February 14, 2012

Lust: The Elephant in the Room Eating Heart Shaped Dough Balls.

I lust you. image: History.com


I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s Valentine’s day today. I must admit, I had forgotten til yesterday. Only a walk down the street downtown brought it crashing into my consciousness. Every hairdresser, coffee shop and florist proudly displayed garish pink signs, generously strewn with hearts and bows. Along with Christmas, Easter and Halloween, it’s an annual event that may go down in history as one of the charming-but-odd cultural contributions of the West.

So apart from the heart shaped dough balls at Pizza Express, what’s love got to do with it, got to do with it, got to do with it? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Valentine’s day is a good excuse to celebrate love – why not? But hearts and bows can’t cover up something faking as the real thing. Most often, let’s be honest, it’s lust we’re celebrating. Ho hum – the word lust sounds so draconian. But all I’m talking about is a desire for something – an intense desire. In other words, it’s so easy to get on a yogic high horse and look down at all the silly proles celebrating their shiny, hearty holiday, but lust is something that we all experience, probably every day in some form.

I have been reading with one half closed eye, the unfortunate crumble of the Anusara yoga founder, John Friend. I don’t have anything political to say. I just feel sympathy for everyone involved. Growing up in a spiritual community, in my short lifetime I’ve seen the rise and fall of a few revered teachers. The effect was always devastating for a while, and I know people whose progress on their own spiritual journey is still heavily impacted today. These teachers weren’t bad people – I’m sure John Friend is a great person at heart too. But the desire to enjoy the world, to enjoy the people around us is present within us all, and we all have the free will to fan the flames, or let them smoulder down til sunrise.

This morning I learnt a song by the great saint-composer Thyagaraja. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Rama and is celebrated as one of the greatest figures in the South Indian bhakti tradition. His song, ‘Enta Muddo’ begins in praise of the incomparable beauty of Lord Rama. It takes a sharp turn though when he says that no matter how great the person, we are all crippled by lust. He points out that if I make the choice to cover it up, acting as if I am a great yogi, I am a fool, denying myself the chance to appreciate the deep beauty of the divine. I love the metaphor he uses of a jug of milk – just as the jug cannot appreciate the taste of the milk inside, if we choose to chase the lust that arises in the heart, it becomes impossible to see the divine within. Here’s the song:

Thyagaraja Swami 1767-1867 - image: sruti.org


Thyagaraja wrote his music in the 1700s in India, but his message is for us today. For any of us trying to live a conscious, principled life, lust is the elephant in the room that needs to be let out the back door.

If not, the crumble is inevitable – either over years, or in moments.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna that lust,‘the slayer of knowledge’ manifests as anger when unfulfilled. It will always be so, because the flow of desires is incessant and insatiable.

I think most of us know this instinctively. You know that fulfilling a desire is only going to give birth to the next one and the next one. I have a friend who really likes this. She feels that the excitement of the human experience owes a lot to the unpredictable and relentless froth of desires to be fulfilled at any given moment. To each his own. Personally I find it pretty tiring.

But as Thyagaraja pointed out, ignoring it is our biggest mistake. If you tried to ignore an elephant in the room for years, you’d be living a very compromised existence – crazy one might say. What we can do is use the desire to pull us towards a goal of selfless love.

Hanuman, Lord Rama’s devotee, showed intense anger when he burned down the city of Lanka in search of Sita. But that action pulled him even deeper into the loving service of Rama. Any desire can be transformed in this way – challenging though it may be, the change of mind and heart is radical.

Every relationship we have, our job, our entire life can change shape when we transform lust into love. That kernel of love at the heart of every action has nothing to do with flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep – even sex, but everything to do with the eternal transcendent force that is available to us all when we choose to be honest, strive to serve and put the happiness of others before our own.

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