How desire and happiness live in the body.
… He who desires but acts not,
Last month we talked about how the pursuit of pleasure may actually bring us closer to happiness. We also discussed how pleasure has gotten a bad rap because it has become almost synonymous with the idea of satisfying certain physical or “ego” appetites that appear at odds with legitimate spiritual values. I gave as an example the life of Olympic runner and Christian missionary Eric Liddell who was chastised by some fellow Christians for engaging in a sport which seemed not only to glorify individual achievement but also the strength of the body over the strength of the Spirit. The movie “Chariots of Fire” — which focuses in part on Liddell’s personal struggles leading up to winning the gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics — takes as its title an allusion to one of the great poets of all time, William Blake.
Blake, an 18th century mystic, poet and artist, challenged the false piety and religious wisdom of his day. His more controversial ideas included an attempt to re-establish desire as the vehicle for spiritual evolution. In “Proverbs of Hell” Blake asserts:
…The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Judeo-Christian thinking has it that the Spirit and the body are separate, that any desire coming from the body is suspect, and happiness (in this life or the next) comes at the expense of the body, by denying our “animal appetites” in favor of reason and a larger, “spiritual” vision.
This dichotomous thinking shows up, too, in the contemplative traditions of the East. Even the Buddha first sought enlightenment by withdrawing from his senses and “mortifying” his body. He eventually came to the realization that the search for liberation need not condemn the body to starvation and abuse, and this served as the basis for his ground-breaking spiritual approach, “the Middle Path.”
The Zen masters of China and Japan took this even further. They saw in each ordinary moment an opportunity to leap beyond the mind’s limitations into a boundless freedom, an ongoing unfolding of pure existential wonder. Far from denying the senses, Zen uses sensory experience as a way of heightening awareness and quieting the mind.
So, too, there is a lineage of Indian and Persian mystics who do not discredit the body or its needs. Born in the early 14th century to a Brahman family, a spiritual seeker named Lalla became one of the great ecstatic poets of her generation. She admonishes others against placing themselves in opposition to nature:
Don’t torture your body with thirst and starvation.
When the body is exhausted, take care of it.
Cursed be your fasts and religious ceremonies.
Do good to others, for that is the real religious practice.
(Translation by Jaishree Kak Odin)
Challenging the male-dominated religious order of her time, Lalla is said to have chanted her poems naked, using the physical as a metaphor for the spiritual:
Dance, Lalla, with nothing on
but air. Sing, Lalla,
wearing the sky.
Look at this glowing day! What clothes
could be so beautiful, or
more sacred? (Odin)
Her poetry stood as a protest against a hyper-masculine spirituality that placed nature (and by extension women) in a subservient role to the life of the mind (and by extension men). Just as radically, her nakedness served as a living symbol for the way in which we must all appear before the Beloved if we are to fully embrace and be embraced by Him or Her.
Less than a century before, Jelaluddin Balkhi, a Persian poet and theologian known to us as Rumi, produced hundreds of ecstatic poems using extraordinarily earthy metaphors to describe the soul’s yearning to merge with God:
Last year, I admired wines. This,
I’m wandering inside the red world.
Last year, I gazed at the fire.
This year I’m burnt kabob.
Thirst drove me down to the water
where I drank the moon’s reflection.
Now I am a lion staring up totally
lost in love with the thing itself.
(translation by Coleman Barks)
Lalla , echoing Rumi, speaks of wine in connection with her own poetry:
I didn’t trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.
It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces. (Barks)
Drinking and getting drunk are conventional images of debauchery, but the wine of which Rumi and Lalla speak refers to something unconventional, ultimately indescribable—union with God. Yet it is one thing to compare getting drunk to spiritual elevation (or making love to consorting with the Divine Lover), quite another to celebrate desire itself, wherever it may lead you—as William Blake seems to do:
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Blake, in recovering the value of pleasure for the Judeo-Christian psyche, stands on the shoulders of his poetic ancestors, Rumi and Lalla—and then goes beyond them. He does not, for example, compare “the lust of the goat” to a yearning for God. He states directly that lust is good, it is God’s “bounty.” Assuming he is not just referring to an animal’s lust but to lust in general, we must conclude he is saying something, too, about the human libido.
Few of us in these times would argue that sexual desire is a bad thing. But what does Blake mean when he talks about excess? How far should we take our lust, our passion for wine, our desire for good food? What about the pleasure we get from work, from love, from spiritual pursuits? Can we not also take these to excess (think workaholism, love addiction, spiritual asceticism)? To ask it plainly of Blake: What kind of excess are we talking about here? Can I really gain wisdom by getting drunk—on wine or success? If I follow pleasure for pleasure’s sake, will it make me happy?
Blake may be using “excessive” language as a way to shock his readers into a new awareness about the body. His readers, under the sway of religious doctrines disavowing the physical world (that this world is only a place of suffering and temptation, the battlefield on which we prove ourselves worthy or unworthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven), have something to learn (in Blake’s view) from the Devil. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” refers back to a pre-Christian understanding of the relationship between God and the Devil. The Devil represents the raw energies of the Spirit housed in the body, energies that can be used to serve Heaven but which also must be encountered and respected on their own terms. Blake reminds us, for example, that infants are at once angelic and devilish in nature. Angelic in their nakedness and helplessness, devilish in their unbridled expression of emotion and their aggressive impulses to satisfy their own needs, infants inspire both love and anxiety, even fear, in the most balanced of adults.
Desire is not exclusively the province of the body. And it may be true, as Lalla and Rumi taught, that channeling desire in the direction of union with the Beloved is the highest human pursuit. Yet it must also be said that this impulse towards union starts with the physical body. How else would we even know the experience of joining spiritually if we did not have as a template the experience of physical union? For the infant there is no body and soul, no heaven or hell: The mother’s body is her universe, the source of pleasure and pain. As the child grows old enough to distinguish herself from her mother, she locates pleasure and pain in her own body, and it is through her physical experience that she learns whether or not the universe is reliable, trustworthy, friendly. As she grows older still she will learn to regulate her desires and impulses, to express herself in ways that are acceptable to her caretakers and to suppress what is deemed inappropriate or unacceptable. During this time Heaven and Hell will be separated in her mind. Eventually she will learn to rationalize and talk herself out of what she desires, to delay gratification, to place reason in a ruling position over her vital energies. To this state of affairs Blake objected—and his objection is echoed by the modern day poetry of Mary Oliver, in “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Next Issue: The Life of Desire, Part 2: Loving the Body with Your Whole Soul, Loving the Soul with Your Whole Body.
Jon Scheffres (Guruprasad Singh), MA, LPC, is a psychotherapist, lecturer, and a KRI certified kundalini yoga teacher. Email him with your thoughts about happiness.