Q: I have read the book ‘How to Meet Yourself’. I understand I think about desire; that it is a searching for a return to our natural state of happiness. I understand that we are already that, but when around women or just bored I start moving toward pornography to get relief from the desire. How exactly can I just access this happiness? Do I not take the desire seriously and not look at women, or do I need a more practical way to cope and not go down this spiritual route so to speak?
The Questioner, obviously, has read the book and seeks some clarification and or more down-to-earth practical tips to deal with what (s)he identified as a problem in his spiritual pursuit. Hence, the most appropriate response to the Question, as an extension to the material in the book, can only come from Dennis, the author.
As Dr. A. M. Garcia, one of our respected Bloggers, and himself a very senior Surgeon, very rightly remarked in a communication to me: a medical counsel can emerge only if more particulars of the questioner are known – for example, age, the intensity of the problem, whether it has become an addiction, past medical history, the intensity of his spiritual yearning etc.
Having placed the above caveats upfront, some observations can be made on the general issue of “Sexuality and Spirituality” in the context of the overall paucity in the availability of reliable information and the hush-hush nature in which it is normally handled.
Sex is a very rarely or honestly discussed topic in the ancient Indian Vedantic texts. On one side, an impression is created that it is taboo even to think of it; but on another side, even great sages were said to have ejaculated by mere appearance of a beautiful girl. We find that sexually intimate scenes are described between so called “realized” couples, but at the same time, sex is supposed to be sinful even to talk about by a seeker.
Some great gurus are revered in glorified terms ascribing supernatural traits to them if they rape a recent youthful widow assuming the guise of her freshly dead husband. On the other hand, an ordinary saint is hauled over burning coals for his sexual escapades, even if he is not an impostor.
Sex is lifted to the status of an elaborate sacred ritual in some tantric practices exhibiting lot of male chauvinism scarcely showing any respect to the feelings of the female who is treated merely as a play-thing in the process.
We see lot of hypocrisy and plenty of double standards in the spiritual literature.
I do not feel that the situation is any better in the West.
In the ancient Indian system, the Vedanta is usually reserved for a man who has already fulfilled his societal responsibilities, passing through the stages of boyhood-adolescence, householder, forest dweller (learning to live by himself alone) and renouncer (having given up worldly pursuits). Thus, by the time he is ready to receive the highest wisdom of advaitic teaching, he would have satisfied his bodily needs and family obligations.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Part VI, Chapter 4) discusses Conception and Birth as Religious Rites. The smriti-s distinguish four kinds of brahmachAri-s (celibates). A householder with allegiance to one wife is considered brahmachari and in fact, it is made obligatory on his part that he should satisfy the advances of his devoted wife. Each act of sex is considered as a yajna (sacred ritual of offering) and is advised to be performed reciting certain mantras.
Historically, perhaps, sex has become a serious no-no ever since the system of monasteries housing huge bands of monks had come into practice. As Stephen Batchelor, who describes his own travails in curtailing his sexual feelings as a practicing Buddhist monk, says: it would have been a great problem to feed all the legitimate and illegitimate kids who would be the inevitable consequence if sex was allowed in a monastery – after all, the monks are supposed to live by begging for their food. Innumerable young mouths to be taken care of in a monastery would have been an immense burden both on the society on whom rests the means of food production and on the monks who would have been distracted from their main objective.
Further, in the good old ancient times, there were many strange and unscientific superstitions and beliefs about sex, production of semen, energy consumption in sexual relationships etc; the less we say, the better it is.
Under the changed conditions of the structure of the society and the teaching practices prevailing these days, advances in our knowledge of human physiology and medical science, a more enlightened view on a scientific basis is called for in the present times regarding Sexuality and Spirituality.
I shall now briefly present the theory behind the advaitic understanding of Happiness.
The real “You” (“I”) in you is already of the nature of eternally, pure, and free Awareness. The other intrinsic qualities of the Awareness that you truly are, are Existence and Infiniteness. But as a human being we make the mistake of locating the Awareness part as a limited sentience present within the body-mind and the Existence part external to the body and mind in a world out there. This unnatural division as something inside and something to be present outside is the cause of unhappiness. So unhappiness is the driver that propels you (the mis-identifier) to demolish the imaginary, non-existing boundary between the inside and outside – i.e. bring about the identity of the ‘knowing-me’ here and the ‘known-world’ out there. The establishment of this unity is itself Happiness. That means removal of unhappiness is happiness and we don’t have to take any special actions to bring about Happiness.
