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  • D.J. McKay

#MeToo and the Nature of Desire

Like most others, I would imagine, I've been watching from the sidelines as the #MeToo movement has arisen out of the many sexual scandals that have been in the news, and I feel moved to throw in my two cents. In particular I'd like to comment on the nature of desire, which of course is the force driving all the men involved (and countless others not famous enough to attract public attention) beyond personal boundaries and cultural norms designed to keep women safe.

The foundational teaching of the Buddha (called "The Four Noble Truths") says this, that we as humans we have a tendency to suffer; that there is a cause of suffering; that it is possible to transcend suffering; and there is a path we may follow that leads to the end of suffering. The word "suffering" in this context describes the state, habitual for most humans, in which we are separate from our authentic nature. The cause of suffering is.... well, that's a bit tricky.

At the monastery where I trained the cause of suffering was most often said to be "identification with the illusion of a self that is separate from Life". In order to survive in the conditioned world we were born into, we abandon our authentic nature and identify instead with a "self" (or, technically, a collection of "selves") who is adapted to persist in spite of the blindness, the judgment, the neglect, and the punishment we all endured as children. More traditionally it is said (in translation from the original Pali/Sandskrit) that suffering is caused by "desire". When we desire something that is not here, or we desire for something that is here to not be here, then we become a "someone" (the illusion of a separate self) who suffers.

The tricky bit in the traditional translation is that desire in itself is not a problem. This faculty we call "desire" is an evolutionary gadget, designed to keep our attention fixated upon those things that will assist us to survive as individuals and as a species. It is clear from my point of view (though not from the perspective generally of our cultural conditioning) that desire for sexual expression is utterly without moral value: it's just a part of the biological programming we each carry in order to ensure that humans will continue to walk upon the earth. Even if we ignore its evolutionary function I think we must admit that desire in itself is perfectly neutral. We may desire to dominate others, to use them, to meet our imagined needs no matter the cost to the earth or the beings who live upon this planet with us; or we may desire to serve, to provide ease or enjoyment to others, to do something magnanimous with our lives, or in other ways to live as our best selves. Desire may lead us towards good or ill, but the desire itself remains innocent.

The difference between a desire that is contaminated with greed and self-interest, and one that lifts people up towards their authentic nature, lies in the source. If ego conscripts desire then "suffering" inevitably follows; if our natural capacity to desire serves authentic nature, then something good and happy is bound to happen. Said another way, if I desire (from the place of unconditioned essence) then this desire will serve all, including me (in the sense of the human animal that I am). If "I" desires (from the place of a separate self) then I will get what "I" wants, which is (as I've heard it said) "to be the piece of s--- at the center of the universe".

If it is an "I" who desires, then (in my experience, at least) everything goes out the window but the object of desire. We have a cultural belief that desire must lead to fulfillment, to the pacification of desire through consuming the object, whatever that may be. The movement from desire to action is instantaneous for most people; we are not taught to look into the nature of our desires, to question them, to be still with them--we just run after what we want as fast as our little legs can carry us. And yet this is what we must do if we are to live skillfully and happily in the world and avoid being a source of misery to other people: we must be present to this process we call "desire" as it arises in the mind.

The reason desire leads inevitably to fulfillment within conditioned mind is because that is an excellent way to produce suffering. Just look at all the guys in the news who have been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior, and consider the experience of their victims--yikes! Talk about suffering! The desire of these men has blown up in their faces, for the simple reason that they (it appears) were unable to place themselves (in the sense of the compassionate awareness that is our authentic nature) between the desire and the desired object. They were not able to see desire as a process and let it go. And of course there are other more subtle and interior ways than public humiliation and sexual abuse in which desire causes suffering. I would imagine everyone knows the agony of unfulfilled desire, when the desire is unquestioned and the object is unavailable. Equally, I would imagine we all can relate to the experience of having obtained the object of our desire and finding it doesn't fulfill. That's the very reason, in fact, that it's such a soul-sucking predicament to live within egocentric desire: there is no object anywhere that can truly satisfy.

In order to live in freedom from conditioned mind we need to end our ego-enslavement to desire. Perhaps "enslaved" is too strong a word, but I don't think so. It's certainly not too strong for those men in the news. Their desire was so powerful as to cause them to give their reputations, their careers, and their self-respect for it. They are our public emblems of self-centeredness currently, but don't you think that we are all similarly enslaved? I certainly have been, and remain so to the extent that I am not aware of desire and the way conditioned mind will use it to capture my attention. I have not done the sorts of things that these men have done, but I could--that desire is in me as well. I suppose that anyone who looks within themselves would find the same, that they are subject to egocentric desire whenever they are not present, and capable of doing a great many things that they would be ashamed of later. The trick is to feel the desire, to be present to the desire, without being the desire--without identifying with the "I" who desires and believe that fulfilling desire will lead to satisfaction. It won't. Fulfilling ego-desire only leads to more desire and an ever-increasing desperation.

Just to be clear, I'm not speaking here about repressing desire. That's a completely different thing. To repress desire is just as egocentric as indulging it. I'm talking about letting it go: about being aware of desire as a process and letting go of the object through redirecting the attention. A desire to end desire, after all, is still a desire.

Last fall I visited with a dear friend of mine in North Carolina. She facilitated the first meditation group I ever participated in. At the time I joined her group she and the others were studying a book by a Tibetan Lama named Sogyal Rinpoche. He was my first teacher, in a way. While she and I chatted she asked me if I were aware of the sexual scandals that Sogyal had become embroiled in. I said no, and later on I looked him up. I was shocked. Here was a man who I had looked up to when I was a young, eager student of Buddhism, who had (allegedly) left a trail of abuse behind him. "Even he is confused," I thought. And then: "May I never be like he."