Desire and Spiritual Selfishness

 by Edward Abdill

Originally printed in the Winter 2011 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Abdill, Edward. "Desire and Spiritual Selfishness." Quest  99. 1 (Winter 2011): 21-23, 39.

Ed Abdill In fragment 1 of The Voice of the Silence we read, "Kill out desire; but if thou killest it take heed lest from the dead it should again arise." But if we had no desire to act, we would become the living dead. Surely that is not what the text is suggesting.

The Sanskrit word for "desire" is kama. According to Theosophical teaching, kama is one of the seven principles or aspects of human nature. These are localized fields within universal fields. Each of us is a microcosm, a miniature macrocosm, and as such we contain within us all the principles that the universe contains. Although the fields are nonmaterial, each one is associated with a type of matter that responds specifically to it. We can see matter being affected by a field when we observe a bar magnet close to iron filings. The filings line up along the field. The magnetic field visibly affects iron filings, but it does not visibly affect other material. The iron filings are a kind of test object that reveals the presence of the magnetic field.

The etheric double, a field closely associated with the physical body, affects protoplasm. This can be seen in the incubating chicken egg: a pulsation begins at the exact spot in the egg where the heart will be formed. The field "molds" the heart in the same way that the magnetic field "molds" the iron filings.

In addition to the etheric field, which affects the physical body, we have emotional, mental, and spiritual fields. Each of these has a particular type of matter that responds to it. Nonetheless, all these fields affect the physical body in some way. Perhaps that is because from a Theosophical perspective there is only a single field acting in different ways on seven different states of matter. Could it be that this ultimate unified field is consciousness itself?

A powerful component of the emotional field is kama, loosely translated as "desire." Essentially, kama is our emotional nature. It includes, but is not limited to, craving and desire of any kind. We may crave physical sensation, food, drink, companionship, prestige, power, or a soul mate. We may even crave fine art and music. Craving is not the same as appreciation. To appreciate fine art and music is not the same as craving them. The problem is the attachment to the objects of craving–the "I-can't-live-without-it" feeling. These attachments will inevitably cause us pain. The indisputable fact is that everything changes, both in the physical and in the psychological world. "This, too, shall pass" has no exceptions, not even in the subjective realm of the psyche. If we are attached to or identified with anything, psychological pain is inevitable when the object of our desire changes. How easy it is to see this, and yet how extraordinarily difficult it is to accept it.

In directing us to "kill out desire," The Voice of the Silence is not asking us to kill out emotion. If you read The Mahatma Letters, you will discover that the Masters Koot Hoomi and Morya show strong feelings. They are not cold, emotionless people. In letter 92 we read that Blavatsky's glowing description of Morya as "an Apollo of Belvedere" caused him to "start in anger, and break his pipe while swearing like a true Christian." (References to The Mahatma Letters in this article are to the chronological edition, edited by A. T. Barker and Vicente Hao Chin, Jr.)

In addition to our emotions we have minds. This mind—known in Theosophy as manas–can become focused on and identified either with buddhi, the spiritual nature, or with kama. When it is identified with buddhi, it is called buddhi-manas, and along with consciousness itself, atma, it is said to constitute the reincarnating individual self. But when the mind is focused on and identified with kama, it is called kama-manas. This is the animal soul or the lower self, and it perishes sometime after death.

Since we are localizations of universal fields, does this mean that the universe behaves as we do? If not, what is the difference?

To say that atma-buddhi, the most spiritual aspect of reality, "desires" anything would be misleading. It would be more accurate to say that atma-buddhi wills something. It is intentionality rather than desire. While these two things are related, they are quite different. In the universal sense, intentionality involves what is truly right for the whole. That is quite different from personal desire. So we might say that the one is similar to or a reflection of the other, but we can no more say they are identical than that the reflection of the moon on the water is the moon. Atma-buddhi wills the universe into existence. It desires nothing. If we identify with kama, we may use our willpower to get what we want. If we identify with buddhi, the divine will may be expressed through us. In that case, the divine will neutralizes personal desire.

The personal ego, the "me," is composed of our bodies and what might be called our "thinking/feeling" nature, kama-manas.

Kama is an essential part of our nature. It propels us to act. If we did not act, we would wither away and die. Acting generates karma, and the karmic results of our actions enable us to learn. Some believe they should not act to help others on the grounds that this is interfering with that person's karma. But the wise have told us that inaction in a deed of mercy is a deadly sin. It is not a desire to act that causes a problem; rather it is our identification with our desires and our attachment to the objects of our desires. The following example may help illustrate this point.

