The Skillful Use of Desire

I’m reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, a story full of wizardry and magic. I won’t do a full spoiler of the plot– I hope you’ll read the book– but there’s a metaphor in it I find very useful for approaching desire. I am going to mention a theme of the book, so if you don’t want any of it revealed, then stop here and go read it first!

Several times so far (I’m about midway through), the protagonist, a budding witch, describes letting her magic build up during a spell, until it gains sufficient power for the task at hand. There are also episodes of combining her magic with that of others, for greater effect, and attention is given to the difficult art of knowing how much is needed from each person, and when, as well as when to take a rest.

This is a splendid metaphor for the magic of desire– of motivation, of passion, of all our human urges, beneficial and otherwise.

Instructions for the management of desire, along with its power and risks, have been given to us from our earliest recorded history. You may have a favorite framework or story to remind you. Perhaps Icarus and his melting wings caution you to fly but keep track of the sun and your altitude, or perhaps you’ve taken that story to mean staying on the ground is best.

Several of my friends are Buddhists– even if you are not, you are likely aware that desire is perceived by Buddhists to be the cause of suffering, and that if we can free ourselves from the tyranny of desires, we will no longer get caught in those loops of wanting and disappointment. We will see that even the results of obtaining desire are unsatisfactory. There is much to be learned in the close observation of desire. This is very different from using distractions for desire, as some do for toddlers– distraction works, it turns out, for the marshmallow test of delayed gratification, but it forces us to constantly come up with diversions and can become dry and unsatisfying eventually.

Sit awhile with a desire– or desire’s twin, aversion– and you will learn that it rises, peaks, and then tends to fade away if not attended to and fed. Most, if not all of us, have experienced this with physical urges, such as hunger, sleep, or the urge to pass stool or gas. When we are in settings where there is no food, no bed, or no toilet, if we do not give in to those urges, they tend to fade away at least temporarily.

I believe we might all benefit from knowing how to do that, for what we want as much as for what we do not (what we fear, what angers us, what disgusts or embitters us). Imagine being free from manipulation by offers of rewards and by your own cravings– to be able to sit with a want, not reacting, until it lost its hold on you– and then make your decision. I have practiced this many times in life. I have not reached the point of not needing to practice, but I have attained some degree of skill in not immediately satisfying a desire or an aversion, and I do sense the freedom that follows.

That’s one aspect of approaching desire. Another is possibly more difficult– instead of a blanket decision to forgo desire completely, one might decide to gain wizard level skill in using it or not using it. Observing the rise and fall of desire first, to have the option of not engaging, seems important.

Why would you want to do that? If attaining desires is ultimately unsatisfying, why wouldn’t you choose to just let desire go unused?

You might choose desire as a subject of mastery, as part of becoming fully free from it. If the only way you can be free from something is by avoiding it completely, how free are you? On the other hand, if you can use or not use desire, depending on the situation, perhaps that is the type of freedom you are after. Yes, I understand that this is desire for freedom, itself, and you could drop that too. On the other hand, I have experienced a type of non-sticky desire, as if desire itself has been freed from its own clinginess and is more of an available energy. If clinginess is like a sort of acid taste in desire– like under-roasted coffee– this is desire that has been roasted to the point of maximal flavor, no longer acid. (I’m a synesthete, so this description is not really a metaphor for me).

Maybe I shouldn’t call well-roasted desire by that term at all but only energy. To me, however, it seems this is what desire actually is, minus the corruption of clinging. If you get confused by my unconventional use of the word, feel free to substitute the word “energy.”

Even then, you might ask “what’s the point?” Why bother? The secret, for me, is that there is no point outside of the thing itself. Living is like making Tibetan monk sand art. Everything we make and do will be blown away. No matter how long we keep Earth going, it will one day succumb to heat death of the universe. What we do can’t matter forever or universally, in relationship to anything else, including in relationship to anything ultimate. But this does not make our transient, limited purposes, our intricate and interdependent sand art lives, valueless. We can still maintain “amor fati”, love of fate, courage, and love of our beautiful shared impermanence. We have the option of engagement.