The unhappiness manifests in us as ‘desire.’ In other words desire is a reminder, a red flag raised, telling you to pry yourself out of your mis-identification, where you are wallowing in an artificially created separation of me here and the world outside me. Instead of listening to this warning, we normally compound our mistake through another misunderstanding. We temporarily put a band-aid on the desire by procuring an object or establishing a relationship with another person. The specific form in which the desire arose at that moment gets fulfilled by this method for the time being by obtaining an object or hugging another person.
But soon, the signal of ‘desire’ rises again in another form because you have not yet gotten out of the mis-identification of who you really are. The mis-identification, the source of desires, is not eradicated.
Expressing the same in general terms, a ‘lack’ for something is desire, the outward signal for unhappiness. Conversely, the absence of a lack is Happiness. When this absence of lack is experienced in the presence of an object (including a natural landscape scene), it is called ‘Beauty.’ When the absence of lack is experienced in the presence of another person, we call it ‘Love.’ In truth, Happiness, Love, Beauty etc. are all synonyms and they all stand for what you truly are!
With a full and clear understanding of this philosophy, you will not look for temporary fulfillment of desire by procuring an object or establishing relationship with a person. You will try to root-out the basic problem of mis-identifying yourself with the limited body.
As a corollary of this clear understanding, the body, which you had thus far been taking yourself to be, is also seen to be not the real you. You will treat it with the same unconcerned manner that you would treat your neighbor’s dog. You will let it go with its own habits just observing them as they sprout up as a distant unaffected witness. You will not try to control or change or stop them. Because of the natural make up of the body and its secretions of hormones, certain feelings may rise in the body. You just observe them and let them play out their time. It’s not you anyway. By not resisting or having any agenda with any of those feelings (including sexual urges), they will lose their strength because no attention is paid to them. Eventually, your body and its feelings will learn to align with your new understanding of All Oneness.
A (Sitara): Produced happiness, be it by noble or less noble acts, will never last. So if you want a quick fix and resign yourself to the fact that its effects will wear off soon, you can produce happiness. You must have understood from Dennis’ book that there is another kind of happiness and want to access it. What is needed to access this happiness is understanding. There is no practical way of producing it and no direct way of accessing it.
In fact, this kind of happiness is not even accessible because it is not separate from you. There is not ‘you’ on the one hand and ‘this happiness’ on the other. This happiness is your very Self. Moreover, being blessed with a human birth, you have the chance of a lifetime: to discover yourself as this happiness. This is the good news.
But usually this is a longer process. What is to be discovered first needs to be uncovered. The ‘I’ that you take yourself to be – a body-mind complex – needs to be recognized as pseudo. And the Self that you truly are needs to be known. How? Your mind is ignorant otherwise you would have known long ago. The mind needs to be in a different condition in order to shed its ignorance; in short, it needs to be prepared.
Anything that points in the direction of discovering your true nature can be thought of as essential. Anything that points in other directions can be thought of as unessential. The mind needs to learn to distinguish between essential and unessential. It also needs to become more interested in the essential than the unessential, and it needs to be able to trust that there is a possibility for you to know yourself as the true Self.
It is actually very difficult to prepare yourself without guidance. So the best thing for you is to look out for someone you trust enough to guide you on your spiritual journey. Habits are strong and you will tend to fall back onto mental and behavioral patterns that do not help or even thwart your spiritual progress. This may be unfortunate but it is human and to be expected – which does not mean that one has to resign oneself to it. The focus though should be on learning and not on lamenting about one’s weaknesses. You need a guide who supports you in this.
You ask: Do I not take the desire seriously and not look at women, or do I need a more practical way to cope and not go down this spiritual route so to speak?
My answer: If you can do this – not taking the desire seriously – then do it. But you may have difficulties doing it. Also, looking at women is not pornography. Women are beautiful, look at them and enjoy. But if your mind starts to be obsessed with sex or women, it means that you need to find a more natural relationship with this part of life. Suppression will make it worse. Expression needs to happen in a mature way, considerate to other humans beings involved. If you feel unable to find that kind of a mature way of dealing with your sexuality you may need a guide for that too. This can basically be anyone who has your trust: a friend, a relative or a psychotherapist who knows about these kinds of difficulties (which are not rare in human society).
I suggest for you to go about it from two ends: Acquire a deeper understanding of your true Self, which is pure happiness – this is a spiritual issue and needs to be dealt with by study of scripture and learning with a teacher. And find a relaxed, natural, loving way to deal with and express your sexuality – this is a psychological issue and you may be able to find guidance in psychology.
