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Redeeming Desire

Spinoza famously stated that ‘desire is man’s very essence’ (Ethica, III, def. of affects, 1).

Ordinarily, desire manifests in two general ways. First as the urge for acquiring something that is currently lacking (or negatively, for removing something that is currently present). Desire sees the present as imperfect (either because of a lack, or because of an unwanted presence) and provokes action to change it according to an envisaged good. This is very much akin to what in the discourses of the Buddha is called thirst (taṇhā).

However, desire can manifest also in a second way, as an internal striving to bring about and give expression to something felt within. In this second sense, the experience of desire is less about the manipulation of external conditions (as it tends to be in the first scenario), and more about a form of self-realization, an inner movement aimed at bringing forth something that is already there, but not fully actualized. This is the fundamental meaning that Spinoza gives to desire understood as a conatus or striving to persevere in one’s own being (Ethica, III, prop. 7). Arguably, this is also akin to what in the discourses of the Buddha is called ‘aspiration’ (chanda) and regarded as one of the ‘basis for success’ (iddhipada, e.g., SN 51.20).

Reflection shows that these two forms of desire are not independent from one another, but the first is in fact based on the second. If a being would not have an internal striving to persevere in its own being, then that being would be entirely indifferent to any state whatsoever it might occur to it. Hence, it would not need nor even conceive the possibility of seeking any particular state or alter its present condition. It would just inertially dwell in whichever state occurs to it and be entirely fine with it.

The first kind of desire is a deformation of the second. The deformation occurs through the fact that the inner core of the desiring being remains invisible, transparent, ignored. It is there, it acts, but it is not acknowledged nor understood as such. The whole being is projected outside, absorbed in external circumstances, preoccupied with what Heidegger called the ‘care’ (sorge) for the world and the things in the world. A confused and unarticulated intuition suggests that certain things should not be there, other should be acquired. Most often these intuitions are interiorization of external pressures, they are just passions (in Spinoza’s terminology). To use Buddhist jargon, thirst is aspiration deformed by ignorance (avijjā).

The most apparent manifestation of this ignorance is the egoic self. Desire, as a thirst for obtaining or avoiding, is the movement that enacts the ‘I am’ as the needed character for making sense of the story created by desire itself. The egoic self can have its own positive functions, insofar as it helps the being to consolidate a form of individuality and, sometimes, to improve its own material conditions. However, the egoic self has a marginal utility. The egoic self tends to isolation and separation, creates demarcations and boundaries, it has to distinguish itself from the rest of its surroundings in order to preserve its own being. Even if human beings tend to be social (since all beings can in fact exist only in relation to others), the egoic self skews even sociability, as the history of humanity at all times and latitudes demonstrates. The spinning of desire tends towards self-enclosure, and eventually it falls pray of the inevitable fear and anxiety that emerges from the impossibility of sustaining this movement.

Thirst (first kind of desire) is nothing but the ignorant deformation of an inner and deeper aspiration (second kind of desire). Hopefully, in every being both kinds of desire manifest from time to time. The presence of unadulterated aspiration can compensate and somehow keep thirst in check, although it is also possible that the latter dominates entirely. This is the reason why most soteriologies call for some sort of ‘therapy of desire’ (to borrow the title of Martha Nussbaum’s 1994 book). The Buddhist path is most directly aimed at dismantling the pretentions of the egoic self, and thus uprooting the whole mechanism of thirst. Spinoza’s strategy consists in countering passive emotions and enhancing to one’s own power of acting, thus working perhaps more directly on the side of refining aspiration. Heidegger would invest on the turning from the state of inauthenticity and dispersal in the care for the world, to a state of authenticity, based on one’s realization of one’s own being-towards-death and the freedom that this discloses. In all these cases, the ordinary egoic self is countered, opposed, disrupted, abandoned. This is an inevitable part of any spiritual practice—namely, any practice that is aimed not at making you more functional within a pregiven socio-economical structure of power, but that is rather aimed at freeing you from subjection to any structure of power, external or internal.

However, this act of self-deconstruction is a difficult, long, and demanding task. Chances are that one will fail to stick to it till the end or with the necessary dedication and commitment if something else does not come along, supporting and facilitating the process.

A complementary, and perhaps necessary strategy consists in deepening since the beginning one’s relation and understanding of one’s own aspiration. This understanding will surely be enhanced when ignorance is removed, thirst uprooted, and the ego abandoned. But already before getting there (and also in order to get there), one needs to look into what this aspiration really is about.

Desire as aspiration is a movement that goes from inside to outside, from potentiality to actuality. It presupposes something, a core, that is present but unexpressed and unarticulated. Perhaps the most common way of interpreting this core is to consider it ‘my’ individual essence, what defines ‘me’ for what ‘I am’ (what scholastic would perhaps call quidditas, and Spinoza calls essentia). But where is this core coming from? Where is it rooted?

