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Our Divided Selves – Independence and Dependence, Part 1: Desire

Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and allow your thoughts to settle naturally into stillness. Feel into the deepest part of you, beneath all the thoughts and feelings. The part of you that simply observes everything that happens. The place of pure awareness. Become aware of your awareness, resting in itself.

If this doesn’t come easily, don’t be disturbed. It often takes many years of practice to locate this level of stillness. Even then, these experiences can be fleeting. Nonetheless, know that this stillness is always there within you, and whenever you meditate you do rest in that space even if you don’t realize it.

In the last post, The World is Not How We Take It, we learned that our minds do not simply take in the external world unchanged, but instead actively color and shape the world based on our internal schemas that we’ve inherited or developed over time. The interplay between perception and reality is two-way, dynamic and different from person to person. To understand reality, then, we have to grasp each of its three parts: our core consciousness that grasps the world in awareness, the ways we grasp the world (through our senses, inference, etc), and the world that actually exists.

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenberg, winner of the 1932 Nobel prize in physics.

The realization that we have no direct access to the truth of the external world is at best unsatisfying and at worst deeply disconcerting. How do we know who we are, how do we feel at home in our world, when we can’t know whether things really are how they appear. The truth of everything we know, all that we create in life through art, science, business, or play, could be nothing more than illusion.

In fact, many traditions do believe that the world, as we ordinarily experience it, is an illusion. The goal of these traditions is to overcome our limitations, which give rise to all forms of suffering, so that we experience the true reality. The traditions prescribe practices or teachings that enable this experience within the practitioner.

This experience is called liberation. Liberation from the ignorance of the true reality we belong to, ignorance that binds us to this world, complete with its pain and suffering. The Kashmir Shaivite Tantra that I study prescribes a combination of deep meditation and intellectual study to achieve liberation. In those moments described at the top of this post, where we are aware of nothing but awareness, the tradition believes we are experiencing the true reality. Pure Being, unconditioned by any individual mental schema. The more we experience this truth, the more it seeps into and transforms our ordinary awareness so that we continue to experience it in daily life.

As we study, we become better and better at articulating in words the truth of reality. This is our goal here: to match your deepening experience of reality with an equally deep intellectual understanding. We’ve already let go of the illusion that the world actually is how it appears, and we’ve grasped a deeper truth about ourselves: we actively create our experience of reality. This means we are not mere spectators, passively taking things in, but active participants, agents, in the world.

Our goal is to understand ourselves as agents, as beings capable of interpreting (and misinterpreting) our own reality. And the primary way we relate to the world as agents is through our desires. Desires lurk behind everything we do. When you woke up this morning, what was the first thing you did? You probably made your way to the bathroom to satisfy a fundamental human need. Along the way, all the objects you encountered (the toilet, hallways, doors, clothes on the floor) took on meaning because they either helped or obstructed this desire.

Contemplate for a moment how it would feel to live without any desire. How could you even separate yourself from the nonliving world - the rocks and streams that are similarly indifferent to everything around them. Desire is fundamental to life. We can say that life is the force that gives rise to beings that desire, organisms that implicitly separate themselves from the world. We are continually interpreting the world through the lens of desire.

Prof. Bernstein puts it another way when he calls the world “a hologram of desire.” We see the world from the perspective of living beings with desires that parts of the world obstruct while other parts satisfy. Our minds present the world to us with those parts already shaded differently. We just think of it as the world, but it’s the world according to our desires.

Because desire distorts reality in this way, many of the traditions mentioned above seek to overcome desire as a means to experience the true reality. We will return to that thought later. For now, the simple fact that we can seek to overcome desire shows that there is more to us than our desires. We are not just beings that desire, we are beings that know we desire and can choose to follow them or not.

How do we come to know this about ourselves? How do we come to the reflective self-awareness that we are beings with desires and the ability to choose against them? In his most famous passage, known as The Master-Slave Dialectic, Hegel argues that this awareness can only come through our interactions with other humans. Our reflective, human self-awareness emerges from our ability to reflect knowledge back to each other. In other words, we know ourselves through knowing each other. We’ll dive into this fundamental interdependence and how it further shapes our reality in the next post - Our Divided Selves Part 2: The Struggle for Recognition.


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