If we are to end the war against the self, the struggle to be good, and the war against nature that goes along with it, we must instead trust nature. First and foremost that means to trust our own nature: our built-in guidance system of pain and pleasure, aversion and desire. To do so runs counter to several thousand years of conditioning, so we may be excused if it takes a bit of time to learn the new habit of self-trust.
Civilization started with domestication, the turning of animals and plants to human ends. In doing that, we created a conceptual divide between the human and the natural realm, between the domestic and the wild. It is unsurprising, then, that domestication would have been applied inwardly too,
toward the mastery of the human animal. Biological drives became something dangerous, something to be controlled. The ascended human was someone who has mastered his urges, who was willing to suffer pain and sacrifice pleasure for the sake of a higher good. (The external application of this kind of morality is called Fascism; internally the results are no less oppressive.)
Therefore we praise the person who goes against her desires, who is not “selfish.” We validate whatever is hard to accomplish, and denigrate the easy. “It would have been really easy for me to just drive on by, but I stopped to help that stray puppy.” Hard equals good, easy equals bad. It is hard to fight desire, easy to succumb to it. It is hard to resist pleasure, easy to avoid pain. Hence we derive the formulae: pleasure equals bad; pain equals good.
These formulae run utterly contrary to biology, in which pleasure and pain are essentially guidance mechanisms directing an organism toward beneficial things and away from harm. In mammals though, parental acceptance is an even stronger motive than the desire to avoid pain. If we must do painful things in order to be accepted (in order to be “good”), then eventually we come to associate pain, or at least some forms of it, with good. This is the domestication of the human animal, the conquest of nature internalized.
You might recognize these formulae from religion, which (outside its esoteric core, which teaches the opposite) is a key ally in the program of domestication. This is true of any religion founded within
civilization; it is not, as far as I know, true of shamanic religions. The closer a religion is to the shamanic past, the more it allows and celebrates pleasure. Hence Protestantism is more dour than Catholicism, and the shamanically-colored religions of Hinduism and folk Taoism are more pleasure-positive still.
As the Ascent of Humanity reached its apex in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries, the artificial conceptual divide between spirit and matter peaked as well. In religion, the realm of spirit became entirely separate from, and opposed to, the realm of matter, and the soul became separate from the body. Science did away with the former realm altogether, substituting culture, the mind, conditioning, and so forth as the oppositional counterpart to the body. Here as in almost every important question, science and religion agree: we have a uniquely human part and an animal, biological part, and to be “good,” to enjoy the benefits of civilization, to be ascended above animality, the human part must prevail.
Let me put it another way. For centuries, up until quite recently, science and religion agree: You are bad. In religion it is Original Sin, or Calvin’s “total depravity of man,” from which only the
intercession of a non-earthly, supra-biological Christ can save us. In science it is the selfish gene, the drive to maximize self-interest at the expense of all other organisms. As Richard Dawkins, a leading proponent of the selfish gene theory, writes, “Natural selection favours genes which control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and different species.” In other words, it is our fundamental genetic nature to ruthlessly exploit other beings to get what we want. That sounds like a pretty good definition of “bad” to me! Biology is evil; so, we must look to the countervailing force of culture to control it.
This ideology saturates our culture and indeed our entire civilization. There has always been a thread of resistance to it, manifesting at times as various hedonistic countercultural movements, most notably the Hippie movement of the 1960s. All of them were maligned, coopted, or both, yet all were also precursors and preparers for a profound sea change that is gathering force today.
In my last essay I described how we try to control ourselves through a regime of threats and incentives, attempting to use biology against biology, tapping into our greatest fears in order to control our strongest desires. Now I would like to describe a different way of living, one that subverts the program of domestication and control, that ends the war against the self and the war against nature that accompanies it, and that participates in the sea change I referred to above: a vast civilizational shift toward partnership with nature.
Most people, myself included, initially feel a powerful resistance (and a powerful attraction) to the idea of fully trusting desire. They produce all kinds of examples to prove that it would be disastrous. A lot of my work is around food — initially, the kind we put into our mouths, but now anything we take into our being. Whatever we pay attention to is our food. People say, “If I trusted desire and ate whatever I wanted, it would be a disaster. I’d eat bags and bags of potato chips. I’d eat all those things that taste good but aren’t good for me.” It seems a truism that the things that are bad for us taste good. It also seems true that we must fight desire to get up and do a workout instead of lounging in front of the TV. It seems true that when we give into our impulses, we start shouting at someone, or indulge in an addiction, or pointlessly surf the Internet for hours. Desire and pleasure seems to lead us away from productivity, away from patience, away from virtue, away from health, and toward sloth, greed, obesity, and degeneracy.
