Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lust in the Dust

In Buddhism's extensive teachings on how to work with the kleshas, or afflictive emotions, anger usually receives the lion's share of attention. This is not without good reason: in a moment of unmanaged anger, we can commit negative actions whose consequences will stay with us for the rest of our lives (and for future lives, too, say Buddhists). A single flash of strong anger, unrecognized and acted upon, can be like a small match that burns down the entire house of our best intentions. Anger and its kissing cousin, hatred, are the root of violence and suffering at every level of society, from personal relationships to wars between nations.

Our emphasis on working with anger means that the other kleshas -- desire and jealousy and willful ignorance and pride and so forth -- sometimes get the short end of the stick. Yet these mind-states can be just as problematic and painful as anger; we can just as easily lock ourselves into a realm of suffering when we get caught up in these emotions and act out on them. And people have different propensities based on their own karmic disposition: some naturally get angry at the drop of a hat, but others more easily get lost in pride or jealousy or some other klesha.

Desire is especially problematic for many people, myself included. In fact, I sometimes think that anger -- destructive as it is -- is relatively easy for us to catch before it can do any harm, but desire can be much more tricky and difficult to see in action. As with anger, unmanaged feelings of desire -- especially if blindly acted upon -- can cause tremendous suffering. Feelings of desire arise in response to an object -- a thing or a person or an experience -- that is perceived as desirable, and the emotion then takes on the particular coloring of lust, greed, clinging, obsession, and so on. When desire spins out of control and becomes our dominant mind-state, we slip into addictions of all kinds and get lost in compulsive poverty-mentality. We feel that we are incomplete unless we have the desired object.

Lust, in particular, is something we work with a lot these days. Surely people have always been afflicted and driven by feelings of lust -- same as it ever was -- but there is also something to be observed about our present-day society's conflicted obsession with sex. We are hypnotized by youth and beauty and virility, and we are manipulated with sexual images to buy cars and shaving cream. We go to the gym to reshape our bodies to make them more desirable to others; we twist and augment our faces through surgery to create the illusion of youth and attractiveness; we take medications to remain sexually active right up to the door of the nursing home, and perhaps beyond. According to the Playboy philosophy of life that is celebrated in our culture, the very point of living is to experience lust and to satisfy our lusts, and the man who dies surrounded by the most hot, surgically augmented babes in bikinis -- human toys -- is the winner.

From the perspective of the Buddhist teachings, lust is like any other emotional state. It is a powerful, vivid arising of raw energy within the mind, and -- depending on what we do with that energy -- it has the potential to give rise to extreme neurosis or extreme wisdom. Lust can be powerful fuel for waking up and recognizing the nature of mind if we relate to its energy directly and fully; but because we don't know how to relate to it properly, it becomes fuel for the fires of delusion and suffering into which we habitually put ourselves. Through analytical meditation and practices like Mahamudra, we can begin to disassemble the experience of lust -- like any other thought or emotion -- and see through its inner workings. This process of insight doesn't necessarily rid us of lust (as if that would even be desirable), but it gives us new perspective and space around the experience so that we can relate more skillfully to lust when it does arise.

When we see an object (or person) that arouses our desire, we form an image of that object in our minds; this image continues to haunt us even when the object itself is no longer in front of us. We perceive this image through a dualistic lens, as if we are over here and the image of the desired object is over there. Because it is perceived as something real and separate, it gains a certain power over us; it has the capacity to torment us because we then feel that we must bring it into ourselves, we must possess it.

What we fail to see, most of the time, is that this image of the desired object is a projection of our own minds. Like any thought, it is a ripple of mind itself -- not something apart from mind -- and it has no substantiality, nothing in it that can be grasped or dispelled. We also overlook the key fact that the desirability we attribute to the perceived object is, yet again, a figment of our own minds. What we perceive as desirable is a projection based on our own habitual patterns (a.k.a. "karma"), but it has no more substantial or objective basis in reality than the image in our imaginations.

