Are you busily working with our 4 Tools to Awesome Your Life? I hope so, because I, for one, am having a blast with my Truth and Beauty Pages, Throbbing Extra-Rational Optimism, hops, and 5 Minutes Towards Beauty.
My razor-sharp friend Tait McKenzie Johnson over at The Absent Narrative wrote an insightful reply to yesterday’s post on How to Desire, which can be found just under that post on this very blog and also here.
To briefly summarize, Johnson raises a fantastic question, “are desires necessarily a good thing to fulfill?” and then goes on to outline the ways in which desiring can be potentially deleterious to the soul. He also notes that most of the things I listed as things I “Really, Really Want” are material objects, and offers his skepticism that material objects can really do all that much to promote happiness, observing that “there’s a difference between having goals and wanting stuff.”
I fully agree. And while I don’t myself subscribe to the practice of releasing all desires, I do think it’s incredibly important to release all of what the pioneering human potential author Ken Keyes Jr. called “emotion-backed addictions”– otherwise known as attachments to having things a certain way which cause us to get upset when things don’t turn out as we wanted. These things have been called “desires” in certain contexts. Keyes advocated that we focus on “upleveling” all of our attachments / emotion-backed addictions to “preferences.” I highly recommend that everyone on earth read all about it in his 1970s classic, The Handbook to Higher Consciousness, which is invaluably wise and available in its entirety here online. To me, Keyes’ distinction between attachments / addictions and preferences is very important.
The Dance of Faith
I think in order to have a life that burns well, one needs to not only release one’s addictions to having things a certain way (i.e., surrender, let go) but also fully embrace, hope for and pursue the fulfillment of one’s preferences. As you might imagine, this is a bit of a difficult dance to do. Executed at its highest level, it’s what the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “the dance of faith” and elaborated in the brilliant treatise Fear and Trembling. According to Kierkegaard, one who executes the dance of faith may be called a “knight of faith” and thereby distinguished from someone who succeeds in surrendering but not also hoping for finite fulfillment– whom he calls a “knight of infinite resignation.”
Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling has such a scary title because it’s mostly about the adventures of one particular knight of faith, Abraham, who had a rough going of it, what with the Lord ordering him to sacrifice his only son Isaac and all. Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to highlight that in order to be a knight of faith, one must first fully and completely surrender (i.e., drop one’s addiction to having things a certain way). Abraham had to completely surrender his very normal and natural attachment to not murdering his own son with his own hand. But according to Kierkegaard, Abraham didn’t stop there with his surrender– he also had an intense dose of Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimism in which he trusted that even though he was killing his own son, things would still turn out okay. Of course we all know that Abraham’s faith was rewarded– an angel appeared and stopped him from killing Isaac at the last second. Whew!
So you see, there was a lot of fear and trembling in all of that.
But Kierkegaard also relates that there doesn’t necessarily need to be a giant Old Testament tribulation in place in order for one to become a knight of faith, and emphasizes that knights of faith are not apparent to the eye. They can be completely indistinguishable, in fact, from a sort of person that Kierkegaard quite loathed– materialistic philistines like me. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which he is introduced to an utterly ordinary-seeming person (“Good Lord! that person? Is it really he—why, he looks like a parish‑beadle!”) who likes to eat and drink and putter around and hope passionately that his wife has prepared his favorite dish for dinner and yet who is not at all disappointed when he finds she has not– in short, who is actually a knight of faith.
I may not have my head quite wrapped around the whole Abraham-as-a-knight-of-faith thing, but I think I do grasp the philistine-as-a-knight-of-faith idea. It makes sense to me after having read Keyes’ book and Byron Katie’s book A Thousand Names for Joy.
In short, the Philistine Knight of Faith is a person who has managed the amazing feat of fully surrendering attachment while also zestfully embracing and pursuing her preferences. This non-attached zestful pursuit has rather dazzling results. Witness Byron Katie, who is so non-attached to her continued earthly existence that she doesn’t bat an eyelash when a dude holds a loaded gun to her belly and says “I’m going to kill you” but who also surrounds herself with lovely stuff and has a wildly successful metaphysical self-help business with her partner, the brilliant translator Stephen Mitchell.
As Kierkegaard points out, knights of faith are rather rare. I myself am nowhere near that degree of profound surrender and simultaneous hope. I am, however, deeply involved in practicing its movements to the best of my ability.
Something that I didn’t get around to fully discussing when I wrote about Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimism in my 4 Tools to Awesome Your Life post wherein I described the amazing story of how I manifested my dream lover, Dey, is that while I worked on practicing total optimism that my true love would show up (and fast!) I also worked on surrendering my attachment to having that relationship at all. In other words, I practiced the dance of faith. Paradoxically, though– I’d been trying to surrender my attachment to having a relationship for years without any success (I remained riddled with attachment! Just riddled!). It was only when I began to practice Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimism that I would get the wonderful relationship that I longed for that I became capable of surrendering my attachment to it, my frantic seeking of it. Doesn’t that just sound immensely complicated and weird? Just describing it — I’m like, whoah, how the heck did I do that? It sounds impossible– but that’s my experience.
