Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of June 6, 2011

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Sense Desire

(Obstacles on the Way: Part 1 of 9)

Sense desire is built into our genes, for example through the great natural imperatives of our need for food and our need for sex. Our troubles begin when our desires multiply beyond our needs. We are not going to examine here the well-known health benefits of moderation, important as they are. Rather we look to see the effects that overindulged physical appetites and other sense desires have on our inner work.

There is a theory that some of the energy that our body uses in digesting our food is the very same energy we use in our inner work. Of course we have to eat, and eating also produces energy for our inner work. But the idea is that beyond a certain point, eating more than we need diminishes the energy available for our inner work. To verify this for yourself is straightforward, at least in theory. Simply observe, comparing your state before you eat and after you eat. On the occasions when you overeat, compare your ability to practice presence after youíve eaten to before you ate, or to your usual ability. Compare on the basis of how long you are able to maintain presence, how frequently you come back to presence, how strong and deep is your presence. Observing in this way will teach you a great deal about how much you need to eat and how the amount and quality of your food affects your state.

Some physical indulgences should be stopped completely or they stop our inner work. Primary among those are drugs of abuse. Even in their milder forms, like marijuana, drugs burn up energies we need for inner work, disharmonize our system, and block our spiritual practice. If we wish to follow the path of liberation and love, we need to stop drug use altogether. Otherwise, all inner efforts are effectively wasted. Similarly, tobacco hampers our inner work by its effects on our energies and our health. In some traditions, one does find smokers who have gone far along the way. But that is exceptional. A healthy body is an important asset on the path, as is accepting responsibility for maintaining the health of our body. So smoking needs to be set aside entirely. Concerning alcohol use, moderation is necessary, though some traditions eliminate it completely. We each need to judge for ourselves, taking care not to fool ourselves regarding the effects of our indulgences.

In the realm of sense desire, we can also look to any overindulgence that distracts us from presence. We face increasingly sophisticated temptations to over-consume electronic media: TV, YouTube, Netflix, web surfing, Facebook, email, Twitter, sports, news, music, iTunes, games, and the many others continually being created and promoted. These things are not a problem in themselves, but become a problem for our path if we lose ourselves in them to the point of diminishing our possibilities for presence. Generally speaking, the form and content of modern mass media are designed to grab us emotionally, to cause us to react, to feel, and to become in a sense addicted to the media. Can we be present in the face of this onslaught? Again, moderation is key. Staying connected in the world of electronic media has become almost a necessity, but can we do so with quality and with presence? For example, can we stay aware of our body even as we watch or read or listen or type in that electronic world?

While we may recognize our overindulgences and know what we should do, sense cravings can be so strong that we cannot moderate or curtail them. You see the cake or the cigarette or the beer. Your pulse and breathing quicken. Your entire awareness collapses onto that object of desire. And though you know that going there will harm you in body or in being, you find your hand reaching for it. What to do?

The strategies are many and we may need to alternate among them or use them in combination. Here are a few. We can imagine that we have already indulged in the craving, satisfied our desire, and now feel the afterglow, or rather aftermath, of having done so. We might choose to shift our attention and redirect the energy flowing into the desire by doing something else, like going for a walk, or bringing our awareness into sensing our body, or practicing awareness of our breathing, or simply relaxing our body, mind, and feelings. We might go for a less harmful substitute: instead of cake, we eat a carrot. We can remind ourselves of our competing non-desire, of our wish to be free with respect to this particular craving. We can remind ourselves that procrastination, putting off the hard choice to tomorrow, next month, or the new year, rarely works, that we need to make the effort this time and every time the urge arises. We can renew our caring about our own well-being, our preference for our long-term benefit over any fleeting satisfaction.

Like furtive roaches, our overindulgent tendencies prefer the dark. Often, the part of us driving an act of overindulgence does not want to be seen by the rest of our being, does not want to be caught red-handed, and is ashamed. For these and other reasons, presence itself is a great antidote to overindulgence. Take the example of over-eating. If we bring presence to our eating, actually tasting each bite of food in full awareness, our eating changes. Presence raises us up from the world, from the style of living, in which gluttony reigns. The light of awareness weakens such tendencies. Furthermore, awareness of the taste of each morsel of food brings us greater satisfaction from the food than does wolfing it down tastelessly. This opens our heart of appreciation and gratitude. We have a better chance of feeling satiated without stuffing ourselves.

This principle of presence also applies to every other type of overindulgence. If you are a smoker, try bringing full self-awareness to the act of smoking. See what smoking actually does to you, what its effects are on your mind and body. Some find smoking relaxing. But at what cost? When you smoke, be fully aware that you are, without a doubt, shortening your life, in an act of slow suicide. Is this really what you want to do? When you smoke, be aware that your lungs do not want to breathe the smoke. Be aware of the justifying, fatalistic thoughts in response to such awareness, of any defeatist attitude that claims it is not possible for you to stop, even if you wanted to give it up. Be aware of not wanting to be aware of the act of smoking. Be present to yourself as you smoke. If this takes the joy out of it, so much the better, for the joy of smoking is the joy of the addicted part of you disregarding the long term cost to the whole of you. If you donít want to stop, then examine your desire to smoke. What in you wants to smoke? What are you ignoring? If you care about yourself, you will do whatever it takes to quit and you wonít give up until you have. Perhaps this seems harsh, but itís not nearly as harsh as what smoking does to our body.

Presence helps protect us from overindulgence. If you are present while you watch television or play games or surf the web or drink alcohol, you will have a visceral sense of limits, of when enough is enough. And then you can choose to comply with that intuition, to relax in front of the desire to overindulge and let it go without acting on it.

This world is beautiful, luscious, and sensual. Nothing in the forgoing is intended to imply that we should adopt an ascetic approach, rejecting all pleasures. On the contrary, it is natural and normal to enjoy, thoroughly enjoy, the things of this world. In our path, we are not out to become hermits or live in monastic settings. We want to live a fully spiritual inner life and a fully ordinary outer life in the world, and make it be one holistic and satisfying life. In some ways, this may be harder than rejecting the world to pursue the spirit, because it does call for moderation and non-identification, for not allowing our desires to rule us, yet without removing the opportunities for indulgence. Food, in any case, cannot be eliminated. And moderation is harder than elimination. This middle way requires determination and builds inner strength. And the transformation of sense desire leads us to appreciation and gratitude for this remarkable world we live in, without being consumed by lust for it.

The spiritual path is not all smooth sailing on an ocean of bliss. At times, we need to struggle with our obstacles to reach that ocean, struggle intelligently and lovingly. In that struggle, despite our best intentions, failures inevitably come, backsliding into overindulgence for example. When we do fail, rather than inwardly berating ourselves and heaping guilt on our heads, we fully note what happened and then get up and start again.

For this week, notice when you overindulge your sense desires, be present in those situations, and let go of overindulging.


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