This is an illusion. The binges, the explosions, and the helpless compulsions that we see as desire unleashed are the result of losing control, not of a life without control. Let me use a silly story to explain. Once upon a time, a man had a pressure cooker, but the hole where the steam is supposed to escape was blocked. The heat was on, the water was boiling, the pressure was building — finally it popped a leak somewhere else. Quickly the man soldered it shut. It popped another leak, and another as he frantically applied solder. Finally he had encased the whole thing in a new layer of metal. Problem solved, right?
The steam in this story represents desire. If the natural target of the desire is blocked, then it will reach for the best substitute available. If we clamp down on desire entirely, the result, after the pressure builds sufficiently, is an explosion: a binge, a bender, an outburst. In the war against desire, desire always wins. But the substitutes for what we really want cause great harm to ourselves and others.
Before I give some common examples of substitute desires, I would like to discuss the origin of desire. Desires come from unmet needs. If you hold your breath, you will feel a desire to breathe. If you need food, you will feel a desire to eat. Moreover, it feels good to meet our needs: eating,
breathing, sexual release, tactile stimulation all feel good. This is the deep link between need, pleasure, and desire that keeps us alive in this world. On a fundamental level, the process of merely staying alive feels good! This is the generosity of the universe. We get pleasure simply from meeting our needs. We don’t need to coerce ourselves into eating or breathing. Mystics who become aware of the pleasure of breathing, of thinking, of sensing, of being speak of the ultimate nature of reality as “existence-bliss-absolute.” Bliss is the default state of existence, from whence we came and to which we will return. We depart from it only temporarily and with great effort.
One of the unmet needs of our culture is the need for adventure, for exploration; the need to test our limits and explore the boundaries of our world. We desire these things, but for many of us living in a society that values order and security, they are unavailable. We turn instead to substitutes: exhilarating amusement park rides, thrilling movies, gambling, exciting snack foods. The creators of fast food and junk food commercials understand this, and portray their products as novel and exciting. It’s party time!
Unfortunately, no matter how many Doritos you eat, no matter how many thrillers you watch, the need to explore the limits of your world goes unmet. The desire intensifies, requiring a higher and higher dose of substitutes to assuage.
The same thing happens when we identify with sports stars and superheroes as a substitute for the magnificent expression of our own gifts; when we use sweet treats as a substitute for others means of self-love; when we use video games or drugs as a substitute for play.
I think the biggest unmet need of our society is the need for connection. This need is fundamental to all living beings, and its denial is built in to the sense of self, discrete and separate, that underlies our civilization. We are probably the loneliest people ever to inhabit planet earth. We live among strangers: strangers grow our food, make our clothing, build our houses, sing our songs, even, for the most part, heal our illnesses, cook our food, and take care of our children. The reasons for this are deep, having to do with the conversion of social capital (relationships, which are personal) into money, which is not. But all of these were once intimate functions. Sometimes I find it obscene to pay money for any of these things. There is a word for the exchange of something intimate for money, and it is not very nice.
We are meant to live in a web of intimacy. Tribal people and agrarian villagers knew every face they saw, intimately. A stranger was a rare event. You knew the stories of everyone around you, and they knew your stories. They knew you so well that it was unnecessary and futile to ever be fake or wear a mask. Being known, you knew yourself as well. Bereft of these relationships, we do not know who we are, and suffer therefore a thirst for identity and connection. We are bereft as well of our relationships to the land, to place, to nature. We used to be intimately with the songs of a hundred birds. Every plant we saw, we knew what it smelled like, when it bloomed, what it was used for, what insects like it, and what birds eat those insects. We knew every hill and stream. We were secure in a rich web of being.
Cut off from community and from nature, we suffer today a terrible unmet need to connect. We meet that need as best we can. Some do it with food: perhaps the most direct, tangible affirmation of connection. “Yes, I exist,” it says. Some do it with shopping. Some do it with celebrity news and soap operas, a substitute for real, two-way intimacy with the stories of each other’s lives. But no amount of food, no amount of Reality TV, can satisfy our need to know the songs of a hundred birds or the stories of a hundred faces. These substitutes merely quell the longing temporarily without meeting the need.
