A Buddhist Counselors Thoughts On The 4 Ways You Dance With Desire
Updated: Jul 19
SOMETIMES there are outlooks on life you have and you don't know you have them. Your outlook on life is a seriously potent force. In the absence of awareness, how you see, your outlook, who you think you are, your identity and what’s motivating, how desire is living in you, are a triad collaboratively and covertly sourcing your sense of self, purpose and meaning. All of us are seeing and experiencing life with a particular pair of eyes, too often not knowing what pair of eyes we’re seeing and experiencing through. Logics we live in, hidden stances, perspectives so intimate they aren’t on the self-reflection radar. In Zen we say, “ the eye that sees can’t see itself” This is subtle. We can rarely get outside of our outlook enough to get perspective on it. Sometimes someone points it out to us and sometimes life points it out, but the opportunity to see and the desire to see rarely converge. The particular outlooks I want to unfold are 4 ways you dance with desire.
The first way i'm calling object or object orientation. In Buddhist texts, there's a lot of talk about subject and object. Subject is the sense of ‘I Am’ , the ubiquitous sense of being one who experiences, who is impressed upon, a conscious agent within a world. Sometimes we call it the sense of self. They talk about objects as all the things that subjects orient towards or experience. The whole problem of human life is boiled down to misunderstandings about the nature of this subject and object. In this object orientation, we have various objects we desire, objects that we want or want to avoid , as well as objectives we want to fulfill. An object can be an empty bladder, a nap or a meal. It can be meaningfulness in work or success in career. It could be approval or love or other inchoates. Our wanting can get more refined - wanting individuation, Nirvana, awakening, spiritual growth, etc.
The object orientation typically thinks, “What I want is not here. What I want is not here. What is meaningful to me is elsewhere.. “ “ I am in a state where I need to make contact with that which is satisfying or meaningful and I don't have it yet. “ That can be something we consider sublime or something really ordinary. Lately, i'm fixated on Blue Star donuts here in Portland. These are fantastic donuts. I would call them sublime objects. So I get fixated on these donuts. . Another version of object orientation is “ The work that I want to do is to be done later, over there, this is not the place that I want to impact, or is worth impacting. That's over there, in another place, somewhere in the future. We also do this with states of mind. We feel like our current state of mind is of lesser value than some other state of mind and so we orient towards the better state of mind.
This object orientation is so basic, it's kind of redundant to write about and tease apart. But there's some interesting questions around it. Is this just the way human life is - chasing after objects? Did this somehow happen by accident? There are spiritual mythologies that talk about some primordial time when we were in Union and had not yet split off from life as separate subjects. There was a mergedness that we lived within and then we lost it. There are various propositions of how that came to be. Most of them point to the arising of language and the sense of self co-arising with language, naming things. I can think of myself as a discreet entity because I start distinguishing things as different than me. By labeling other, not-me, me is created. Some of these not-me’s I want to contact and consume, some I want to avoid or destroy. This is a simplistic but sober summation of an unconscious human life.
The questions of how we ended up in this object orientation presuppose that it's wrong. We’re taught about this as a fallen state and that we can or should get back to the reality before the Fall. But how do we know it's wrong, a fallen condition? One piece of feedback is that we just can't figure out how to feel good. Something feels off about our way of life and the object orientation towards life is pointed to as the culprit. It’s a potent logic. In some contemplative philosophies this situation is viewed as an eternal trap. Maya, the play of illusion, Samsara. The dissatisfying object orientation is perpetually self renewing, just keeps happening, you just keep wanting that Blue Star donut. We’re invited to look directly at this self-renewing dance of desire and dissatisfaction. These philosophies point out that it's a folly to think you can ever be truly satiated because that's presupposes there's some solid thing in you that can be filled like a vessel. If it were like that, then great, you would fill it up, but it's just not how it works, the self is not like a bucket. We might believe that there is some object out there with enduring qualities that will consistently hit the spot, but there isn't. We believe that if we satisfy one part of us, we will satisfy the whole of us, but it doesn’t. Different parts of us have different desires for different objects. There's not just one part of us that desires. We contain multitudes and thus are full of conflict and contradiction. The proposition of these contemplative philosophies is that if we let go of the object orientation, we're free from the stress of seeking and what remains is peace, bliss, or fulfillment. Think about moments of intense pleasure and the moment after, when a new desire has not yet risen up to take its place, what’s the condition of your being? How do you feel? Maybe what you really wanted was not the thing or experience, but to extinguish the wanting for that thing or experience. Does that mean that Blue Star donuts are actually a means to Nirvana?