There’s always the risk of corruption, with desire. If you use it, you may not see your own corruption. You may not notice the acid creeping in– you need wizard friends to detox you now and then. Does that mean desire’s magic should never be used? Some say yes. I think otherwise, but it’s the riskier road.

For wise use of desire, it can help to have practiced standards of decent treatment of others– this is the basis for all sorts of religious and societal rule sets meant to keep desire in considerate bounds. In the end, however, the rules won’t matter as much as a solid intention. Rules can be misused without breaking them if the underlying intention is sour, and sometimes rules must be broken in order to maintain decent treatment of others. This, I think, is down to the limited power of words to contain meaning. They only work so long as people want them to. They are like the metaphorical boats carrying us to the shore, or fingers pointing at the moon, and once you have grasped the intention itself, the intention is what you must attend to. This is what Augustine said as “Love God and do what you will”, and the Buddhists as “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

In fact, excessive use of rules creates structures easy for predators to climb. Rules that were meant to limit harm within a community can perversely worsen it. Humans who are “typical” use social and moral intuition, heuristics, which are often flawed but which have had significant advantages for us overall. In fact, there is research that humans have trouble making decisions when using only reason, as opposed to both emotion and reason. We are partly irrational, and this is a strength in our species, a way to limit predation, despite its imperfection and pitfalls. Once I realized this, I began to avoid getting caught up in hierarchical structures as much as possible, corporate and otherwise. As in Uprooted, you don’t want The Wood or the court to catch your fire and make malevolent use of it. You may do better to live on the margins.

If you’ve decided to learn to make use of desire wisely, you can begin to notice whether an early desire is one that serves your intentions. I will call such a desire a “right desire” and the others “wrong desires”, which is maybe a bit lazy, with the caution that any desire can be unskillfully used. If you ask me how to know whether a desire is right or not, I can’t answer, because (see above) it isn’t in a rule book. It is right if it fits with your basic intention of kindness towards others, towards treating others as fully human — subjects, not objects/ tools– towards non-harming. Also, others who share your intentions should generally be able to recognize a right desire as right. For me, it shouldn’t taste like acid. You might recognize it by a particular sensation in your body.

That answer is always going to sound circular, and this frustrates the heck out of people who think concretely. There are many non-neurotypical humans who think more concretely and who are not also predators. I read an op-ed once with the premise that “virtue” and character ethics were ableist, because people with neurological differences could more easily satisfy rules than to fit the moral heuristic expectations of neurotypicals. If you are a reader who thinks concretely, I’m not going to be able to evoke my meaning for you, anymore than a person who can see more shades of color than I can will be able to evoke those unseen shades for me. It doesn’t mean I’m good and you are not. At the same time, there are likely benefits to you if those who are able to understand my meaning gain skill at subjectively identifying right desire. See predators, above.

If it is not a right desire, you can watch it rise and fall away. Sometimes, even if it is a right desire, you may realize that you cannot reasonably tend to it and keep your other fires going. We are human, and there is only so much energy we have at a time. Not everything right is also possible. Another metaphor I use for this is my bandwidth. It takes time to understand our own bandwidths and how they change over time. It’s like learning to drive a car– eventually, you know where your bumpers are as if the car is part of your body– except this is a car that constantly changes shape and size.

When you can’t feed a right desire effectively without dropping your other fires, you can decide whether to pour water on it or keep it as a small pile of embers which you might use later. Be aware that if you keep a desire as embers, it will use some of your energy, like a pilot light, and make sure you can account for that. If you fail to make a specific decision, an untended pile of embers can start taking up your other fuel without your knowledge. It can burn your house of desire down and leave you without a roof. It can burn things you didn’t mean as fuel, causing toxic fumes. Keep an eye on those embers.