Let us say that we have planned out our day. Even if the tasks before us are unpleasant, we want our plan to go as we have set it up. We want to finish our work; we want to finish it on time; and we want to have a feeling of satisfaction with a job well done. Yet, to paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, "the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." When they do, we are likely to become upset. The upset comes because we are attached to the desire to have things go as we planned them. Avoiding attachment to desire does not mean that we should not act. It would be foolish to say that that we should do nothing or that we do not care about our plans. We do care. However, if our plans are blocked, can we accept that fact even if we are not happy about it? Can we say, "What needs to be done now?" and get on with it without emotional upset? Can we say, "Few things matter much, and most things don't matter at all" and mean it? If we cannot, we are attached to and identified with our desire.

Whenever we feel angry, upset, fearful, anxious, or frustrated, we are reacting to blocked desire, kama. Kama is not only a desire to possess something; it can also be a desire to reject something. We may desire to possess a lover, but we might just as well desire to be free of an enemy. Minor flare-ups of kama happen so often during the day that we are generally unaware of its tremendous power over us. Examples abound. Traffic jams, flight delays, loss of personal property, being jostled by crowds, and disruptions of our daily routine provide opportunities for us to notice whether or not we are attached to our desires.

Does nonattachment to desire mean that we should not plan? Nothing could be further from the truth. Planning for the future is common sense. Knowing something of inevitable cycles, we can plan ahead. Our plans may or may not work out as we hope, but that should not prevent us from being as sensible as possible.

Perhaps the most difficult attachment to avoid is the attachment to those we love. True love goes out without hooks. Attachment, however, makes us want to keep something or someone exactly as they are for our own emotional comfort. If we love a spouse or a friend without attachment, we can let them go when they move out of our lives or when they die. When we truly love someone, we want what is best for them; and sometimes it is best that they die. Our grief, although it is natural, is evidence that in addition to our love, we have become attached to having their physical presence with us.

Some might say that desires are normal and there is nothing to be gained by trying to detach ourselves from them. Rather than accept or reject that point of view, we might consider what sages have called "the eternal now." From a scientific as well as Theosophical point of view, everything in the objective world is moving, and moving equals change. Nothing stays the same even for a nanosecond. When we have what we want, we are happy. We don't want anything to change. But we can no more prevent our lives from changing than we can stop the earth from spinning on its axis. Our desire to keep things as they are, and the impossibility of doing so, produce psychological pain. Sages say that if we avoid becoming attached to the objects of our desire, we will be able to enjoy life to its fullest. Blavatsky once said that the Theosophist should have a deep appreciation of the sensate world, but a calm indifference to it. This indifference might mean a complete acceptance of constant change. Early in The Secret Doctrine we read, "Time was not, for it lay asleep in the infinite bosom of duration." The current scientific view is similar. Theoretically, there was no time before the Big Bang. What we call "time" is our experience of motion. Without motion there can be no time. But we are so rooted in our experience of time that it is difficult to realize that time is perpetual motion within an eternal now. In letter 15 of The Mahatma Letters, Koot Hoomi writes, "Past, present and future! Miserable concepts of the objective phases of the Subjective Whole, they are about as ill adapted for the purpose as an axe for fine carving."

To be able to accept change and yet find life joyful, it may be helpful to get some sense of what Koot Hoomi calls "the Subjective Whole" or the eternal now. There is no doubt that this can be realized, at least momentarily, through meditation. Seeking to find the root of our own being in the Eternal can lead to Self-realization. It can free us from identification with the constantly changing world while allowing us to enjoy this world. When we have had flashes of insight into the eternal background, it becomes easier to accept and enjoy the changing foreground. Then, when our plans fall apart and what we have enjoyed is gone, we can more easily accept the situation because we now know that we are rooted in the eternal now. This is no easy task. In fact it may be one of the most difficult tasks we ever face. Even after having had a flash of insight into the Eternal, we may find that that insight fades and we slip back into our accustomed way of thought.

It is easy to fool ourselves into believing that we have rooted ourselves in the eternal now when we have not. In one episode of the comic strip "Agnes," we find Agnes at school. Her teacher asks for the assignment, but Agnes does not have it. Agnes is convinced that she is now enjoying every moment with joy, and the fact that she does not have her assignment does not bother her one bit. But when the teacher makes her stay after school to finish the assignment, Agnes decides that her moments of joy are turning sour. As is often the case with us all, Agnes has deceived herself.

Having touched on the problem of personal desire, we may now look more closely at spiritual desire or what Koot Hoomi called "inner spiritual aspirations." When The Voice of the Silence says, "If thou killest [desire] take heed lest from the dead it should again arise," it refers to killing ordinary selfish desire only to have it reincarnate as spiritual or inner selfish desire. This is not the same as spiritual will. Spiritual will is essential to spiritual development. In fact, in letter 126 Koot Hoomi directs us to have "an iron, never failing determination and yet be meek and gentle, humble and have shut out from [the] heart every human passion, that leads to evil." The "human passion" is both personal desire and spiritual selfishness.