Sublimation is what happens when we let go of a particular object orientation so our desire flows towards an object we feel is more worthy. We start to want smarter. I like that phrase. We want smarter. Through our reflection, we know what's worth wanting, at least for the time being, because we can't actually rely on our desires to be consistent, can we? For example, when you're in your twenties and you're getting an education, you desire to go in one direction and then 10 years later, that direction is no longer meaningful to you. There's some flavor of what's called eternalism in this object orientation- that there is something that stays the same, that there is something that is always. With awareness you find that what you desire is mercurial, nebulous, only temporarily coalescing in patterns that bring you alive, though there certainly are life long themes. Another consequence of eternalism can be believing objects you desire are the right or the worthy ones, so you judge those who don't share the same belief. For example, it’s not uncommon with spiritual practitioners to hold the outlook that cultivating the heart is the most meaningful thing and therefore part of them is like, “ Man, those other people don't know what life's really about…” “ They don't know what really matters… if they only knew…. “
I read that we’ve been hunter gatherers for 99% of our existence as human beings. The current agricultural and post-sustenance living is relatively new. So I think we are just wired for seeking, venturing forth into the adventure of touching and relating with and consuming the world. Collectively, we’ve done this seeking for survival and pleasure for a long, long, long time. This everyday dance of desire makes juicy our slice of the drama. When this juice is absent it catches our attention, for sure. Whether it’s the root of misery, the source of everything good, both or neither, Desire is a force. Dreaming, deciding, anticipating, acquiring, repeat is juicy, it gives tangible purpose, each of us endlessly imaginating and inhabiting our own dance of a delicious life.
The next way you dance with desire i'm calling Objectless. The 13th century Japanese Zen Master Dogen Zenji said “ Don't practice the Dharma to benefit yourself and don't even practice it to benefit other people, practice the Dharma for the sake of the Dharma, practice the Way for the sake of the Way.… “ Dharma means truth, awareness, a bright, right-relationship intimacy with what is. In the Objectless dance you’re experiencing awareness not as medicine or a tool or an instrument to improve your or anyone else’s life. That's an object orientation. Experiencing awareness, not as a medicine or a tool, seeing itself has meaningfulness, seeing itself is bright.
Just to see, just to experience, is the fulfillment of life.
There's a discipline of this called objectless meditation. In Zen, it’s called shikantaza. There’s really two things to it. First, you don't focus on anything in particular. You let awareness rest in its own nature. Second, you don't have a goal. They come together, awareness and no goal, because as long as you have a goal, then what is really here, you can't fully experience it, you’re oriented, however subtly, away from what is happening. When you have a goal than a goal parameters your body, your heart and your mind. You can see that when you sit and meditate with the orientation of no goal, how much instinct, impulse and habit there is to correct experience, the orientation towards comfort. “ My mind needs to be a little bit more… my body needs to be a little bit more … “ With objectless meditation, you’re feeding on the space of being. You're nourished by the energy of your own existing. The universe enjoys itself with utmost nearness. This is uncommonly empowering. These practices arose outside of a capitalist context and are especially beautiful within this capitalist context- a practice that is about being nourished by the energy of your own existing.
Now the tricky thing is that this very way of being tends to become an object you desire. As soon as you hear it’s a good thing, you go chasing it. For example, “ I’m chasing donuts. I'd rather not chase donuts. I’d rather feed on my own energy. That sounds much more spiritual. “ It happens like that. The new, more spiritual object presents to your mind as desirable. Reflect on your life- when you aren't motivated by object desire, in that interval, how are you motivated? I like to think about desires as animating us. A particular desire is living through you and when there isn't a desire living through you, what is living through you? What's it like when you don't want things to be different, not even an iota? What is animating you at that time? You’re still alive.