Think about it: the image in your mind that evokes such a strong and solid reaction of lust in you might very well evoke a reaction of total disgust and revulsion from the person sitting next to you, if that very same image were to pop into his or her mind. Rationally, we know that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," as the old adage goes; but our emotional experience and the behavior that springs from it usually do not mirror what we know rationally to be the case. At an emotional level, we think that the object itself possesses the characteristics of desirability.

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa touched on this point when he taught in New York City in 2008. The problem, he said, is not that we feel attraction or revulsion towards something — it’s that we go too far, and one-sidedly adopt or reject an entire thing on the basis of one (or a few) attributes — we confuse the attributes with the thing that appears to possess them.

Lust, like any emotion, is a chain reaction. Once we have seen the object and fixed our minds upon it as a desirable thing, then a powerful swell of energy arises in response. This energy is so strong that it causes immediate physical changes in our bodies: we grow flushed and hot, our heart beats faster and our throat tightens, our whole gut seems to clench with the feeling of longing and desire -- and, of course, other body parts also respond as nature intended for them to do. (I read about a scientific study of sexual arousal in male subjects that used sensitive instruments to record changes in blood flow to the reproductive organ in response to various types of arousing images. The study demonstrated that our bodies are much more accurate gauges of lust than our minds. Sometimes our bodies even respond with arousal to things that our conscious minds don't recognize as attractive.) Along with this physical response comes a state of mind that fixates one-pointedly on the perceived object and says, "I must have this, and I cannot rest or be happy until I do."

This raw, vivid energy of lust arising in the mind and body can be extremely uncomfortable, almost unbearable, and our standard reaction is to look for some way to suppress it (stuff it down and pretend it doesn't exist) or to release it (act out on it, merge with the lust-object). But when we take either of these habitual exits away from the uncomfortable feeling of lust, we miss the opportunity to look directly at this powerful manifestation of mind's energy and to glimpse its true nature. By attempting to escape from the rawness of lust through suppressing it or acting out on it, we reinforce our mistaken belief in the solid reality of our thoughts and perceptions; we compound the illusion that the thoughts and feelings experienced in lust are separate from the mind that experiences them. And we strengthen the mental template that programs us to react with lust, in the future, whenever a similar kind of image arises in our minds or appears to us in the external world.

When kleshas get me going
And their heat has got me burning
I try no antidote to set them right.
Like an alchemistic potion turning metal into gold,
What lies in kleshas' power to bestow
Is bliss without contagion, completely undefiled.
Kleshas coming up -- sheer delight!

-- Gyalwa Gotsangpa (1189-1258)

The Vajrayana Buddhist teachings on emotions tell us that the raw, naked energy of a strong emotion such as lust is nothing other than the wisdom of awakened mind itself -- like a powerful wave arising in the ocean of mind. Just as a wave takes its particular shape and form due to conditions such as wind and current, our lusts and desires arise and take their particular shape and form due to conditions within us -- conditions that we ourselves have created, but which we cannot always see. When we fixate on the wave, on our lust and its illusory object, and think that it's solid and real and something has to be done about it, we lose sight of the ocean that is our true being. We actually forget who we are.


Unknown said...

Glad you are writing more

Unknown said...

I would like to see you write more personally rather than using we and us so much. In Dorje Denma Ling community meetings it always comes up that people are encouraged to speak for themselves and to use I and me in speaking. It is a gentler read when what is presented comes from a personal direct voice rather that a detached and narrative voice. I love your writing and am glad for the connection to you as you progress along your path. Since your ordination your writing has flourished and I hope you write more.
Lust in the Dust is great because in a talk today the experience of attraction came up where the teacher pointed out how attraction often comes with a sense of poverty. " I want that person" followed by a narrative about how that could or could not happen. Attraction is powerful - as I go along I am experiencing how it differs from being magnetized.

Dennis Hunter said...

Thanks, E. I try to reserve "I and me" for passages where I'm telling my own stories or providing personal examples to illustrate a point, but I use "we and us" when writing generally about things that seem to be more or less universal experiences.

Ponlop Rinpoche says that within the experience of attraction or passion there is actually a very pure and beautiful energy of joy that is the essence of one of the five wisdom energies. Trouble is, we don't experience it that way, or leave it at that -- we typically take that energy and grasp at it and spin out into obsession and grasping.