Contact is fundamental: “The Eros of reality begins with touch. There is no life without contact. Without touch there is no desire, no fulfillment – and no mind.”1 I will go more deeply into Eros and touch in another posting. Here, rather, is my opportunity to discover how much I have really absorbed the basic Buddhist teachings on desire – after trying to understand them for almost 30 years.
In Buddhism they speak of “sense contact” as the primary experience that can lead to desire in terms of grasping, clinging, attachment and aversion – all of which result in the kind of suffering Buddhists call “dukkha”. Sense contact, in itself, is not a problem – that just happens by being alive. The problems come in what the mind can do with it.
Nature has designed living beings to move towards what is “pleasant” and move away from what is “unpleasant”. This is necessary at the base level for survival and, in itself, there is not a big problem in this – except you find you cannot simply do it. Human life is hugely complex, full of obstacles to our desire for our existence to be pleasant. Even simple organisms cannot escape their own demise. And don’t assume sensory pleasures will always be comfortable either. If we eat too much lovely food our stomach hurts. If we attach to a lover, it pains to part. The beautiful rose blossom opens and soon falls apart and drops to the muddy ground. The things we want – desire – will often be uncomfortable at times. I want to meditate – I have a strong desire to do so – it could be said that I really love it – but sometimes it causes my knees to hurt. Many of the things in life which I have truly desired, my children for instance, have caused me great heartache at times.
Some unpleasant experiences need to be gone through. The task is to be with them rather than turn away and close off from them. This is not easy. It’s a kind of “swimming against the tide” and is why there is such a strong emphasis on practice in Buddhism. You need to practice – lots – with the small, everyday unpleasant things, so that you can stand a chance of being able to open to and embrace the big unpleasant things, like dying. The reward for being able to do this is peace of mind – for some, a very deep peace of mind indeed.
Change is the only thing you can count on. If you embrace impermanence, there can be a great deal of joy – even, and sometimes especially, in the changing itself. Each changing has its own pace and is in consort with every other change connected to it. If you resist the changing – and its pace – that is what the Buddhists call “dukkha” – and dukkha is distinctly unpleasant. The Buddhist scholar and teacher, John Peacock, once described it as “like slowly rubbing your arm against a brick wall.” That really spoke to me. You would think that, due to its ultimately unpleasant nature, we would not indulge in it the way we do. But our minds are restless, always seeking to grasp the pleasant, however we view this, and push away the unpleasant. Nothing is ever quite right – it is always “unsatisfactory”. “Craving” is often defined as a sense of “unsatisfactoriness” and it is. But this gives no sense of how deeply unpleasant it can make our minds and lives feel. Dukkha is what happens when desire becomes “craving” – a sense of constriction around the experience of wanting and not wanting. Instead of opening to what is, there comes a closing and tightening, leading to all kinds of tortuous mental and emotional activity, which can feel very visceral indeed.
This is only scratching the surface of Buddhist practice and philosophy – but it is enough for now. There is certainly a lot of craving in many desires. My question here is: Is it possible to desire without craving? What does that feel like?
1 Weber, Andreas (2014) Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology; White River Junction, Vermont; Chelsea Green Publishing; p 16.