The situation is much like the man who was thirsty, so he ate an ice cream cone. Ah, how cool and wet it is. But five minutes later, his thirst returns redoubled. So what does he do? He does what worked last time — eats another ice cream cone. Now he is even thirstier. He has a few more. Now he knows he’s got an ice cream problem, an addiction. He tries to control himself, gritting his teeth, applying all his willpower, telling himself he is weak and bad and greedy for wanting so much ice cream. Everyone else seems to be controlling themselves — why can’t he? Finally his thirst is too great, he can’t stop himself. He eats another one, castigating himself for his weakness.
Anything that dulls the pain from an unmet need without meeting the need is potentially addictive. Here is another key part of the puzzle: not only does it feel good to meet a need, but an unmet need hurts. Substitute desires dull the hurting but don’t meet the need. Sometimes they even intensify it. Watching Reality TV doesn’t actual make you more connected. You feel less lonely temporarily, but it doesn’t address the source of the loneliness.
Anyone who has dealt with an addiction can probably identify with the ice cream eating man. Probably all of us have experienced this pattern in one form or another. Like him, we try to control ourselves, through threats and incentives, and it seems to work for a while. But eventually our control breaks. We conclude that we just didn’t try hard enough to control ourselves; we must try harder next time. This is insane. We already tried hard. If trying hard didn’t work, trying harder is doing more of what didn’t work. Insanity.
Ironically enough, when we see an addict or an obese person or someone else with an obvious life-destroying flaw, we assume an air of superiority and assume they just aren’t trying hard enough. We try to motivate them to try harder, with the same threats and incentives, the same guilt and conditional approval, that we apply on ourselves. We also think, “I’d never do that.” Again, this is an illusion. We would do that. If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is that I am no better than the addict in the gutter or the murderer in the prison. If my behavior is different, it is that I was born into less pain, or different pain: a different permutation of the wounds of Separation that afflict us all.
Eventually the substitutes for our real desires stop working. In the language of addiction, this is called “hitting bottom.” More generally, it happens when the substitute causes more pain than it dulls, or when it cannot dull the pain from the unmet need. At this point, a big healing is possible. The real need, no longer obscured by the substitute, often becomes apparent. If we can meet it, then the addiction or other craving or compulsion disappears as if by magic. When the ice cream eating man drinks water, he finds he no longer even wants the ice cream. His new-found abstinence is something that seemed impossible before. It seemed impossible because it was impossible. It is impossible to control an addiction through will. It is in fact impossible to control any desire through will. It is only possible to divert it, and the diversion is invariably toward something more destructive. When we think we are controlling our desires, we are fooling ourselves: like the steam in the pressure cooker, they come out somewhere else. We might not even recognize them for what they are. So distorted, so diverted, so distant they are from their original object that they seem inexplicable, capricious. No wonder we don’t trust ourselves. No wonder we think desire is a dangerous force, an enemy opposed to what is higher, more spiritual, or more civilized. But the real culprit is not desire, it is the denial and diversion of desire.
The question we face then, as we re-create ourselves to live in a more beautiful world, is how to reconnect desire with its true object. When our real needs are met, then the force of desire no longer vents toward the addictions and violence that substitute. And what are our true needs? To love, to play, to eat, drink, and breathe, to explore, to create, to give of our gifts, to know and to be known. All of our needs are beautiful needs. If you don’t think so, look at a baby, a being of pure need. It is the denial and distortion of needs that is ugly. To recognize and dare to meet our true needs is a big step, so immersed are we in an ideology that makes a virtue of denying ourselves. Self-abnegation is only a virtue if the self is bad. You will know you are free from it when you no longer use “selfish” as an insult.
The pathway to accessing true needs and the authentic desires that rise from them is defined once more by pleasure and pain. Why? Simply because it feels good to meet our needs, and an unmet need hurts.
Why, then, does it seem that we get the greatest pleasure from the addictions that cause the greatest harm? Why do the things that are bad for us taste the best? Can anyone deny that it feels good when that buzz comes on, when the donut goes down, when the rage flies loose? What has happened here is that we have substituted a lesser pleasure for a greater pleasure. We modern, civilized humans are so out of touch with joy, with pleasure, and with bliss that we willingly settle for their counterfeit.
