When I tell people that I am going on a motorcycle trip around the U.S., once they get over the conceptual hurdle of someone not spending a majority of their waking life working, it seems to make sense to them. No one has ever asked, “Why?” It seems that they are comfortable ascribing a motivation that makes sense to them. I assume the most common one being that I want to see new places, eat new foods and have fun adventures. Basically to pursue gratifying sensual experience.

When I tell them that one of my first stops is going to be a two-month silent meditation retreat just north of San Francisco, however, they never fail to ask, “Why?” I can only speculate on the mental processes that lead them to assume my motivation in the first case and solicit it in the second, but I think it is revealing of the way, in general, members of modern society think of the inner and outer worlds. Namely, that gratification generally comes from without and that there is little value to exploring our internal world. If pressed, I think most would say they disagree with those statements philosophically and yet their behavior seems to reveal a deeply embedded, and largely unexplored, heuristic that governs the way they approach life.

Based on my exploration of ancient philosophy and the evolution of modern thought, I am inclined to believe that this was not always the case. It seems that for a significant amount of human history, the prevailing wisdom emphasized self-discovery as a path to finding internal sources of contentment. My current hypothesis is that this changed largely due to second-order effects of commercialism.

Around the 16th century, Mercantilism kick-started a wealth creation engine that would eventually afford us the ability to gratify sense desires with a speed hitherto unthinkable. Gradually, the incentives to practice patience, and investigate the inner workings of the mind, faded away. In a land of abundance, the development of the idea that gratification comes exclusively from without seems to happen as a matter of course. When sensual pleasure is close at hand we can, in short order, scratch any itch we have and thus never have a need to develop any techniques for sublimating desire. One might wonder why this would be an issue rather than a blessing. If we have the means to fulfill our desires why would we need to develop alternative internal methods for dealing with desire?

Throughout the course of my meditation practice, I have frequently examined the felt experience of the desire-gratification cycle and the effects it has on my mind. What I have found is that the period between the arising of an impulse and the resolution of that impulse is one of profound discomfort. Desire sears the mind, compelling it to find relief in the quickest way possible. This may seem obvious to most people who have dealt with craving (i.e. everyone) but we generally don’t sit with it long enough to fully explore its implications.

Modern psychology and ancient wisdom both tell us that each complete cycle of desire-gratification actually increases the frequency of the desire arising. We want a piece of chocolate, eat a piece of chocolate, which in turn conditions us to want more chocolate. The effects vary in intensity by individual and object of desire but, in general, we are prone to conditioning by both pleasant and unpleasant sensory experiences. If we exclusively pursue a strategy of avoidance of discomfort by the indulgence of desires we are creating the conditions for a mind that reels back and forth between affliction and temporary reprieve.

When I talk about this, people often think that I am implying that we should repress/resist desire. In their minds, the only two options are to submit to a desire or to struggle against it and somehow mentally overpower it so that it goes away. I suggest exploring a third option; sit with the desire, investigate it, take a real interest in what it feels like to desire. What I have found is that it doesn’t take that much mental energy to not act on an impulse. The reason why I used to think it was so hard is that I wasn’t just exercising self-control, I was also trying to make the desire go away. In submitting to the mental experience of desire, turning my attention to it, and exploring its changing nature, I found that the experience could be beneficial. And then, the desire would dissipate. That’s why I refer to it as the sublimation of desire; what was once solid and unmovable simply evaporates.

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