Reflection reveals that anything finite can be conceived only as the limitation and bounding of something that is not-finite. Any finite being, insofar as it is finite and determinate, necessarily depends and it is conditioned by other beings—this much, even the Buddhist discourses would grant. But since being (esse) cannot be finite nor determined by itself (because any limitation of being is the pretension of positing a non-being within being; but non-being, by definition, cannot be posited at all), anything that is finite is necessarily not being, but only an expression of being—not a substance, but only a mode, as Spinoza argues in the first part of his Ethics.

The hidden, mysterious core that underpins all aspiration, is ultimately not ‘mine’, it is not ‘my’ essence, but rather a sort of bridge between this finite thing that I am, and the infinite ground within which this ‘am’ is made possible. The aspiration has to do with this ultimate infinite ground. But why would an infinite ground need any expression at all? Why engraining this aspiration in its own finite manifestations?

Here no argument can work if it is not supported by a fundamental intuition, possibly rooted in direct experience. The intuition is this: being (qua being) is blissful (ānanda). Not this or that particular entity or expression of being, but the very stuff of being as such is this bliss. Bliss is not a predicate of being, attributed to something that can be defined in its own right without reference to it. Bliss is intrinsic to the very essence of being. Plato thought that being as such is the capacity to act (Sophist, 247e). Spinoza, moving along similar lines, suggests that the very essence of God (i.e., the only substance of the whole of nature) is the same as its power (Ethica, I, prop. 34). The older Upaniṣads regarded rather bliss as the inherent quality of being:

…ko hyevānyātkaḥ prāṇyāt, yadeṣa ākāśa ānando na syāt, eṣa hyevā”nandayāti.

…for who could labour to draw in the breath or who could have strength to breathe it out, if there were not that Bliss in the heaven of his heart, the ether within his being?

(Taittirīya Upaniṣad, II.7, transl. Sri Aurobindo)

One way of understanding the connection between ‘being’, ‘power of acting’ and ‘bliss’ is that ‘being’ (esse) is nothing but an infinite potentiality (potentia), the immense opening of the space of possibilities, the ultimate emptiness that creates the horizon for everything everywhere forever to come. And this opening is Beauty and Goodness itself—its Bliss (beatitudo).

If (by hypothesis) the infinite ground would exist only in its own absolute purity, in perfect isolation, aloof from any expression of itself, then this original bliss would remain unperceived, unexpressed, unarticulated. The infinite opening would remain empty and void, potentiality for appearing would collapse in sheer naught. This would be against the very nature of being (esse), and hence it is necessary (Spinoza would add), that the infinite ground posits the whole world by the same act through which it posits itself (the substance is causa sui, Ethica, I, prop. 7).

In reality, they cannot be separated, one entails the other. But this is so because the nature of bliss calls for and seeks the expression of itself. Pure, absolute being, considered only in itself, and without any further characteristic, does not require anything else (ask Parmenides). Even pure, absolute consciousness, considered only in itself, and without any further characteristic, is perfectly self-sufficient (like deep dreamless sleep). Only insofar as being and consciousness are understood as the opening of the horizon of all possibilities and realities, and hence as the dawn of the blissfulness of appearing, then it becomes necessary and unavoidable that the infinite ground does not remain frozen in its absolute nature but rather exists as an infinite unfolding of its own power and beauty.

Hidden in all aspirations, behind and beneath the deformed petty attempts at preserving this or that particular form, there is an infinite longing trying to find its own self-expression. Desire, in its essence, is a particularized, individualized fragment of this cosmic movement. It does not really look outside, but draws from the depths within. Desire is not a spring but a well. Aspiration is the bucket plunging down the earth of reality, seeking the waters that await in the darkness beneath—and possibly bringing some of it to the surface.

Ultimately, this whole process is about the realization of self-consciousness, which is nothing but the unity of experience within which the infinite ground becomes self-conscious of its own blissfulness by experiencing it from the point of view of its own expressions. This is what Spinoza called amor dei intellectualis—the intellectual love of and for God (Ethica, V, prop. 36).

But even before getting there (and in order to get there), one can start reconsidering their own aspiration, and what that is really seeking for. Discovering that the deeper aspiration that moves one’s life is in fact something much bigger and deeper that this individual life, and at the same time something that embraces this life as a necessary means for reuniting in it what otherwise appears as a opposites (finite and infinite, mode and substance, temporal and eternal, and so forth)—then, Bliss wells up in one’s life by redeeming desire from its deformations and pointing out the path to move forward.

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