For desires you intend to use, you will need to let them gain enough strength first. This can’t be rushed. After you use the energy, it will often need a period of being restored before using it again. Using a fire frequently, with good timing, tends to make it more effective. For instance, I can feel poetry-writing desire build, and I have learned to recognize when it is ready to use. The poems I write at those times of readiness tend to be worth sharing. When I wait the right amount of time to re-fuel, I can get into a run of writing several “keepers.” On the other hand, if I do not write when it is time to write, the fuel is consumed and the fire dies down. Then it can take weeks or months to rebuild. I do not think of this missed opportunity as a disaster, because what burned down is not lost. Sometimes even years later, I realize a past fire has come to fruition in a poem. Every mistake I’ve made with desire– with poetry and otherwise– has taught me something I needed to know later. Likely I still have many more mistakes to come.

There are multiple skills available to learn. How to recognize right desires– how to strengthen your ability to stay with right intentions. How to let desire build to the point of use, to the point where it seems to be magically effective. How to store it as potential energy for later. How to join it with others without either overwhelming them or leaning on them. How to recognize fellow desire witches and wizards– how to recognize those who have harmful intentions or who lack skill and might endanger you or others. How to protect yourself from misuse and from corruption, and how to get cleaned up when you are infected with harmful desire, as you inevitably will be. How to use a strong fire of desire with control, so that it doesn’t incinerate you. How to gather fuel, and how to recognize healthy and unhealthy fuel. How to know if a desire is yours or someone else’s. How to take rests from desire, so that using it is a choice. All of these skills can grow with practice.

I’m interested in hearing your perspective on desire and the use or non-use of it.


Ordinary Time, Ordinary Beings

Back when I was an atheist Catholic (maybe I’ll write about that later), my favorite part of the liturgical calendar was “ordinary time.” The time between feast and fast days. The color of the vestments of ordinary time is green– the everyday green of life, of growing, of hedges and trees. The green time of not having to do anything special to make time sacred.

We can get caught up in the peaks and valleys of life to the point of missing the beauty of ordinary time. Rituals of ordinary time for me include morning hot coffee and a walk down the same sidewalk, day in, day out, greeting the trees. Eating a bowl of cheese grits sprinkled with roasted peanuts. Holding a newborn baby at the clinic where I work, listening to her heart’s music, and talking to her parents. Giving my adult son and daughter a good, long hug. Ordinary, ordinary, ordinary, and full of the deepest beauty and pleasure. Worth savoring. It never gets old.

Yesterday, I went walking with my sweetheart, a long trail, on a perfect fall day. We met several hikers on the way, many overtaking us– going slowly, in no hurry, an ordinary pace. One man opined the hike would be much better “without all these leaves on the trail”, because of the slipperiness, and I don’t think he was joking– I hid my laugh and just smiled back, thinking to myself maybe he’d rather go walk in the mall. Half an hour later, my own foot slid on a slick rock, and I fell. Ha! Maybe I should walk in a mall myself! On the other hand, those leaves did give me some cushion. Thank you/no thank you, leaves. My sweetheart cried out “are you ok?” as I was falling, and my answer “I don’t know, let me finish falling first and then I’ll tell you” has already in the course of one day become an inside joke. (I’m fine, only bruised elbows).

Several times along the way, hikers returning from the waterfall told us “it will be worth it”… as we returned, we were asked “will it be worth it?” from those still headed out. Which struck me as another hilarious notion– for me, going along at my snail’s pace, the measure of worth was already in each step, not in relation to the destination. I have a lifelong thing for trees, and some of the time I felt myself to be walking in a tree-like manner, as if I were an Ent. I tried to give those we met as sincere a smile on the way back as on the way up, and I enjoyed thinking that they probably didn’t know I was a disguised Ent.

