Desire, Not Preference
The following is the 33nd chapter in AWARENESS: A de Mellow Spirituality Conference in His Own Words
by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the Center for Spiritual Exchange
“Do not suppress desire, because then you would become lifeless. You’d be without energy and that would be terrible. Desire in the healthy sense of the word is energy, and the more energy we have, the better. But don’t suppress desire, understand it. Understand it. Don’t seek to fulfill desire so much as to understand desire. And don’t just renounce the objects of your desire, understand them; see them in their true light. See them for what they are really worth. Because if you just suppress your desire, and you attempt to renounce the object of your desire, you are likely to be tied to it. Whereas if you look at it and see it for what it is really worth, if you understand how you are preparing the grounds for misery and disappointment and depression, your desire will then be transformed into what I call a preference.
When you go through life with preferences but don’t let your happiness depend on any one of them, then you’re awake. You’re moving toward wakefulness. Wakefulness, happiness—call it what you wish—is the state of nondelusion, where you see things not as you are but as they are, insofar as this is possible for a human being. To drop illusions, to see things, to see reality. Every time you are unhappy, you have added something to reality. It is that addition that makes you unhappy. I repeat: You have added something… a negative reaction in you. Reality provides the stimulus, you provide the reaction. You have added something by your reaction. And if you examine what you have added, there is always an illusion there, there’s a demand, an expectation, a craving. Always. Examples of illusions abound. But as you begin to move ahead on this path, you’ll discover them for yourself.
For instance, the illusion, the error of thinking that, by changing the exterior world, you will change. You do not change if you merely change your exterior world. If you get yourself a new job or a new spouse or a new home or a new guru or a new spirituality, that does not change you. It’s like imagining that you change your handwriting by changing your pen. Or that you change your capacity to think by changing your hat. That doesn’t change you really, but most people spend all their energies trying to rearrange their exterior world to suit their tastes. Sometimes they succeed—for about five minutes and they get a little respite, but they are tense even during that respite, because life is always flowing, life is always changing.
So if you want to live, you must have no permanent abode. You must have no place to rest your head. You have to flow with it. As the great Confucius said, ‘The one who would be constant in happiness must frequently change.’ Flow. But we keep looking back, don’t we? We cling to things in the past and cling to things in the present. ‘When you set your hand to the plow, you cannot look back.’ Do you want to enjoy a melody? Do you want to enjoy a symphony? Don’t hold on to a few bars of the music. Don’t hold on to a couple of notes. Let them pass, let them flow. The whole enjoyment of a symphony lies in your readiness to allow the notes to pass. Whereas if a particular bar took your fancy and you shouted to the orchestra, ‘Keep playing it again and again and again,’ that wouldn’t be a symphony anymore. Are you familiar with those tales of Nasr-ed-Din, the old mullah? He’s a legendary figure whom the Greeks, Turks, and Persians all claim for themselves. He would give his mystical teachings in the form of stories, generally funny stories. And the butt of the story was always old Nasr-ed-Din himself.
One day Nasr-ed-Din was strumming a guitar, playing just one note. After a while a crowd collected around him (this was in a marketplace) and one of the men sitting on the ground there said, ‘That’s a nice note you’re playing, Mullah, but why don’t you vary it a bit the way other musicians do?’ ‘Those fools,’ Nasr-ed-Din said, ‘they’re searching for the right note. I’ve found it.”