Halfway through the first concert of The The’s ‘Comeback Special’ tour at the Royal Albert Hall in June 2018, singer-songwriter Matt Johnson took to the stage alone with his acoustic guitar and sang, ‘True Happiness This Way Lies’, from the album ‘Dusk’. He began with this absolutely central issue at the heart of human desire:
‘And have you ever wanted something so badly
‘That it possessed your body and your soul
‘Through the night and through the day…
‘Until you finally get it…
‘And then you realise that it wasn’t what you wanted after all?’
The problem is not just that we can’t get what we want. The problem is that we often can, but when we do, we’re still not satisfied. What then?
‘And then those self-same sickly little thoughts
‘Now go and attach themselves to something… or somebody… new.
‘And the whole goddamn thing starts… all over… again.’
This, by the way, is exactly what Buddhists mean by samsara – the mind desires, it gets, it loses interest and desires something new, with the whole process endlessly rotating like a wheel. It is crucial to understand that the mind is not interested in what it has; it is only interested in what it doesn’t have. By definition, then, the mind cannot find satisfaction – it must always be yearning, moving.
On classic albums like ‘Infected’, ‘Mind Bomb’ and ‘Dusk’, Johnson explored with rare honesty this question facing us all – what to do about relentless, nagging desire? More specifically, what to do about sexual desire?
The difficulty being, as Johnson reminds us, that indulgence does not cool but inflames desire, pours petrol on the fire. Indulgence promises but does not deliver contentment. Instead, it can generate addiction that torments us with the law of diminishing returns – the more we get, the more we want, because the more we get, the less we enjoy what we get. This can start to eat away at our integrity, our sense of who we are:
‘I was trying so hard to cleanse myself
‘I was turning into somebody else.
‘I was trying so hard to please myself
‘I was turning into somebody else.’ (‘Out of The Blue (Into The Fire)’, ‘Infected’, The The, 1986)
Alas, no matter how maddening the torment of insatiable indulgence, the alternative – repression, self-denial – seems merely to put a cork in volcanic cravings which will subsequently erupt with even greater intensity. Religious organisations the world over bear witness to the catastrophic results of attempting to enforce chastity through willpower. The volcano remains active – the energy most certainly will out, no matter how destructively.
With sex addicts to the left of us, paedophile priests to the right, we’re stuck in the middle with The The asking of lust:
‘Is it something to yield to or be overcome?’ (‘Bluer Than Midnight’, ‘Dusk’, The The, 1993)
Neither of these seem to offer much hope.
Back at the Royal Albert Hall concert, Johnson continued with the solo acoustic number on this same theme:
‘Well, I’ve been crushing the symptoms
‘But I can’t locate the cause
‘Could God really be so cruel
‘To give us feelings that could never be fulfilled?
‘Baby… I’ve got my sights set on you
‘I’ve got my sights set on you.
‘And someday, someday, someday, you’ll come my way.
‘But when you put your arms around me,
‘I’ll be lookin’ over your shoulder for somethin’ new.
‘Cause I ain’t ever found peace upon the breast of a girl…’
Remarkably, at this point, Johnson suddenly stopped singing and started critiquing his own song to the audience, saying:
‘I have to caveat that…’
It was a brilliant and hilarious moment. He explained that he had, in fact, found ‘peace upon the breast of a girl’ – of several girlfriends, in fact, and also his mother. Heart-warming comments to be sure, but these sounded more like moments of reprieve than a genuine answer to the problem. Johnson then resumed his song:
‘Cause I ain’t ever found peace upon the breast of a girl.
‘I ain’t ever found peace with the religion of the world.
‘I ain’t ever found peace at the bottom of a glass.
‘Sometimes it seems the more I ask for, the less I receive.
‘Sometimes it seems the more I ask for, the less I receive.
‘The only true freedom is freedom from the heart’s desires
‘And the only true happiness this way lies.’
Yes, we all sense it lies in that direction – we’ve heard any amount of spiritual gossip from enlightened mystics to that effect – but how, actually, are we to be free of desire? Is our only hope to wait for the cell doors to creak open of their own accord as we sink into sexual decrepitude? And, frankly, even if we lose functional capacity, will we ever really lose that relentless little twinkle in the eye?
Keeping Company With Desire
Bizarrely, given that he had long been one of my musical heroes, Johnson had actually interviewed me, in 2015, for his Radio Cineola project. The interview was focused on my work with Media Lens, of course, but I couldn’t resist taking the chance to ask him about lyrics that had been haunting me for thirty years. And so, after a civilised, head-based discussion about Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model – how important it is to master the tools of intellectual self-defence, all that stuff – I felt a little awkward going off-topic. I asked:
‘So what about desire, Matt? Did you ever find a solution to the problem of always wanting more, of indulgence making it worse?’
Johnson laughed, hesitated and responded cautiously – understandable, but somewhat chucklesome given the very frank lyrics and artwork he had unleashed on the public. He replied:
‘Well it’s always there, isn’t it?… waiting to pounce on you.’
It sounded like he had developed coping strategies rather than solutions. On the other hand, it was an awkward subject to discuss with a near-complete stranger.
So what is the response of every one of the great mystic masters of meditation over the last 10,000 years to the big question relating to desire: ‘Is it something to yield to or be overcome?’ I mean people like Bahauddin, Buddha, Bodhidharma, Bayazid, Chuang Tzu, Eckhart, Gurdjieff, Hakim Senai, Heraclitus, Ikkyu, Jesus, Junnaid, Kabir, Krishna, Lai-Khur, Lalla, Lao tse, Lao tzu, Lazy An, Lieh tzu, Mahavir, Mansoor, Meera, Nanak, Osho, Patanjali, Rabia, Ramakrishna, Saraha, Tolle, Yoka.