We hardly know pleasure, which is no wonder given our long conditioning against it. We have forgotten how to do what any animal can do: maximize pleasure, minimize pain, and follow desire. This is to be expected, after so many centuries of trying to “rise above nature.” But we can relearn it.
Before I describe a way to do that, a word of warning: what I am about to describe is very easy. Don’t try to validate it by making it hard, by making it into some heroic practice of mindfulness. It is not hard, but it is scary. Fear is the obstacle — but I don’t want you to make fear into the new enemy either. Like all the so-called “negative” emotions, fear has its purpose. We use our fears to create a safe space around ourselves, a womb within which to grow. Each fear is a strand of a protective cocoon. Only when we have grown to a certain point do the fears which were once protective become limiting. At that point, we seek to transcend them, to break free. We enter a new, larger space, and grow again. My fear kept me alive even today, as I drove home on the freeway. It helps maintain the safe space of this body and this life, within which I am indeed learning and growing. It is not time for me to transcend it. I am happy to listen to my fears. Only sometimes, an old fear
begins to feel restrictive; at that moment the time for courage has come. So, if in contemplating my suggestions you feel the fear of a little girl, wanting to jump into the water, afraid but knowing she can do it, knowing it is time, then go for it! If you feel the fear of the teenager on the rocks, taunted by his friends to make the leap into the abandoned quarry pool, but afraid to, knowing it is too dangerous, then please listen to that fear. This warning applies especially to serious addicts of drugs or alcohol. Look for a feeling of exhilaration as opposed to dread in pushing past old fears.
It feels good to meet our needs; therefore, the path to meeting our needs is to do what feels good. We think we know what feels good, but we do not. We do not know, because we rarely pay full attention to our feelings — even to pleasurable feelings. So the first step in self-creation is to become truly dedicated to our own pleasure. This comes down to a choice of where to put our attention. It could be no otherwise, for as I described in Part 1, that is ultimately the only choice we have. It is our only power with which to create self and world.
Overeaters sometimes think their problem is that they enjoy food too much. Actually, they don’t enjoy it enough. Already thinking about dessert while still eating dinner, they are paying at best ten percent attention to their food. In one realm or another, most modern humans do the same thing. In the midst of life’s greatest triumphs, we already are thinking about how to parlay them into some future benefit. We rarely give ourselves license to simply sit there and feel good. We are unused to, and uncomfortable with, too much pleasure.
We have to be realistic and start from where we are right now. If you are out of touch with authentic pleasure, start with inauthentic pleasure. If you are out of touch with your true desires, start by fulfilling your substitute desires. Give yourself full permission to get maximum pleasure
from everything you choose to bring into your being. For example, say you go on a binge or a bender. You eat two pints of ice cream or chain-smoke a pack of cigarettes. Ordinarily people will put their attention on things having little to do with these experiences. For example, thoughts of “This is the last time; I’m never doing this again; I’m turning over a new leaf.” Or, justifications of the choice, or self-criticism over it. But when you choose to fully enjoy all there is in the raw experience itself, something unusual begins to happen: you realize it doesn’t feel so good after all. (That is, to the extent it doesn’t meet a need. Sometimes behaviors that we think are “bad for us” are actually beneficial: eating saturated fat, for example.)
When we devote full attention to something that has substituted for the object of a true need, then we learn in the body what it is and what it is not, and it stops working as a substitute. You can only know that chocolate or shopping is not connection when you have fully integrated the experience of chocolate or shopping. It becomes just what it is.
Really, the magic formula I am offering is, “I’m going to do whatever I want, and I’m going to enjoy it to the fullest.” The magic comes when you genuinely give yourself full permission to do that. Quickly you discover that you don’t actually want to do some of the things you thought you wanted to do, and you don’t get pleasure from some of the things you thought gave you pleasure. Following this principle, I have almost entirely stopped drinking, based purely on pleasure maximization. I drink absolutely as much as I want to, without limit. I also eat as much sugar as I want to, without limit, watch as much television as I want to and as much porn as I want to, play as many video games as I want to, gossip as much as I want to, swear as much as I want to. An outside might think that my near-abstinence from all of these behaviors indicates a high degree of self-control, but in fact the opposite is true. I exercise no control whatsoever. I’ve just do what feels good.