While personal desire is deplorable, it is far less dangerous than spiritual selfishness. In letter 64 Koot Hoomi describes this more dangerous form:

 There are persons who, without ever showing any external sign of selfishness, are intensely selfish in their inner spiritual aspirations. These will follow the path once chosen by them with their eyes closed to the interests of all but themselves, and see nothing outside the narrow pathway filled with their own personality. They are so intensely absorbed in the contemplation of their own supposed "righteousness" that nothing can ever appear right to them outside the focus of their own vision distorted by their self-complacent contemplation, and their judgment of the right and wrong.

One sign of spiritual selfishness is the desire to acquire knowledge and power for oneself. If the desire for personal enlightenment is so strong that it prevents us from fulfilling our responsibilities, we have fallen victim to spiritual selfishness. In extreme cases, a parent may neglect a child in order to visit a guru or attend a religious rite. Among Theosophists we trust that such cases are rare, but less extreme cases are common. We may consider some cases from member meetings of the Theosophical Society. For example a member might insist that meetings contain information helpful to him or her personally while ignoring the needs of others. Their unstated desire can be summed up thus: "I know what we need to do to make our meetings more spiritually useful, and I intend to override the views of others in order to get what I want." In addition, many of us participate in group discussions, but sometimes the desire to get our view across is so strong that we monopolize the meeting, oblivious to the time we are taking and to the fact that we are keeping others from participating.

Not every member of the Theosophical Society can attend meetings. Some members who support the Society by their dues and good will do not have the interest or time to support it actively. Other members face responsibilities that prevent them from attending. In such cases, spiritual selfishness might, ironically, mean going to a meeting rather than carrying out these responsibilities.

Certain members are able to attend most meetings but choose to come only when the subject matter appeals to them. If they think they've heard it all before, they won't go. The late Emily Sellon, a prominent Theosophist and former vice-president of the Society in America , was once asked why she attended member meetings once a week. The inquirer asked her, "What do you get out of it?" Emily replied, "It is not what I get out of it. It is what I can contribute to it."

We do not have to give a lecture to contribute to a Theosophical meeting. Participating in a discussion is also a contribution. The expressed thoughts of individuals in the group provide food for thought, even when the ideas may seem foolish to us. If we try to understand our fellow members, we might discover what is behind an apparently foolish statement. For example, it may come from a rigid belief system. If so, rather than becoming annoyed with the speaker (a sign of blocked desire), we might state our own view calmly and without animosity.

In many organizations members complain that the meetings are uninspiring and the subject matter is boring. The charge is always the same. "They" don't present interesting programs. Who are "they"? It is generally only the few who take responsibility to organize the group and schedule programs. Anyone who has ever tried to get volunteer help for any organization knows how difficult that task is. Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, "You are the world." In the Theosophical Society we may say, "Each member is the Theosophical Society." There is no "they," only "we." The Society is what each of us makes of it.

We often forget that the primary purpose of the Theosophical Society is to "form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity." It is easy to believe in universal brotherhood from our armchairs. It is not easy to experience it shoulder to shoulder with fellow members. Nearly every meeting of the Society gives us an opportunity to ponder spiritual principles. Perhaps the presenters are not eloquent. Perhaps they are not well informed. Perhaps they present mistaken notions. Nevertheless, you and I have an opportunity to present our own understanding of the topic. Together we can reach toward the inner states of consciousness, where it is possible to get insights into truth, where, despite our diverse opinions, there is a deeper unity. Even if the meetings occasionally seem to be boring to the bitter end, we are not there to be entertained. We are there to build the bonds of brotherhood and to contribute what we can, either silently by thought or verbally as food for thought.

Universal brotherhood cannot be achieved by acting from an emotional base, even though our emotional state may be profoundly and positively affected by our efforts to reach deeper states of consciousness. An awareness of universal brotherhood can only be achieved through a realization of unity in the deepest states of consciousness. Pondering spiritual principles together is a means toward that end. The Prayer of St. Francis says, "It is in giving that we receive." If we look only to receive, we will, as the Gospel says, "be sent empty away." Spiritual selfishness will have doomed us to failure.

Koot Hoomi has told us that selfishness, pride, egoism, and the want of self-sacrifice are the greatest impediments on the road to adeptship. As we begin to realize that attachment to the objects of our desire is selfish and brings pain, we will begin to free ourselves from it. We may by so doing come ever closer to the secret gateway that leads to the "reward past all telling, the power to bless and save humanity."

Ed Abdill, author of The Secret Gateway, is a former director of the Theosophical Society in America and past president of the New York Theosophical Society. He lectures for the Society throughout the United States and internationally.

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