Monday, January 9, 2017

The Power of Desire, the Danger of Wanting (January 8, 2017)

The thing I bought made absolutely no difference at all, and I have spent my whole life looking over hill, over dale for one thing and another, the one thing that would make the difference between who I was and who I wanted to be. An Italian suit or a cashmere sweater, bought from a saleswoman at Bergdorf's who knows me by name. She even called me after 9/11 to see if I was intact. A fancy car. A lovely house with an orchard on the beach in a country where I did not speak the language. Having my underwear ironed by a woman from Granada. Christmas. A touch on the cheek from some loving hand, some kiss on the mouth, some tangled embrace in the dark, however awkward; one obsession after another, knowing everything would fail, like the sneakers or the flannel shirt, knowing nothing would last, but something, something that would tell me that, finally, I was not helpless, I was not small, I was not weak or ugly or poor, ...

Some something that would mitigate the terrible beauty and unassuageable sadness of life.
I have never found it. I will look forever.

[From from THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT by Robert Goolrick p. 143]

IMG_4003Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions, "Restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee." That's a lot of restlessness. It is very deep and constitutes the pulse of life itself. His reference to "thee" suggests that desire can only be fulfilled beyond the normal limits of our planetary life. ... Yet Augustine's remark does suggest the great depth and expanse of human yearning, want and desire. These are driving words -- want, yearning, desire -- and there are others which suggest this itchy elemental core of a human being -- e.g., passion or even frenzy. Each of these words goes in a different direction of meaning or connotation. They all have some inadequacy. But if you have touched an elemental core in yourself you may use some of these words, as Augustine did in using restless, to express an inner force which sometimes surfaces in consciousness, dreams, touchings.

People want. They may want another person. They may want some thing. The people and things vary. But more basically people want. I've never met anyone who didn't. Having what one wants does not end the wanting. Denying

that one wants does not end the yearning. Sometimes folks turn their back to what they desire just when what had seemed impossible was possible for them. This desiring can be strange and powerful stuff.
[ RESTLESS IS THE HEART by Robert Kimball p. 2]


What do you want? If I had a magic wand and could give you your heart’s desire, right now, what would it be? This is actually a hard question for most of us. Even if you are healthy enough to come to church today, if you have food to eat and a warm safe place to sleep at night, there is still a sense of wanting, of a desire for something more that haunts us human beings. There is a hunger in our hearts asking us for…what?

When I began my training as a Spiritual Director some years back, I thought of Spiritual practice as something I SHOULD do. If it seemed dry and boring, that was only as I expected it should be. Imagine my surprise when our teachers suggested we set aside those “shoulds” and instead follow our desire. Now as a UU I was raised to believe that each of us has inner wisdom that we should follow. But as human beings living in community, we all get the message, probably many times a day, that we should set aside our desires in order to fulfill our obligations to one another. Remember when you were little and wanted to be a ballerina, a pilot, a professional baseball player, a fireman? (What did you want when you were a child?) We are taught from a young age that to be a responsible adult we must set those desires and dreams aside and do something practical.

It’s not just our big desires we are taught to ignore, but he little ones too- your body wants to run outside on a beautiful spring day? Ignore that- you are at a business meeting. You want to doodle during the long boring sermon? Ignore that – someone might see and think you were rude. You want to paint your house pink? What would people think! After a while, we learn to ignore the voice of desire, and it learns to be quiet so well that when someone asks “what do you want?” that part of us that used to know so clearly that you want to be a singer and live in a treehouse with your best friend, doesn’t even answer sometimes.

When folks come to me for spiritual direction they often confess, perhaps with some guilt or defensiveness, that they don’t have a regular spiritual practice. Why not? Because it would be boring and dry and they don’t have time for it anyway. But most people do have something that makes them come alive, that restores them when they are drained: an afternoon sailing, or walking through the woods. An evening by the fire with family or just pausing to wonder at a beautiful bird.

How would you feel if I suggested that following your desire in these ways is a spiritual practice?  What if we believed, with says UU minister Arvid Straube that: “Prayer is simply being in touch with the most honest, deepest, desires of the heart.”

To do that we might have to re-examine our assumptions about who God is and what spiritual practice is. I think maybe our puritan ancestors left us with the assumption that anything that feels good is probably bad for us. We suspect that God likes for us to be uncomfortable and bored- after all, church is often boring, so that probably means God prefers us that way. Our desires are temptations that keep us from stoically doing what we are supposed to do.

On the other hand, in some religious traditions that feeling of desire is an invitation … an invitation to move into deeper relationship with oneself and with the oneness of all that is. What if our deepest desires come from the divine, lead us back to the divine? Is this some new Unitarian Blasphemy? Actually, St. Augustine, early church theologian, bishop and church father, described this kind of desire: “restless is the heart until it rest in thee.” He believes that we long for a closer relationship with the divine, that we all have a kind of spiritual hunger built in, and we feel restless all our lives as we try to move into closer and closer relationship with the Spirit of Life. This holy desire is found in the words of Mystics of many faiths. For example the Sufi poet Rum writes: “I once had a thousand desires. But in my one desire to know you all else melted away.”

But, says Bob Kimball, who was my theology professor in seminary and who wrote our opening reading:
“ for many the desire becomes lost, or at least hidden or covered over, or perhaps so frightening it is as if lost. However it happens, many people lose touch with a request which is their own. They give up a want which is their right. They may even become comfortable living without this depth of themselves. But this inner realm of request does not disappear and the restlessness can only be covered at a cost” [p. 7]
The Jungians would agree - suggesting that our addictions and neuroses are in fact cost of ignoring or trying to drown out the restless desire for our truest deepest self, the self that is connected intimately to the web of life, to the divine.

