This article is Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1 here.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Image by TheAlieness, courtesy of Creative Commons license.