It is good to reflect about whatever forces us to come out of ourselves. – Simone Weil[i]
We all have our motivations. Even irrational acts have reasons. We may not understand some of the things we do, but that’s because we don’t understand ourselves. The nature of self-awareness makes us complicated creatures.
Perhaps, as some people argue, understanding ourselves doesn’t matter. I knew a psychiatrist who routinely told his clients that learning why they did something was the booby prize, and not necessary to alter their behavior. Change was the goal, not navel-gazing. His approach was similar to AA, with its emphasis upon practical steps, rather than understanding their “baffling” disease. “Fake it till you make it,” a common aphorism in the rooms, reflects the lack of reflection. My psychiatrist friend was essentially saying the same thing.
They do have a point. Actions matter more than words. The first thing alcoholics have to do is stop drinking; changing the way they think can come later. Words of love mean little unless they are matched by behavior.
But that doesn’t mean addiction, or depression, or my own poor choices lack purpose, or that those purposes are unimportant. Long-term change requires people to look at themselves. Otherwise, negative patterns are likely to return, sometimes in surprising ways. I counseled a woman who switched addictions from cocaine to shopping to gambling, stopping one thing only to pick up another. Changing the type of 12 Step group she attended didn’t remedy her problems. Rather than simply deal with actions and consequences, she needed to locate the source of her enthusiasms.
Our desires shape everything we do. They are the energy that pushes us into the world and the reason for our relations to people and things. To paraphrase Ms. Weil, desire is what “forces us to come out of ourselves,” and it is good to reflect upon the nature of our desires.
Any relationship we possess is the product of ”coming out of ourselves.” Personal connections form with people, as well as objects, and interaction occurs. Meaning accrues and attachments are born. Every attachment we make reflects some kind of purposeful desire. If we didn’t feel a need, we wouldn’t attach ourselves.
This is especially true for spiritual relations. Lacking the immediacy of a person who makes direct demands upon our daily lives, God is a tabula rasa receptive to any kind of desire. Everything from televangelists, to prosperity preachers, to doomsayers, to cult leaders can be explained by their ability to connect spirituality to someone’s personal needs. Desires are what lead people to become confused or lost.
I once knew a woman who prayed for God to help her cakes rise. She viewed it as a secret baking trick. I was interested in the needs that gave rise to the request. Why does anyone reach out to God? What do we expect from the connection? How do those expectations affect our experience?
The Buddha is a good example. Determined to achieve enlightenment, like other Hindu holy men, Siddhartha left his family and headed into the woods to meditate. To augment his meditation, he employed a severe asceticism that included starving himself. One story says his daily meal was a grain of rice and a sesame seed, to the point he could feel his spine through his stomach. Believing desire to be the cause of bondage, he thought it essential to subdue his desires. But the coveted enlightenment and release never came. Instead, he was close to dying.
Discouraged, Siddhartha quit what he was doing and accepted some food from a passer-by. I wouldn’t be surprised if he also took a bath and had a nap. Refreshed, he settled under the Bodhi Tree to meditate again, having given up his all-consuming need to succeed in his quest. Attempting to subdue his desires simply called attention to them. Instead, he could acknowledge his desires, including for enlightenment, and let them go. When temptations arose, they no longer mattered, because attaining something was no longer the point. There was no goal for the search. And that is when the Buddha awakened. His desire for enlightenment was an obstacle to finding it, since desires, by their nature, never tire of chasing themselves.
His quest, especially his seemingly fruitless years, led the Buddha to examine himself. He discovered that seeming strengths were made to be weaknesses because of what motivated them. It’s hard to let go of your self when your self has a stake in the achievement.
If it was true for the Buddha, it is certainly true for ourselves. While practices and beliefs may differ, the effort to relate personally to the Source of our existence inevitably leads us back to the people we are, to facing our own motivations and the inner springs of what moves us. Where we find ourselves isn’t simply determined by what we set out to achieve, but also why we want to achieve it.
[i] Simone Weil, Waiting For God, Routledge Classics, 2021, p. 53.