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Working With Desire
Three approaches from Tibetan Buddhism
By Matthieu Ricard
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are three traditional approaches to disturbing emotions, including afflictive desire. The first method is to develop an antidote. In the case of desire, one such antidote is the cultivation of nonattachment to desired objects. This way, the practitioner can neutralize afflictive desire.With the second method, the practitioner, rather than focusing on a desired object, instead examines the nature of desire itself, and in discovering its insubstantiality, frees himself of its pull. With the third method, which is said to be a powerful catalyst but also the most difficult and dangerous technique, the practitioner uses desire as path, turning its energy into fuel for practice. Themetaphor commonly used for the latter method is the peacock, which eats poisonous substances only to make its feathers more brilliant.
Buddhism does not advocate the suppression of all desires, but rather offers the means to gain freedom from afflictive emotions. The desire for food when one is hungry, the aspiration to work for peace in the world, the thirst for knowledge, the wish to shareone's life with dear ones, or the yearning for freedom from suffering: all of these can contribute to lasting happiness as long as they are not tainted by craving and grasping. Like the other emotions, desire can be experienced either in a constructive or in an afflictive way. It can be the catalyst for a meaningful life—or the maelstrom that wrecks it.
Usually, when a desire arises, we eithersatisfy or repress it. In the first case, we surrender our self-control; in the second case, a painful conflict builds up. The problem with merely satisfying a desire is that we set into motion a self-perpetuating mechanism: the more salty water we drink, the thirstier we feel. This is how we become addicted to the causes of suffering. But once we know how to have a dialogue with our emotions, theintensity and frequency of the mental images that trigger desire will diminish, and having to repress it in any way. The few images that still arise will be like fleeting sparks in the vast expanse of the mind.
If we lack inner freedom, any intense sensory experience can generate strong attachments that entangle us. On the other hand, if we know how to perfectly maintain our
inner freedom, we canexperience all sensations within the pristine simplicity of the present moment, in a state of well-being that is free from grasping and expectation.
When desire is particularly intense and is experienced as an affliction, we begin by using antidotes. Two diametrically opposed mental states cannot arise at the same time toward the same object. For example, we cannot wish to harm and benefitanother person at the same instant, just as we cannot shake someone's hand and give him a punch in the same gesture. The more we generate inner freedom from attachment, the less "room" there will be for craving in our mental landscape. If we use the antidote of nonattachment each time a craving arises, not only will it be effectively counteracted, but also the very tendency to crave will gradually erodeuntil it eventually disappears.
The crucial point is to maintain constant vigilance over and awareness of our mental state so that, at the moment that afflictive emotions rise up, they will not trigger a chain of deluded thoughts. Thus, we neither let desire overwhelm our mind, nor do we repress it while leaving it intact in a hidden corner of the mind. We simply become free from its alienatingpower.
In the second method, instead of trying to counteract every afflictive emotion with a particular antidote, we act on a more fundamental level and use a single antidote to deal with all afflictions. If we examine our emotions and trains of thought without suppressing their natural activity, we find that they are nothing but dynamic streams devoid of intrinsic existence. So, instead of...
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