When we ask that question “what do you want?” what we usually mean is- what do you want to consume? What do you want to eat, smoke, drink or buy? I’ve noticed that Car commercials are particularly clever at this -- articulating our deepest hungers and then implying that a cool new car will finally fill that hunger in our heart. Anyone who has struggled with addiction knows that that next drink will not cure the restlessness of our hearts, the best it can do is numb the pain for a short time, and then we crave another drink.

As the amazing Theresa Andersson sings:
we buy things that we never need
And then throw them all away
We're just tryin' to feed our empty heart
Our whole consumer culture is designed to prey on our hungry hearts. I know that when I go shopping, even if I am only window shopping, or maybe I just need a pair of socks, as I walk through the store looking at all the cool things, craving arises, I realize there are MANY things I suddenly want and by the time I leave the store – even if I found the perfect socks- I am an dissatisfied by all I don’t have.

I want to differentiate between the feeling of “craving” for those things which don’t feed us deeply, but only give us momentary relief and then leave us just as hungry and empty as we were before we had that first drink, or that first cookie.

I like to use the word desire for those deep hungers that come from our inner wisdom, that come from the spirit of life, and call us toward the journey into ourselves, call us toward connection with others and with something larger than ourselves. If what we carve is a cookie, then what we desire might be sitting down to a home cooked dinner – with real proteins and fiber and vitamins and minerals. While we may crave a cup of coffee when we are tired, what we really desire is a good night’s rest.

Our cravings and desires are easily confused. We have this restlessness in our hearts and we try all kinds of things to pacify that restlessness. Even healthy things like work can lead our restless hearts in the wrong direction. People work 60 hour weeks so they don’t have time to listen to their empty hearts. Sometimes doing good and noble things can help us feed our souls, but the same actions can also leave us just as empty and restless as before. How can you tell the difference? Only paying attention and listening to our inner wisdom can help us discern. When you put down your work, how does your heart feel? Do you feel like a ship without an anchor, or grounded like an old oak tree? Do you feel closer to your deepest self or do you feel scared to peek into your heart because you are afraid of what you’ll find there?

The Sufi poet Rumi writes about this very dilemma- how do we differentiate our desire for union with something larger than ourselves from our cravings and bad habits?
There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all ecstasies
are the same!
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley…
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.”
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
and is just ambling about[i]
This discerning is one of the most important parts of the spiritual journey -- discerning which desires are leading us towards health, towards something larger than ourselves, and which desires trap us. Rumi gives us some hints here suggesting we “choose the [desires] unadulterated with fear or some urgency about “what’s needed.’” Truly this advice is so hard for us responsible adults; there is so much that needs to be done to feed our family, to save the world. It can be challenging to hear our own desires over the urgent din of “what’s needed.”

Then Rumi goes on: “drink the wine that moves you as a camel moves when it’s been untied and is just ambling about.” That’s almost shocking to hear- a religious mystic comparing following our desire for the ineffable with the way “a camel moves when it’s been untied, and is just ambling about.” Because in this culture we value our worth by how productive we are. How could “ambling” be a sacred act?” When a camel is first untethered, I imagine- not having known camels personally- that after being tethered so long by those they work for, at first they are not quite sure what to do. I imagine the camel kind of wandering this way and that, following a smell here, eating a tuft of grass there; exploring his freedom. And I believe freedom is a critical part of the spiritual journey. As my teacher Janet Corso wrote: “our own heart's deepest desires (and desires of the deepest Self were God resides) which are always around greater fullness and freedom.” You are here in a UU church today because on some level you know that freedom is important. I want to affirm for you that being free to follow your heart’s deepest desires is a holy thing- is a path toward the divine.

Likewise, we know there are cravings which lead us away from freedom. We moderns call these addictions. By definition they tether us and limit us as we shape our lives around their fulfillment. So one way to approach spiritual practice is simply to untether ourselves for a while- to amble in the woods, to let the mind wander and just notice where it goes, to pick up a pen and see what comes out.

That can be a lot harder than it sounds. Sometimes when we do take a moment to try some spiritual practice, our heart might wail like a baby crying out for milk. We are so hungry for real nourishment that the cries of our spirit can be as disturbing as the bawling of a hungry infant. We would do almost anything to make it stop- and maybe a new car or a pint of ice cream would mute it for a while. But if we care about the health of the soul, it’s not enough to simply turn off the baby monitor so we don’t have to hear the cry; we need to figure out how to feed that deep need.

“What do you really want?” sometimes when we ask, the question echoes in an empty room. The child has learned not to cry out, because no one ever answers, and now there is only silence. At one time in my life, when I found myself in such a state, I came across these words from the poem “Unlearning to Not Speak” by Marge Piercy:
She must learn again to speak
starting with I
starting with We
starting as the infant does
with her own true hunger
and pleasure
and rage.
To reacquaint ourselves with our own deepest desires, we have to first acknowledge that we are hungry. We have to feel some unpleasant emotions. Sometimes admitting what we really desire is hard because getting it seems impossible. I want inner peace. I want justice for all people. I want to create something beautiful. I want to be part of something larger than myself. And most brazen of all- I want to experience my oneness with everything. When the world assures us that getting drunk is a far more reasonable and realistic response to our hunger, one of the most important jobs of religious community is to “simply being in touch with the most honest, deepest, desires of the heart.”

What do you want? What do you REALLY want. And what would it feel like to honor and follow the part of you that knows?

[i] from “The May Wines” p. 6 The Essential Rumi by Jalaluddin Rumi, Coleman Barks

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