There is a story about a man who has a wife, whom he dearly loves, and yet every time he sees a beautiful woman, he can’t help but feel sexual desire for her. Because of this, he is ridden with guilt, and so he wants to remove his sexual desire. He tries to avoid seeing beautiful women, but no matter where he goes, it seems there is always someone he finds beautiful. He tries closing his eyes the moment this happens – but it is too late, it is as if there were the push of a button, and the wheels of the desire-making machine inevitably start to turn.
Finally, he feels so tormented that he decides to cut out his eyes and blind himself.
What do you think: does this solve his problem?
The story does not tell what happens next. But you don’t need an ending, you can already calculate for yourself how it must be.
You can imagine for a short time he feels some relief and thinks his drastic action has worked. Then you can imagine him suddenly hooked by sexual desire at hearing a voice that sounds alluring – should he then think next about cutting off his ears?
Or smelling a gorgeous perfume and driven to madness, wondering if he should cut off his nose. Or brushing against some soft skin in the street, or starting to have sexual dreams about all the beautiful women he has seen in his life, while lying next to his wife – driven to madness, because of course, not having an eye does not mean that there is no desire. It is quite obvious that the action of this man is useless. If the cause of desire were in the eye, then no blind man could be expected to crave for anything.
Let me tell you another story. This story happens to be true, and it’s of a woman who, wanting to become calm and at peace, wishing to remove her attachment to worldly things, decided to go and live as a hermit in a cave in a mountain, where there was nothing to have desire for, and nothing to disturb her peace.
She stayed alone in the cave for twenty years. After this long time, she finally came down from the cave and went into a town, where someone passing her in the street said something insulting to her. Enraged, she lashed out and punched in the face the surprised offender, who had dared to laugh at her.
All those years spent in a cave were for what, finally? While avoiding anything that would disturb her or make her angry, perhaps she felt more calm, but for her there was no freedom from anger in the end; nor was she truly at peace.
That story also reminds me of one other similar one, a tale that comes from the Buddha. He tells of a rich woman living long ago who had a good reputation for being always happy, calm and good-tempered. She had a maidservant named Kali, who was especially reliable and always did her work well.
One day this maidservant thought to herself, “I wonder, is my lady really calm and good-tempered? Maybe she has anger inside, but simply doesn’t show it because I never give her cause for anger, and I always do my job well.”
Kali decided to test her mistress by getting up late one morning. When she did this, the mistress was shocked and reacted by speaking to Kali harshly, showing her anger clearly in her frowning face. So Kali thought, “It seems she does have anger, even if she doesn’t usually show it.”
She decided to test her mistress further, getting up even later the next day, and the third day even later. The second day her mistress reacted by shouting at her in her unhappiness, and the third day, she became so furious that she hit Kali over the head with a door-bar. And Kali went running throughout the town, her head bleeding, saying to everyone, “Look what she has done, the one who you thought was so patient! Look at the work of the calm one!”
From then on, the mistress was no more well talked-of throughout the town, no longer known as the one who was calm, patient and good-tempered.
These three stories all point to the tendency in most of us to place our attention on the object of desire, anger – or any emotion – and blame this object for the emotion we feel. We see the enemy outside.
We assume that attraction and desire is caused by some object or person we find attractive, or that somebody is at fault when we become angry. And so, when wishing to escape the unhappiness caused by such emotions, we usually try to find ways to stop coming into contact with whatever is disturbing us; either avoiding it, or, as in the extreme case of the first story, removing the door through which it is sensed.
In reality, when it comes to anger, there is no such thing as a justifiable or right reason to be angry: nothing and nobody is responsible for making you angry. Anger is a reaction in your mind, and you don’t remove it by going away from the world, or by closing your ears or eyes. The enemy is within.
Of course, when somebody with an easy life is not seen to get angry, it does not necessarily mean that they are patient and calm inside. The most angry-minded person in the world will still not get angry on a day when everything goes well for him. The enemy within can hide, sometimes it can stay hidden for quite a long time.
In the case of desire, many people who feel over-saturated with sensual pleasure tend to veer towards another extreme of austere living, punishing the body or trying to live with absolutely nothing. They act based the assumption, conscious or unconscious, that if there are no objects of desire around, desire will not arise and the mind will be at peace.
It can be useful, to an extent, to give up many of the things that you usually depend on to give you pleasure. By giving them up, you see that it’s possible to be happy without them; you are no longer dependent on them. It’s not so easy to detach from sensuality if you are surrounded by luxury, with sensual pleasure and stimulation everywhere. Yet changing the outside environment does not necessarily translate to freedom inside.
One day a while ago it occurred to me that I would like to live just as the monks had done in the time of the Buddha. These monks ate one meal a day, getting it by going with a bowl through the towns, eating whatever anyone chose to put into their bowl. They avoided luxury, often sleeping on the ground and wearing one basic robe. It seemed to me that it must have been so much easier for them, with this simple and restrained lifestyle, to focus on meditation and to detach from all sensuality,
Then I had the thought, “But even, for example, eating like a monk, you can still be unhappy because you have to eat something you don’t like, or be especially pleased when somebody happens to put your favourite thing in your bowl. You can still try to pick out the best bits from your bowl while leaving the rest. So greed can still be there.”
If we want to be free from desire, free from anger (or for that matter, from fear or agitation or anxiety or anything else) then we need to work to remove it from the mind where it arises, not just change the environment, avoid the thing that makes us angry, or try to get rid of the objects for which we have desire. We should not look for the problem outside. See the enemy within!
This is why in this meditation practice, the aim is not just to keep the mind happy by not thinking about anything for a while, or by focusing it on one subject. The aim is to look, to try to see: how does something like desire or anger arise, where does it come from? How does this mind actually work?
For this purpose, it can in fact be quite useful to work on oneself while living the life of a layperson, instead of retreating to a monastery. As a layperson, needing to work, and faced with the usual problems of the world, you are continually tested. There will be constant occasions for the ugly thoughts and emotions to try to come to the surface; endless opportunities to see them and work to remove them – again, and again. (There does need to be balance, of course – somebody with five children who works as a lawyer can hardly have one spare moment when she is not rushing to do the next job, and in this situation it is very difficult indeed to meditate.)
The danger in withdrawing to a peaceful quiet place with nothing to disturb you is that it is very easy to become like the woman who went to live in the cave, or the rich mistress in the time of the Buddha; falling into the trap of the false assumption that you are free from anger, or free from desire, that you are at peace inside; when, in truth, you are simply not tested.