This morning I read an article by Reza Aslan, promoting pantheism– the closing statement proposed a stark choice between believing the universe “originated from purely physical processes… without cause, value, or purpose” or that the universe is an “animating spirit” in itself, including us. It seemed to me a sadly false choice, and the roots of Aslan’s confusion may be caught up in not appreciating ordinary time, ordinary steps on a path– needing value to have a context instead of standing on its own. How could a material universe stop us from valuing what we value, a sweetheart, a beautiful fall day, laughter? Why would any of this need to be connected to a larger purpose or a destination to be meaningful in itself? We are temporary. In fact, we are partly new beings every moment. Does our transitory nature make us less in some way? I can’t see why it would.

It reminded me of a lecture recently by one of my favorite local psychiatrists, in which he discussed some (questionable, because of the tendency to remember negative events when one is distressed) research about traumatic life events in childhood causing adult illnesses. As a reason to reduce cruelty to children. There are holes in the research about physical punishment of children causing specific later effects. But why do we need justification?  I was surprised to find myself the only person in the audience who questioned the idea of needing an adult reason to be kind to children. I don’t consider children valuable in relation to their future adult selves, but instead as persons like the rest of us, valuable in themselves, at this very moment. I do not like to be hit or traumatized, and I’m betting you feel the same. There are laws to prevent me being hit– why? Because the majority of people agreed they didn’t want to be hit. Why not extend the same civility to children? Whether it causes them trouble years later or not? I don’t say “don’t hit me, because you might cause me an illness later.” I say “don’t hit me– it’s against the law and against my rights as a human. And you wouldn’t like it if I did it to you.”

Ordinary time. Ordinary, brief, temporary beings. Not a moment, not a breath, not a tree, not a being replaceable. Let us cherish our ordinary time, in all its singular beauty.

Reza Aslan on pantheism

Meditation on Snack Cakes

Sitting with friends at a late dinner, after Chorus practice, in the midst of a conversation about how we engage with life’s difficulties, I was unexpectedly given a koan about snack cakes.

One of my friends was explaining that she’d come to understand a craving for snack cakes, for her, wasn’t about snack cakes but something else, and that if she paused to query herself about the underlying issue, she could uncover what that something else was. You’ve probably read about such, and so have I, but the way she told it was personal enough that it struck me as new, not just in her own experience but in mine. In my immediate response, I recognized my own habit differently– as a habit, and less firmly as being accurate.

Here is the koan: “what are snack cakes about?” You might insert your own craved food. Mine has morphed all week, because snack cakes are not my craving. For me it is “what are these corn chips about?” and “what is this bowl of beans and rice about?”

I said something like “how interesting– I’ve always assumed the craving was about the food”, which is nowhere near the extent of the thought flash my friend stimulated, and she answered that probably I had not suffered from bulimia, which is true. I’m generally far less articulate verbally than in print. I worried for a few days that my response had been actually fairly rude. I wanted to find a way to say I didn’t intend to dismiss her story but to say how she had suddenly expanded mine. This morning, I read an essay of Jonathan Franzen, about so much more than the title. And hence, this essay and blog site, after a several month hiatus of public writing, and after having given up social media other than emails.

My habit encountering cravings is much more literal than my friend’s. I’ve read those articles about emotional eating and it hasn’t seemed accurate for my own experience. Although not bulimic, I do routinely eat when I don’t feel hungry, and sometimes overeat– a bag of chips is my beloved nemesis. But instead of assigning non-hungry eating to “eating my feelings”, I’ve gone with more sensory or physical explanations.

I love a crunch. I love serial crunching. So much so that I can crunch off bits of a single roasted peanut, as many as 10 per half nut. You might think that would limit my total amount of peanut or chip intake, but factor in time… I can empty a container meant for days or weeks at a steady rate, in an hour. I especially love salty crunches, and I have favorite flavors, but I’ve figured the salt and the crunch might be the core factors. I especially love a series of crunches while reading. If I believed in a heaven, we would spent a large portion of time reclining, crunching, and reading. I have a touch of synesthesia, and the crunching makes the book taste good.

