How can we uplevel our life by reframing desire?

In the course of my own journey, I have seen a clear sequence relating to my desires. This sequence has run for over 30 years…

If nothing else, I’ve learned patience and to stop counting how soon I’d get enlightened. I used to expect it would be any day. Then I thought it would be any lifetime. Now I no longer know whether I’m enlightened or not, and I don’t care because the process goes on inevitably and irrevocably. But the sequence is clear.

At first when I tasted of the possibility that the universe was not as I thought it was 

That I was not who I thought I was, I craved to enter into the realms of consciousness where there was a broader terrain. And I was drawn very powerfully to paths that had a renunciation base. These paths were based on the understanding that the pulls of the world were so strong that it was necessary to extricate oneself from these pulls by pushing away. The seduction of the gratification of desires was so powerful that one couldn’t do one’s work in the presence of these desires.

So I did indeed push those things away

And entered into practices that were done alone or in an ashram setting. And indeed, I did open up to other planes of consciousness and dwelled in them more and more of the time. The predicament was that, though I was often in ecstasy and bliss, I had a fear and an aversion to the worldly part of myself. I felt that my sexual desires and my desires for worldly pleasures and for comfort were clearly obstacles.

By being in an ashram in India these energies seemed to be almost totally absent. There was no advertising that tried to awaken the desires in me. I was not dealing with people who saw the world through the eyes of worldly concerns. And everybody around me was in the same situation. Most of them were more evolved than I was, so there was a tremendous support system for doing this inner work. But the pulls in me were still there, although very latent.

I recall in the winter of 1968 in India that the desire to be stimulated by worldly things was still very powerful. I was living in this tiny temple that had only two other people in it. It was very, very cold.

It was up in the Himalayas, and every day a bus went by that could take you to a larger city, that then you could take another bus to New Delhi. And from Delhi you could get an airplane to New York. When I was really terribly desirous I would take out my airplane ticket and I would stand at the window and watch the bus come and hold on to my ticket and imagine that I had written a note saying that I must leave.

Then I would have a fantasy of all the things I would do once I got back to New York; the restaurants I’d go to, the stimulation I would have, the sexual gratification, the moving about. After an hour or two I would be exhausted and I would think to myself, “Where I would really like to be is in a little temple in the Himalayas.” And then I would take the ticket, put it away and make my evening tea.

After some time I saw that the desires hadn’t really fallen away. They had just become more subtle. And they were more like what is called uncooked seeds waiting to sprout when the opportunity would arise.

If you don’t want a seed to sprout you must heat it over flame, but the flame of my practice had not destroyed the seeds of my desires. So I labeled myself as a horny celibate; I was busy not having sex. That’s not the same as if it had fallen away…

Each time I would come back to the United States, from spending time in India, I would try very hard to hold onto my high.

I would live in the country in a very remote place and just make infrequent journeys out into the world. Despite this, I found that I was still vulnerable to the seductions of the world and I had to accept the responsibility that they weren’t doing it to me, I was doing it to me.

I saw the conflict in my own being, that I wanted to be free and yet I didn’t want to give up my desires. There is a line from a Christian Abbott who said, “I would like to be like the desert fathers [those are renunciates] but I don’t want to be what I want just yet.”

What does it mean, the issue of giving up desires? It actually doesn’t mean that the desires end.

The desires still arise because they are part of the incarnation. They are the nature of karma. What changes is the identification of the awareness with the desire or the identification of the awareness with the emotional states. When you are accustomed to and habituated to intense emotional reactions to this and that, the spiritual awakening which involves letting go of that is a mixed blessing.

There is a period which is a very dark period, when you feel that you are losing the world but you are not gaining the spirit at the deepest level. St. John of the Cross refers to it as “the dark night of the soul”. At a more superficial level, the experience is one of the feeling of sadness as the worldly desires fall away. Things that gave you so much pleasure start to be empty to you. But you’ve built your whole life around wanting them, and it is hard to accept the fact that everything you did up to that point is no longer relevant.

If you have spent your whole life becoming somebody and having something, and then with awakening you turn around and you start the journey in the other direction of becoming nothing, becoming nobody and having nothing. It would seem to make the whole first part of life meaningless or some sort of error.

But it’s important to see that this sequence is a necessary sequence, that when one takes incarnation in an evolutionary moment when one is going to awaken, you still have to become somebody and become grounded on earth before you can do the spiritual work.

Part of the experience of living richly has been identification with the desires and emotions, with the passions of life, with the hatreds and the joys, with what I call the “mellow drama” of life. Each of us has an intense drama going on around ourselves. Will we, won’t we, can we, can’t we, should we, shouldn’t we? And with awakening one begins to see the way one has been trapped in one’s story line. But it doesn’t mean the story ends. The Ram Dass story is alive and well. The only question is, who’s living it?

Am I Ram Dass or am I just, “I am”?

-Ram Dass

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