A (Ted): All desire is rooted in ignorance of one’s true nature. You already are the happiness that you are seeking through the fulfillment of your desires. Such being the case, the desire for objects – both gross (i.e. material wealth, relationships, physical health, etc.) and subtle (i.e. status, mental and emotional states, etc.) – that you believe will bring you lasting peace of mind or permanent fulfillment is gratuitous. No object or action, which is itself an object (i.e. observable phenomenon), can give you what you’ve already got.
Moreover, it should be understood that what you are is not a state of being. All states are experienceable and, as such, are limited objects, for all objects/experiences begin, continue for a given period of time, and inevitably end. The nature of all objects – indeed, the entire apparent reality itself – is change or impermanence. All states are, therefore, nothing more than ephemeral phenomena. You, however, are not a temporary entity. You – awareness – do not come and go. The body comes and goes. The emotions come and go. The thoughts come and go. But you remain ever-present throughout their appearance and despite their disappearance. You do not begin when any of these factors first “show up.” You do not end when any of these factors “shut down.” You are the awareness out of which all objects arise, in which they abide, and back into which they subside. You are the eternal witness who remains ever untouched by all that seemingly transpires within its scope. Though the entire apparent reality thus depends upon you in order to be, you – limitless, attributeless awareness – remain forever free.
On top of this, it is a common misconception that the happiness to which Vedanta refers as one’s fundamental nature is experiential. In other words, many seekers harbor the erroneous notion that once they know the self, a perpetual smile will grace their face and they will always be in a good mood. Though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, this is simply not so. The whole idea, which is quite ludicrous within the context of a non-dual reality, is based on a misinterpretation of the Sanskrit word ananda. Though ananda does mean “bliss,” it is rooted in the word ananta, which means “eternal” and is a much more appropriate term with which to indicate the self – i.e. limitless awareness.
Given the inherent incapability of language, which is conceptually oriented, to comprehensively denote that which is at once both formless and all-pervasive, both ananda/bliss and ananta/eternal are misleading terms for the self, lending as they do experiential and temporal qualities respectively to attributeless, unborn awareness. Ananta/eternal is the more appropriate of the two terms, however, if it is understood to mean that the self exists altogether beyond time and space, which are only yet two more objects – albeit extremely subtle ones – appearing in awareness. This limitlessness is your true nature.
Admittedly, self-knowledge can and most often does have a positive impact on the apparent individual’s emotional state because, quite simply, freedom feels good. The fact remains, however, that the happiness that is said to be the inherent nature of the self manifests experientially as a rock solid conviction in one’s essential inviolability as pure awareness, the hard and fast knowledge that nothing can enhance, diminish, or otherwise affect you that results from the removal of ignorance concerning one’s true identity and the assimilation of self-knowledge. It does not mean that you will rollick through life happily ever after in a perpetual state of grins and smiles and giggles and laughs. Reality, remember, is non-dual, which means that bad moods are just as much the self as good ones.
In light of this, desire itself is not a problem per se. In fact, desire is actually nothing other than awareness or the self in subtle form. As Krishna – a personification of pure awareness – says in the Bhagavad Gita, “I am the desire that is not opposed to dharma.”
Dharma is the collection of universal physical, psychological, and moral laws that govern both the gross and subtle aspects of the apparent reality and ensure that the mechanism of the universe runs smoothly and maintains its overall balance. In this sense, dharma is the coordinating factor that determines the chain of cause-and-effect that we refer to as karmic consequence, or the idea that “what goes around comes around.” Dharma is completely impersonal. It is simply the law that determines the outcome of action. For instance, exposing water for a certain length of time to a temperature below freezing will cause the water to harden into ice. Bad-mouthing someone with a violent disposition may very well elicit from the person a punch in the nose. The higher up the food-chain we go, the more subtle and myriad the factors become that influence the outcome of action, but dharma is infallible. Were we able to account for every factor involved in any event, we would see that nothing happens by chance. Everything occurs due to the precise and predictable operation of dharma. When we observe and act in accordance with dharma, positive results are produced. When we disregard and violate dharma, negative results nip back at us. Though these results are not always immediately forthcoming, they do inevitably arrive for a shorter or more extended stay in our lives and impact us to a greater or lesser degree depending upon the intensity of the action that initiated them.
Such an understanding of dharma enables one to see the truth in Krishna’s words. Desire itself is neither desirable nor undesirable. We need desire. None of the scientific discoveries and inventions, none of the artistic accomplishments and innovations would have occurred without the impetus of desire. In fact, without desire, there would literally be neither jagat, the apparent reality nor jiva, the apparent person you take yourself to be, for both the macrocosmic vasanas – God’s vasanas, we might say – that have projected the universe as well as the microcosmic vasanas that have associated with and express through a particular jiva’s mind-body-sense complex and thus “create” the apparent individual’s unique experience are essentially nothing other than desires.