We're always dealing with dualities. Anything you can say or conceive falls on one side or another of a polarity. Now we're talking about the objectless orientation, but that implicates the object orientation. The Asian traditions say that desirelessness is liberation. In that, do you have nothing you desire or a different relationship to what you desire? Is it a different relationship to the experience, the energy of desire itself? Because in awareness we can have desire and have some room to choose how we respond to it. It's not necessarily that you have to extinguish desire but how you respond to the arising of desire in the moment. When desire arises in an accommodating ,welcoming mind and body, it’s an invigorating, deepening force.
With this objectless way, you become available to be of service. You're available to serve because your energy and attention are less object oriented. Inner space and energy are freed up. There's room to see where you might best be of service. This is a practice in itself, this is definitely a practice in monasteries and ashrams. I think this might be the practice of mothers and fathers and any caretaker. When it's healthy, you transcend yourself. You're freed from the object orientation through a whole hearted offering of your being. Usually my attitude towards this is, “ Oh, I really don't want to do that because my desires are important and I want to fulfill them. “ But when I'm in a situation where I'm consenting to service, i'm lifted out of my desires and it's a big relief. It all depends on whether you consent to the situation or not.
Of course, service can be object oriented. We can so easily slide into that. I find it hard to believe that any teacher or parent doesn't ever work with the desire to want their child or their student to be healed or happy or transformed in the way they desire them to be healed or happy or transformed. We're in the freedom of objectless service and the object orientation slips in. We want to see the result of our service. What then happens, energy is drained, drained by disappointment, leaked in the futile effort to control. The one object you have the least control over is a human being, who they become and how they unfold.
There's a certain magic I’ve seen in people that are holding a vision of their service’s outcome. This magic is holding a vision of its outcome, having a particular aspiration and working towards it, really wanting to see the change- to see the project come to fruition, to see the healing, and yet they do this with a freedom from hope and disappointment. It’s magic because usually when we don't have expectation, we disinvest our energy from a relationship or endeavor. To fully live, to give fully, without expectation is something marvelous.
The next way you dance with desire I’ll call Co-Creation. To set the stage, I want to take a little detour into Buddhist philosophy. In essence, Buddhism is about being freed from the belief in eternalism and belief in nihilism. I want to context this within purpose. Desiring purpose or meaning is a desire that is hard or perhaps impossible to shake, right? Most people feel that life should have purpose. When you're in the belief and outlook of eternalism, you feel that there is an inherent purpose to life or there is one true purpose for you or other people or the world. That life is for X. That's what it is for everyone, all the time, not just for you at this moment.
Thinking that there is some thing, person or way of being that will never let you down or will always infuse your life with purpose is also eternalism. It’s not true. For it to be true, you would have to be able to press pause on the flow of reality. But your mind is a living entity, permeating and being permeated by the world, knowing no stasis. In nihilism, on the other hand, you not only see and feel that there is no inherent purpose, there’s no making of purpose or sense of purpose that’s not self-delusional. No matter actually matters. People are fooling themselves, nihlism thinks, life is empty, hollow and it’s best for them to get on with bearing this.
In the mode of Co-Creation, you’re not seeing or feeling purpose as a given or as non-existent or delusional. It's not divinely ordained or built into existence, neither you nor anyone else were born with an unchanging, inherent meaning to your life. Yet you know you can respond to your circumstances and make those meaningful. Being free from purposelessness and inherent purpose, you creatively author an engaged life. You see clearly the nature of desire, you understand the rules of the game. You know that things can’t be leaned on too much, you get that, you’re okay with that, and still you decide not to leave desire behind. You fully engage in life for its juice. You know you don't lack anything fundamentally yet you still choose the work of shaping your life one way or another. You know that no thing, action or way of being is the final solution or ultimate way for you or anyone else, yet you still choose to engage wholeheartedly. You are choosing what you will lose and suffer loss over. But now it’s conscious. You choose the way you'd like to wander in the dream of life. You make meaning or purpose for yourself in a conscious participation in the comedy of life. It doesn't mean for a time that a project or work or relationship is not desired or meaningful. It means exactly that- for a time, this project, this relationship, this activity is desirable or meaningful. You know that it's going to transform and still you choose to engage an ongoing co-creation of meaning with life.