Their answer, amazingly, without exception: Do nothing, just watch.
Indulgence is fine, if we’re happy as we are, enjoying our sexuality; there’s nothing wrong with it. It gives momentary pleasure – a high-energy peak experience inevitably followed by a low-energy trough experience. But, as discussed, indulgence does not relieve the thirst of desire. On the contrary, the habit is simply deepened, strengthened. Likewise, repression is like attempting to push water gushing from a fountain back to the source – the energy will erupt with even greater force. This is the disaster that has befallen so many attempts at repression. So where does that leave us? Zen Master Yagyu said:
‘Let yourself go with the desire. Be with it, keep company with it. This is the way to get rid of it.’ (Quoted, Osho, ‘The Path of Paradox, Volume 1,’ Osho International Foundation, 1981, p.122)
The advice: just observe the sexual energy, feel it. Become deeply, intimately acquainted with the experience of sexual desire. At first sight, this looks like a completely futile strategy, but it is not.
Firstly, watching desire intensely – feeling that fiery energy in our bodies, watching the thoughts that cascade – annihilates many of the illusions we have about desire. For example, we take it for granted that desire is an entirely positive thrill, a great entertainment. Close observation reveals that the excitement is uncomfortable, wearing, stressful – desire is nagging, bullying, even maddening. As Montaigne said so well, with a little careful attention we can see that ‘Pleasure chews and grinds us.’
When we watch desire often, closely, for a long time – when we just sit and let it sizzle and smoulder away in our bodies – we become far more sensitive to what is really the case. There is a wonderful insight to be gained here. A Buddhist text comments:
‘If you have an eyelash and put it on the palm of your hand, you cannot feel it. If that eyelash were put on the eye, though, it would cause pain and you cannot be at rest.’ (‘The Shin Buddhist Classical Tradition Volume 2: A Reader in Pure Land Teaching’, Edited by Alfred Bloom, World Wisdom, 2014, p.111)
Closely observing our feelings for an hour a day in meditation slowly increases our sensitivity – from being as sensitive to the painful reality of desire as the palm of our hand we become as sensitive as the surface of our eye – and it is exactly this difference that separates a blindly enthusiastic sex addict from an enlightened mystic. The effort is not to create any particular feeling, it is to patiently observe (and great patience may be required) whatever is there.
In other words, two things happen when we observe desire closely: we feel the painful reality more clearly, and that pain is then transformed into bliss.
In his books, Osho describes how energy is greatly increased by meditative observation, and how this can be used and alchemised:
‘First the energy will try its best to be released sexually, because that is its usual outlet, its usual center. So one must first be aware of one’s downward “doors.” Only awareness will close them; only non-cooperation will close them. Sex is not so forceful as we feel it to be. It is forceful only momentarily: it is not a twenty-four-hour affair, it is a momentary challenge.
‘If you can be noncooperative and aware, it goes. And you will feel more happiness than when sexual energy is released from the downward passage. Conservation of energy is always blissful: wastage of energy is only a relief, it is not blissful. You have unburdened yourself; you have alleviated something that was troubling you. Now you have become unburdened, but you have also become emptied.
‘The feeling of emptiness that is overtaking the whole Western mind is just because of sexual wastage. Life seems to be empty. Life is never empty, but it seems to be empty because you have been simply unburdening yourself, just relieving yourself.
‘If something is conserved it becomes a richness: if your upward door is open and energy goes upward, not only do you feel relieved, not only is the straining point relieved, but it is not vacant. In a way it is fulfilled; it is overflowing.’ (Osho, ‘Meditation – The Art Of Ecstasy’, Rebel Publishing, 1992; online edition)
Lust alchemises into lovingkindness (metta) in exactly this way. Because the former is thrilling but uncomfortable and the latter deeply blissful, peaceful, the exact moment when lust alchemises into love is felt very clearly. Lama Zopa Rinpoche describes the change:
‘We can immediately feel the freedom. Our mind is no longer sharp and hurtful like a thorn bush or rough and hard like a rock, but smooth and blissful like cream. Our heart feels open and spacious, and we immediately experience peace and happiness.’ (Lama Zopa Rinpoche, ‘Ultimate Healing,’ Wisdom Publications, 2001, p.33)
And this is the ultimate answer to the question posed by The The: simply watching sexual energy will eventually alchemise painful lust into blissful love. This is perceived as infinitely preferable to both indulgence and repression, and of course no willpower is needed to choose blissful delight over the suffering of desire.
This is an authentic alchemy that transforms base metal emotions into spiritual gold. It is the meaning behind the Buddhist symbol of the pristine, beautiful ‘lotus’ of spiritual ecstasy arising out of the ‘mud’ of the body and its desires.
It is not that the ‘mud’ is ‘disgusting’ or ‘shameful’ – on the contrary, it is full of energy and life; it is the very basis of spiritual growth and not to be rejected. Instead, it is to be accepted, embraced, enjoyed and transformed into higher forms of energy and delight, as and when we are ready. All other desires and forms of addiction to external pleasures can be watched and transformed in exactly this way.
The astonishing, near-complete refusal of the cultural ‘mainstream’, and of the head-trapped left, over centuries, to recognise the existence and potential of this spiritual alchemy has had awesome consequences. Humanity continues to be completely lost, driving itself mad with its pursuit of external pleasures that have no power whatever to deliver internal peace and bliss. The mind simply cannot be appeased in this way, the wheel of samsara must keep on turning. The attempt is guaranteed to fail, exactly as it is guaranteed to consume the natural world on which we depend.
We can devote ourselves to head-based political activism as much as we like, but not much will change as long as our hearts remain the same. Until we learn to honestly observe and transmute our desires, no amount of political awareness will be able to dissuade people for whom too much will never be enough.
Part 1 is available here.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org