The fundamental dharma of a seeker of truth, however, is to remain focused on the pursuit of self-knowledge through the persistent and continuous practice of self-inquiry. Within this context, lust can be seen as an adharmic behavior because is agitates the mind and “extroverts” its attention toward objects (i.e. women, fantasies, sex) that are inherently incapable of producing permanent happiness and lasting fulfillment. It is not that sexual desire is “bad,” but simply that it obstructs one’s non-dual vision (i.e. understanding), impedes one’s ability to discriminate between the real and the apparent, prevents one from remaining dispassionate, and obliterates one’s peace of mind.
Desire itself, therefore, is not the problem. Ignorance is the real issue, the underlying initiator of all the agitation that upsets the subtle body (i.e. the aggregate of mind, intellect, and ego). Ignorance is the disease, so to speak, and gratuitous desire merely its symptom.
In order to effectively deal with the disturbances seemingly caused by desire – lust, in this case – it is helpful to understand how desires develop and how unconscious compliance with their demands reinforces their dictatorial hold over our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Desires sprout from the fertile soil of the subconscious mind, or what Vedanta calls the Causal Body. The seeds from which they spring are the subtle impressions sown as a result of one’s past experiences. These subtle impressions are called vasanas. And these impression-based vasanas inevitably manifest as our tendencies and proclivities, our likes and dislikes, our attractions and aversions, our desires and fears.
Regarding the vasanas, it is important to understand that they are part and parcel of being a person and neither can nor need be completely eradicated. Vasanas are the inescapable remnant of experience – at least until you are set free from the experiencing entity you take yourself to be through the assimilation of self-knowledge. As long as you are an apparent person, you will have vasanas. In fact, the only reason you are the apparent person you appear to be is by virtue of the vasanas. The vasanas not exhausted in a previous lifetime find their way “into” or associate with a “new” mind-body-sense complex through which they can seek expression. In this way, vasanas are what set your prarabdha karma (i.e. the actions you are programmed to execute during the lifetime of the apparent person you currently take yourself to be) into motion and see it through to its end. Despite what some spiritual paths would have you believe, it is therefore neither desirable nor necessary to rid yourself of all desire, for had you no vasanas the apparent person you take yourself to be would have no life.
Ironically, the vasanas are impersonal and not under your control. You, the apparent person, did not choose the vasanas that influence – and most often compel – your actions. While your current indulgence of or resistance to them does serve to either strengthen or weaken their command, you did not consciously choose the preferences and proclivities associated with the apparent person you take yourself to be. What you as an apparent person consider your vasanas are actually Isvara’s vasanas expressing through a mind-body-sense complex “created” by Isvara in the first place precisely for that purpose. Understanding this fact, however, doesn’t mean that you throw caution and common sense to the wind and wantonly seek to fulfill all your desires without conscience, courtesy, compassion, or any sense of self-control. On the contrary, it allows you to take a dispassionate attitude toward your vasanas and rather than denying or repressing them temper their expression with an attitude of intelligent moderation.
As an apparent person you do have apparent free will and with it a modicum of influence within the complex web of factors that influence the results of any action that you can use to cultivate the kind of vasanas that are conducive to practicing self-inquiry and assimilating self-knowledge. Though you have no control over the desires and fears that arise within you, you can control how you respond to their demands and, thus, the degree of influence you continue to allow them over your life. As mentioned earlier, it is not necessary to completely eradicate all desires. What is important – assuming you seek self-knowledge and freedom from suffering – is to neutralize those binding vasanas (i.e. those whose directives you cannot resist) that extrovert your mind and prevent you from appreciating the innate fullness and inherent freedom that are your true nature.
With regard to the issue of sexual desire specifically, there are two practical approaches you can take to neutralizing its powerful influence over your mind.
The fundamental practice is to continually contemplate the inherent defects in object-oriented happiness. When you eventually realize that all joy that seems to come from objects offers only temporary relief from craving, and moreover that every indulgence in and experience of object-oriented pleasure only produces a vasana that exacerbates the desire, the allure of such counterfeit contentment drops away of its own accord. If this practice is coupled with the understanding that all objective joy is actually due to the dissolution of extroverting desire that ensues when you are momentarily satisfied with your lot and allow yourself to simply rest in the peace and happiness that are your true nature, your binding desire for objects quickly abates and eventually dissolves altogether. Fundamentally, “accessing” your innate happiness is a matter of knowledge. Putting stock in discrete transcendental experiences and spiritual epiphanies – or, for that matter, sexual gratification, which is itself a sort of transcendental bliss – only serves to maintain the separation of subject and object and leads to inevitable infatuation with such states and repeated frustration over not being able to sustain them indefinitely. Only knowledge can reveal that you’ve already got that which you so desperately seek to get over and over again. A whole-hearted commitment to self-inquiry under the guidance of a qualified teacher, therefore, is the most effective method by which to gain self-knowledge, permanently put an end to mental and emotional agitation and overall existential angst, and abide in the peace and happiness of pure awareness, which is you.
