanding, the impulse that will shatter the old.