Learning what felt good, and giving myself permission to do it, was a long process that is still ongoing. Sometimes it involved a subconscious “testing” to see whether the permission was real. When you give yourself full permission to smoke cigarettes, you might initially smoke more, not less. But soon, when you know the permission is authentic, the unconscious mind interprets “as much as I want” as “no more and no less than I want.” And you really don’t want to smoke cigarettes. They are a substitute for something else, something coming from a deep need. That is why you find they really aren’t so pleasurable, after all.
If this full permission seems like a frightening loss of control, consider that you really have no alternative. Control is an illusion anyway. An addict can pretend to have control, but he really has no control. Why not admit it and cease the struggle?
A dear friend of mine was going through heroin withdrawal. Finally she couldn’t stand it. She called an N.A. mentor and said, “I can’t stand it, I want to use.” He said, “No! Don’t do it. Whatever it takes, just for today, stop yourself. You must not allow yourself to relapse.” Then she called another mentor, and he said, “Hey, if you want to use, then use. It’s up to you.” Within a month, the first mentor himself had relapsed.
Control, trying harder, manipulating yourself with threats and incentives does not work, never has worked, and is never going to work. It is a slave’s life, a half-life, a long, hard slog toward a distant reward that never comes. Improving yourself by trying harder is like trying to reach the horizon by running faster. The miracle of self-creation comes much more easily than that. It is so easy that it is in fact impossible — impossible to do by trying. Momentous personal changes happen naturally, almost as side effects, of a shift in attention: not toward New Age “positivity,” but toward pleasure.
Our guide toward pleasure is desire (again, because desire arises from unmet needs, and it feels good to meet our needs). As we fully integrate the results of meeting each desire, we learn that some things don’t feel so good, and we no longer desire them. If it feels good and we know it, then we want it. How much do you want to stick your thumb in your eye? Not very much, because you tried that as a baby and integrated the results. Indeed, the integration of pain is just as important as the integration of pleasure; pain is an indispensable gateway to healing. As this essay invites you to trust pleasure, my next essay will discuss how to work with the gift of pain.
I would like to address the Buddhist doctrine, attributed to the Buddha himself, that desire is the root of suffering, and that to end suffering we must end desire. The civilized mind, immersed in the ideology of separation, interprets this as a battle-cry against desire: another enemy to be conquered.
Because desire arises from our biology, this amounts as well to a battle against nature. It is the same thought-form as the Christian doctrine of the depravity of man. But you cannot defeat desire by fighting it. You can transcend it only by fulfilling it. Often, the only way to learn that we didn’t actually want something is to obtain it. To reject desire and to reject attachment is to reject life. We are here to need and to want, to gain and to lose, to love and to die. You can refrain as best you can from developing attachments, from committing yourself to anything or anyone, but then you remain at the periphery of life, safe but passionless, a bystander secretly wishing to participate. Don’t be afraid to want. And yes, it is going to hurt.
You have no choice though. The pain is unavoidable, because you were born into need and you are a being of need, no less than an infant. We are born into separation, and the path of our lives is a long journey back to wholeness. The pain of the wounds of separation, the pain of our incompleteness, is what drives us back. The Sufis say that all desires are really just one desire. Fulfill each one, and you find a deeper one underneath, accompanied by the realization, “Ah, what I really wanted was…” I didn’t really want that sports car — I just wanted people to respect me. I didn’t really want people to respect me, I just wanted permission to respect myself. I didn’t even want self-respect, I just wanted to know the truth of myself. And so on. The Sufis say, all desires are the desire to be united with God. All pleasures are the pleasure of that union.
Our desires pull us toward wholeness. In wholeness is bliss. Neither health nor virtue nor spirituality will come in defiance of pleasure and desire. The pleasure of meeting our desires and fulfilling our needs is not some trick of the universe designed to divert us from our path. Desire is the path.
For many people, just to hear someone else articulate the logic of self-trust can be liberating. We all walk through life with a mute rejection of the regime of control, but its ideology is so ubiquitous that we don’t even know what we are rejecting. Our rebellion turns to a series of surrogates and never touches the real issue. Various social movements, often hedonistic in reputation, have grappled with the tyranny of our inner domestication, but the time for a universal liberation was not yet ripe. Today, as humanity transforms its basic relationship to nature, the time has come to do the same to human nature as well. We have long trodden the paths of separation; we have taken them to their outer limit. Yet Reunion lies ahead of us, not only behind us. We see it in our dreams even as we know it in our bones. Our genetic memory of a once and future time of wholeness will guide us on the perilous paths forward to Reunion.
This essay was first published in Reality Sandwich