I want to break down and explain for you exactly how I did that, because I think it’s an immensely valuable and awesome thing to do.
And, frankly, it is a little complicated and tough to explain and easy to misunderstand. It’s also what I think is actually the way the whole law of attraction thing works. So keep tuning in right here, folks, as I endeavor in the future to lead us through the dance of faith! In the mean-time…
What to Do With that List of Desires
Well, that was an interesting jaunt through existential theology, wasn’t it? Now, you will ask, “What should I do with this damn list of 25 things I want?”
1. Notice Your Attachments / Addictions
Go through the list and make notes about what things on it you’re especially attached or addicted to. In other words, what things on that list are you totally bummed and resentful that you don’t currently have? For example, I am amazingly resentful that my poetry hasn’t been published yet by any of the magazines or book contests I’ve sent it to. It also continually bugs me that I do not have absolutely gazillions of gold coins to swim in, and that no one has yet seen fit to award my unpublished manuscripts of poetry The Nobel Prize in Literature. Of course, since I if I had gazillions of gold coins to swim in, I would also have a house that looks like a Lisa Frank sticker sheet exploded all over it, in a really good way and a gypsy caravan that is so rad I can hardly stand it, not to mention a pug puppy— it stands to reason that I am fairly resentful about my lack of these things as well.
And that resentment and attachment, friends, is not just something that pollutes my current life, it’s also something which stands in the way of me actually attaining those desires or dreams in the future. Why? Because resentment and attachment create an inertia that affixes me to a negative and lacking self-image, drain me of energy, excite paralyzing fear, and cause me to grasp desperately at things that seem to offer what I truly desire, but actually do not. It’s bad ju-ju. In other words, my resentment and attachment make me vulnerable to being self-deluded and deluded by all the dazzling lies of our consumer culture. Which, as perhaps you’ve noticed, sucks.
2. Ask Yourself a Very Deep Question
The question is this: what among these things would I still like or much prefer to have, even if I felt a constant inner state of fulfillment, peace, and bliss?
This question can be helpful in discerning your authentic preferences from ones that are largely false and fear-driven attachments. After we’ve done this work of discernment, we can get down to the nitty gritty of practicing surrender around the things that truly matter to us.
For example, if I were blissed out, I wouldn’t really give a fig anymore about winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Those Swedish snobs could kiss my enlightened ass. Noticing this clues me in that my desire for a Nobel Prize is a conditioned or false desire– not part of an intrinsic shape or Urpflanz model that my soul longs to blossom into, but a side accessory to bolster my oft-faltering writerly ego.
However, if I was totally blissed out, I would still like a house that looks like a Lisa Frank sticker sheet exploded all over it, in a really good way and a gypsy caravan that is so rad I can hardly stand it. Of course, I wouldn’t need these things– I’d be blissed out! But I would like and prefer to have them– whereas all that Nobel Prize riggamarole would just be an annoyance.
3. Take the Weeds of Resentment out of the Garden of Desire
But! One might say. Carolyn! You should let go of those desires! You just said you feel all kinds of nasty attachment and resentment surrounding them. How can they be good things for your soul when you feel all that mucky yucky stuff surrounding them?
Well, let me tell you about that. I used to use the same argument on myself in regards to my desire for a truly wonderful relationship. I’d recognize that wanting it so much hurt (because I seemed to be constantly frustrated in my attempts to fulfill that want) so I’d try to talk myself out of wanting it. This never worked because my desire for a wonderful relationship was an authentic preference— it passed the “bliss” test. I could honestly say yes, if I was completely blissed out I would still prefer to have a fantastically awesome romantic partner in my life, just like Byron Katie has her “dear Stephen.” Once I recognized that my longing for true love was an authentic preference, an intrinsic part of the design my soul wanted to blossom into in my life, I was able to give myself permission to fully, innocently, soaringly hope for it with a totally open heart, as I had never hoped for anything before.
As I previously noted, by some mind-boggling paradox, the very act of this Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimism helped me to surrender my attachment and resentment surrounding the lack of an awesome relationship in my life.
And then, zooooooom! It worked!
So, concerned reader, I understand I still need to do a lot of work surrendering my attachment to gazillions of gold coins and the gazillions of pug puppies such gold coins could pay for– or, as dear Mr. Keyes would say “upleveling” my emotion-backed addictions to them to preferences. But since I have now identified those as authentic preferences, I am prepared to begin practicing the magic of my Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimism on them. More on that tomorrow!