I love a crunch so much that I add a handful of crunchy somethings to almost any bowl of a creamy food. Peanuts are fantastic sprinkled in grits. And in beans too.

So I’ve figured my body has a specific daily requirement for the sensation of crunching, along with the salt, which does not necessarily correlate with its requirement for calories.

I’ve also read some interesting possible facts about how our bodies track nutrients– that one of the problems with manufactured flavor is that our bodies have come to expect specific nutrients to arrive with specific tastes, and when the nutrients don’t come, we stay hungry for more of the food in an attempt to get those expected nutrients. In this way, I’ve explained a chocolate craving as my body wanting more magnesium, not to be sated with artificial chocolate, and who would dare question the body’s wisdom over exactly how many bars– divided, of course, into tiny episodes of teeth meeting the smooth edge of a story by Italo Calvino– are necessary to remedy the deficiency?

This has all seemed benign, although over recent years it does seem to keep pushing my clothing size up, very slowly. Part of the pleasure of life, a natural thing, not a diversion from sorrow.

And that might be true. It might be true for me, as my friend’s story about food is true for her– or it might be a piece of the story, a story among stories. Franzen, in his essay, talked about story-making as a necessity when faced with the incomprehensible experience of bare sensory encounter. In the zen sitting group I sporadically attend, the bare experience can be impeded by stories, as much of a distraction from reality and being awake as a snack cake could be from a deeper life problem. In bare experience, not only the snack cake but the deeper life problem, the crunch, even the magnesium and salt are superficial, transitory, interdependent, not to be clung to. Even this realization can become another story about eating snack cakes, if you want it to. See how tricky snack cakes can be!

Can we really say a story is less awake than any other way of living? Do we have to see these aspects as polarities, as delusions vs the real? Is it possible to have both in the same bite– the bare bite, where illusions about where my mouth begins and the snack cake ends vanish, simultaneously with a story or multiple stories about the bite, like a chord with many notes? Try it and see for yourself. It may take many snack cakes. I’m still experimenting.

In science, we talk about association and causation– the difference between two findings happening to be both present in “stories”– physical events–together on a regular basis, vs one finding causing the other. Not to mention findings not even really associated with each other on any regular basis, just happening to be together in a particular story but not more likely than chance to meet again in another one. Humans are prone to pattern recognition, which often serves us well and sometimes doesn’t, when we see patterns not there. Experiments help us figure out which is which. So we could do experiments to try and suss out what’s really behind the eating of snack cakes.

To do that, we have to define what we mean by eating. How do we get the whole of the experience in there, of both the craving and the satisfying of craving? Even distilling a thought into words leaves something out– the best we can hope for is to evoke something in the reader similar to what we felt when writing. As I went around with this snack cake koan, as if it were a friend, I began to see how such experiments would be impossibly complex. Just as I can’t truly describe the meaning of a poem other than by reading the entire thing, it wouldn’t be possible to include every nuance. One snack cake craving is not the same as another. One tiny crunch of peanut is not the same as the next– for one thing, I’m reading an entirely different paragraph. What causes what, in this context, may not always be as relevant as what is happening– a focus on what causes what or is associated with what is a choice of the story that matters to us. Let me make sure I explain this well. I’m not saying we can pretend skirt length causes weather and call it science. I’m saying it that whether we consider causation to be the most relevant aspect of reality, vs other aspects, is a preference.

Reality, intertwined, full of butterfly wings continents away, full of snack cakes, full of insights and difficulties, full of crunches and poems, moves from one moment to the next as a whole. Teasing out ways to predict what will happen next, including what events will likely lead to the eating of snack cakes, is important as a function of science– choosing the parts of the story that resonate most is important as art. Neither will ever encompass the full catastrophe.

And that is what I meant to tell my friend– that her story had blown open my habit of thought about food cravings in an instant, and no snack cake or crunch will ever be quite the same.

Franzen essay

The Dorito Effect