Desire, part 1

"Blue Horses,"
by Mary Oliver
I step into the painting of the four blue horses.
I am not even surprised that I can do this.
One of the horses walks toward me.
His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm
over his blue mane, not holding on, just
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.
I would rather die than explain to the blue horses
what war is.
They would either faint in horror, or simply
find it impossible to believe.
I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me
as if they have secrets to tell.
I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t.
If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what
could they possibly say?

Desire. It’s our theme of the month for February 2022, as it was for February 2019 and February 2016. It comes around every three years. If you were with us six years ago, or three years ago, this is a chance to come back around to some of those questions about desire and see how your relationship with desire has evolved in that time.

“Desire,” says Ram Dass, “is the creator; desire is the destroyer. Desire is the universe.” The first two are fairly straightforward. Desire is the creator – it’s what drives us to create – to create something beautiful maybe, and, that desire to create something beautiful, might be, as Mary Oliver suggests, “the piece of God that is inside each of us.” Insofar as “God” is a name we give to the creative forces that made the universe, it’s our desire to create that puts us in the image of God. Desire is the creator.

Desire is also the destroyer. Destruction isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes an old building needs to be torn down – or an old system, or ideological structure (a way of thinking), needs to be torn down to clear space for a new creativity. White supremacy, the prison-industrial complex, rape culture that normalizes and excuses sexual violence against women, the ongoing forms of colonialism that extend political, economic, and cultural domination over peoples – these are structures in need of some destroying. Desire – in this case, desire for respect, equality, and justice – desire for wholesome relationships that don’t exploit or oppress – is the destroyer.

But desire is also a destroyer in an unfortunate way. Addictive desires, desires to acquire, consume, possess, desires to dominate others – these are forces that can destroy the sweetness and beauty of life.

Then he says “desire is the universe.” This means, I take it, that we see reality through the lens of what we want. What do you want to hold on to? What do you want to get rid of? Your whole reality can be defined by those two concerns. Here’s my stuff – car, house, home entertainment system, clothes, computer, smartphone. I want to hold on to that – protect it, make sure it isn’t stolen, make sure it doesn’t break or wear out. Here’s things I don’t like – sore joints, aching tooth, annoying telemarketers, my neighbor’s poltics. Making judgments about “that’s good” and “that’s bad,” and then trying to hold on to what you’ve decided is good and trying to fix or get rid of what you’ve decided is bad can consume your whole day. Your whole universe is nothing but things judged good, things judged bad, and your efforts to protect the one and exile the other. That’s how desire defines your universe.

In Robert Aitken’s book of parables, Zen Master Raven, there’s one episode in which the fictional zen master Raven acknowledges a desire common to actual Ravens: "I have this urge to prey on newborn lambs." Asked how he deals with it, Zen Master Raven explains, "I'd be disoriented without it."

Disoriented, she says. Yes, our desires orient us. The question is (as Humpty Dumpty said to Alice in a rather different context) which is to be master? Do you have your desires, or do desires have you? Which is the master?

It takes some time and some practice to master desire. And the project of mastering desire is never finished and complete. There are various approaches to mastering desire.

You could study the stoic philosophers and work on taking their teachings to heart, internalizing that way of thinking. The two best-known stoic philosophers were Epictetus, who was a Greek slave in the first and second centuries, and Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman emperor in the second century. Marcus Aurelius is available to us a work called Meditations, which is his journal of reflections. Epictetus is available in two works of notes taken by his student, one called Discourses, and the other Enchiridion. The Stoics offer a lot of thinking about taming desires, cultivating virtue, training ourselves to let go of what is beyond our control and maintain an inner calm. In recent years there’s been quite a revival of interest in the Stoics. It grew out of a general renewed interest in virtue ethics among philosophers in the late 20th century, and has been popularized through a bestselling book, “The Daily Stoic,” by Ryan Holiday, the “Stoicism Today” blog, Stoicon events, podcasts such as the Justin Vacula’s “Stoic Solutions Podcast,” Simon Drew’s “The Practical Stoic Podcast,” and Steve Karafit's “The Sunday Stoic.” Stoic meetups are popular throughout the US, Europe, and Australia. So that’s one route.

A somewhat different approach to mastering desire is taken by the Amish, who are very careful and deliberate about new devices and gizmos actually make life better, and who create strong community ties to help the members channel desire.

Then there’s Zen training, which, in meditation recognizes the self as fluid and unbounded – not fixed and not distinct. Like a hurricane, the self is always changing, has no definite edge and no essence. Out of the atmospheric flow, certain conditions came together and for a little while were coherent enough to have a name, and then dissipated again back into the atmosphere from which it came. When we release clinging to the illusion of a distinct and permanent self, then its desires weaken their grip.

Whatever strategy you take, it’ll take a while to develop, but not as much time as you’ll otherwise spend in pursuit one desire after another. As the philosopher William Irvine has written:
“If we like what the Zen Buddhists have to say about mastering desire, we might want to spend hours in silent meditation. If we like what the Amish say, we might want to join an Amish community (if they will have us). If we like what the Stoic philosophers say, we might want to spend time studying their writings. But having said this, I should add that the time and effort we spend trying to master desire are probably considerably less than the time and effort we will expend if we instead capitulate to our desires and spend our days, as so many people do, working incessantly to fulfill whatever desires float into our head.”
A helpful entry point in mastering our desires – not repressing them or exiling them or, God forbid, not having them, but mastering them and harmonizing with them – is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. One of the key distinctions in Rosenberg’s training is between a demand and a request. The distinction is not in how politely you ask, or your tone of voice, or what words you use. There’s only one way to tell the difference between a demand and a request, and that’s: if the answer is ‘no,’ are you upset? And that’s the idea with which we'll pick up in part 2.

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