Because the vasanas are not going to simply vanish into thin air, it is vital that, in conjunction with a committed practice of self-inquiry, you also observe the dictum of the great modern Vedantin, Swami Chinmayananda, who urged seekers to “sin intelligently.” Keeping the goal of self-realization and freedom from samsara firmly in mind, you mindfully indulge those desires you cannot resist in moderation and allow yourself to enjoy “earthly” pleasures to the extent that they remain non-binding.
The moment you notice them beginning to burden your mind with agitation, bully you about with their demands, or blossom into gluttonous behavior, however, you restrict their diet, so to speak, until they have returned to a manageable size. Though it is a popular trend among serious spiritual seekers to embrace the practice of renunciation, too often this practice is misconstrued as simply a matter of ridding oneself of worldly possessions and refusing to perform certain profane actions. True renunciation, however, is fundamentally an attitude of dispassion resulting from both the knowledge that the self – i.e. pure awareness – was never attached to nor ever owned any object in the first place and the repeatedly reinforced realization that no object is capable of delivering anything more than temporary peace and happiness. In this regard, it is important to understand that neither denial nor repression is an effective means of neutralizing binding desires. Though you might be able to willfully restrain yourself from indulging them for a period of time, such powerful desires will inevitably erupt out of the Causal Body, agitate the Subtle Body, and express through the Gross Body, quite often in inappropriate and even adharmic ways. Figuratively speaking, denial and repression serve only to lock the monster in the dungeon, but fail to do away with it altogether. The moment the bolts of your willful control loosen, the monster breaks free and resumes wreaking havoc. It is best, therefore, to allow your wants a judicious degree of wiggle room until such time as self-knowledge finally lays them to rest.
There is nothing wrong with sexual gratification provided one keeps in mind the well being of all parties involved – thus far does true morality go, known as ‘the moral imperative’.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with abstinence, the celibate’s life, if one has the fortitude required. Muslim men and women, and I think also well-raised Hindus, are prescribed to lower the gaze when coming in front of a woman or passing by her – a tall order in the West, especially since the invention of the miniskirt and what is called ‘the sexual revolution’.
When asked about sex, Nisargadatta Maharaj replied that it is ‘energy’, hardly saying anything else; he only added: “Love is wise, sex is blind”. He then told his questioner: “All suffering is born of desire”, something with which all advaitin teachers will concur, the only legitimate desire being the desire for Truth, or liberation (which is liberation from untruth, unreality).
On another occasion a questioner made a similar observation as yours:
“The root of all desires and fears is the same – the longing for happiness”. Maharajah’s reply was: “The happiness you can think of and long for is mere physical or mental satisfaction. Such sensory or mental pleasure is not the real, the absolute happiness.” (I AM THAT, p. 144).
A (Dennis): I have just re-read the section on ‘Sex’ (I wrote this quite a long time ago!) I pointed out that the sexual element of desire and enjoyment is really an aspect of Darwinian evolution – an urge associated with intense enjoyment so that we are encouraged to propagate the species.
This is all part of the ‘working of the world’ and has nothing to do with ‘who-we-really-are’. It is all mithyA, irrespective of how real and pressing it might seem. Dwelling on it in any way will only take you away or keep you away from ever finding out the truth of the matter. And, let’s face it, you cannot prevent your body and mind from functioning in the way that nature has intended! Stop worrying about it! Turn your attention to the only thing that really matters, namely getting rid of Self-ignorance by trying to discover the nature of the world and your Self.
Of course, unless you retire from the world by becoming a monk or recluse (which wouldn’t really solve your problem anyway), you still have to function in the world. Participate to the extent that you need to – work and social life – and endeavor to function normally within it, whilst retaining a ‘witness’ attitude towards it so that you never lose sight of the real aim. If you can turn your efforts towards spiritual seeking, ideally with the guidance of a qualified teacher, then your desires will settle down into a more proportionately useful balance.
As you say, ‘happiness’ is your true nature but you don’t find your true nature by seeking to satisfy desires and thereby becoming happy. It is the other way round; you discover your true nature and then realize that you are happy (regardless of personal situation)!