Why are the Yamas, a list of restraints, the first order on the check list to potential enlightenment known as the Royal Path of Yoga? What is it about us humans that made someone tell us what not to do before we could do? Don’t harm, don’t steal, don’t covet, don’t lie and don’t brag. Actually the way it is interpreted is more like advice than a command but the message is clear. Some un-cool behavior was going down in the human pond to precipitate those directives. It may have had something to do with desire.
Desire is the genesis of our awakening. Desire made Eve pick the fruit of knowledge. Without desire she and Adam would have spent their lives like happy morons. Without desire there would be no Oz and we would never know there is no place like home. What we choose to be and do springs from desire. Desire drives us toward Dharma, our destiny. We love desire because we love action. If we had everything in the world to please us we would still have desire because that’s how we humans are wired.
Desire can be a trouble maker. It can make us do regrettable things or create regrettable outcomes for things done in ignorance. Desire is the phantom limb of Yoga because it provokes us to try things which will have uncertain outcomes and we need a guide for the backlash. That’s why the restraints are the first step in the eight stages or limbs of the Royal Path also known as Astanga Yoga. The message is that desire and self discipline should walk together. Eat the sweet flesh of the apple and find a bitter core at its center. Bitter aids digestion of both food and thoughts. For desire to exist unfulfilled desire must also be present. When unfulfilled desire throws us, we have a ripe environment for learning and an opportunity to evolve.
I left a “perfect” life in Aspen Colorado for a gritty life in New York City in my early twenties because my perfect life felt aimless. I had learned to live on my own without electricity or running water. I had learned to live with little money and no car, hitchhiking, chopping wood for heat, walking miles alone up mountains in darkness and snowstorms. My life was sensual and sweet. Years were full of beauty, fun, love and friendship but it wasn’t enough. Though I had no idea why, I had an urgency to keep going. Although the woods have been my surroundings since childhood and the place I’m most at home, I had to get out of there or suffocate. Evolution was calling. I had learned to be unrestrained as the open sky of the Rockies but I needed New York to kick my ass and make me smart and fearless. Desire was my opening door. And it was often my undoing.
Desire can go wrong when something is out of balance, which it always is. Whether coming in or out of balance, something is out of balance at some point and we have to learn to roll with it. Nothing throws us off balance more than other people. When we hit walls of frustration and discontent because we’re not satisfied with our work or the outcome it provides, it’s because we have an emotional investment in being accepted that can open a Pandora’s Box of behavioral pitfalls. When desire inspires us gifts are revealed. We don’t want to wrap them up and put them away to gather dust because others have no use for them. I guess that’s how the phrase “suffer for my art” got coined. We have to learn to cope with disappointment and maintain our humanity. Patanjali, the architect of the eight limbed system, understood and addressed the need for a means to manage our behavior and attitude in the second book of the Yoga Sutras, a treatise which systemizes the practice of Yoga dating about 200 BC. The Yamas are an admonition to check ourselves out. The implication is that this is the first layer of our being that we have to get right; the layer that meets with others.
I had an artist friend who was in an abusive relationship. She put up with being told she was unattractive and stupid but it wasn’t until her partner attacked her artwork that she had the strength to leave him. Her work was her calling and most intimate relationship. Her desire for her boyfriend was a badly postured asana that had no limbs to stand on. Desire had sent them to a place where passion came before respect for each other or for themselves. Without that foundation the relationship collapsed. She had broken every tenet of the first limb of Yoga to be in this relationship. I wonder if someone had pointed out to her that she had no basis for a relationship in the language of Yoga if she would have found an unemotional way to gage her behavior. She sought the help of a therapist.
Desire is a double edged sword by which we create both splendor and our undoing. When we don’t like the outcome of desire we need to move on or suffer. Sometimes we make others suffer. Sometimes we make wars that can be between two people or nations or in us. The ghost of desire was in the room at the conception of the Royal Path of Yoga as Patanjali put pen to paper. It whispered, “I’m here and they’re going to need some help”. As for me, I’m almost ready to head back to the mountains. Desire’s done its job and now it just wears me out. It really takes a long way to get back home.
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