The last way you dance i'm calling Play. Play is when you have no orientation. You're unhooked from the past and the future. You’re unhooked from the polarity of the object or objectless orientation. Desires aren't yanking your body and mind around. Ideals aren't shrouding you. Shame isn't shaping your heart because shame needs something from the past to be ashamed of. In Play, you’re untethered from the past, present with no reference, and thus your world is enchanted with a neverbeforeness. I remember being in the mountains, encountering a cloud and being struck wordless, suspended in a virgin moment, seeing for the first time. Play can spontaneously animate you. You might hear your name and feel that what that name refers to is a vastness such that whatever you call it is correct. The idea that you are unworthy or unholy or needing improvement or redemption or enlightenment isn't there. The idea that you are worthy, you are enlightened, you are a badass, isn't shaping your actions. You’re lighthearted because your heart is not carrying the weight of desire in the form of should be. You're not shoulding upon yourself or accepting the shoulds of others.
Think about the obstacles to Play. Consensus reality and the people under its spell find this mode of play strange or offensive to their adult sensibilities. It’s threatening. If you're serious in your affect and outlook or if you are heavy hearted, you tend to think that everyone should be heavy hearted - it’s the proper, sober response to the seriousness of life. Someone who's not serious may fall in love, criticize or be at odds with the Playful. They think they're doing life wrong, violating a sacred principle of maturity. Culturally, we only allow children and clowns and actors and some mystics the ability to be this way for more than a few moments. Misery loves company, right? We want grown people to be serious and heavy hearted like us because if they’re not, it invites an introspective look at this seriousness.
Play is childlike, but not childish. A critic might say, “ This is just regression to a primitive or a childish stage or development. “ Perhaps sometimes that’s whats happening with folks, but not here. Play is not irresponsibility. It’s a responsiveness free of self-righteousness and it’s biases and indifference and it’s numbness. You have a healthy ego, but it's light. The self, world and objects are there, but they’re there lightly and you’re holding them lightly, if at all. The self and the world are not decided on as being one way or another. Say you have a belief that it's a Dog Eat Dog World. Your grandfather had that belief and your grandmother, and then your mother inherited it and transmitted it to you. It got deeply embedded and you unknowingly see through those eyes. In contrast, you don't know if the world is Dog Eat Dog or not and you don't need to know if it is or not. You don't need to have a position about anything and that's why you can play, trusting your portion of being and the world arising from trusting your portion of being. Speaking of the arising world, the worlds of contemplative practice and socio-political engagement are beginning to really intersect in our times so the playful activist is emerging and inspiring- a freely shapeshifting, when necessary code-switching, big-hearted human, stresslessly sparking change with a Coyote laughter.
So those are 4 ways you dance with desire. It goes without saying this is not an authoritative statement about who you are or how desire is. All of the aforementioned dances may be, after all, the same. Or there might be 7 ways to dance with desire and 30 ways to view those dances. There may not even be such a thing as desire, when we look real close. I wrote this because it seems a desire to amplify awareness in the world animates me. I want people to be happy and free, thus I’ve tried to convince you to desire an awakened relationship with desire. Because you can live your dance and simultaneously be empowered with metacognition of your dance, seeing how you're doing the dance as you do it. You work and you love and at the same time you see how and why you're working, how and why you're loving. You see the orientation you're in and with that seeing, another way to do you can open up. I believe you have tasted all these states of being, if only in a dream. In a waking dream, Plato taught that the universe and all its creatures are animated by Eros, the archetypal force of desire. Desire. How is it dancing you?
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