Date: May 19, 2013
Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 31-7
Writer: Rev. David Hart
So today, I want to return to the series I introduced to you two weeks ago titled Essential Christianity: the Shape of the Future. What I named for you at that time is that the future of Christianity will not revolve around universal agreement regarding specific beliefs of dogmas related to Christianity. In today’s world, everyone has total access to all the scholarship and understanding developed over the centuries regarding Christianity and everyone is free to make up their own minds regarding what beliefs they subscribe to regarding our faith. Rather, what I named as being universally significant for the Christianity of the future is a set of spiritual practices that are lived out within the context of Christian community and that truly move our individual and collective spiritual lives and well being to a new level. This series is rooted in a wonderful work by Roger Walsh titled Essential Spirituality and we will use it as an adult study text once again here this fall.
When thinking about spiritual practice, you might be forgiven if your mind didn't instantly turn to analyzing and figuring out how to change your motivations in life. Instead, you might think more immediately about prayer, or diet or philanthropy or service or some such things. But Walsh invites us to consider desire and motivation as the object of the very first practice of spiritual life and it soon becomes obvious as to why.
It's our desires that motivate us toward the spiritual life in the first place. If you lack the desire or impulse towards spiritual life, obviously you're not going to go there. At one time, being part of a religious community, going to church and the like, were the socially respectable and required things to do. But with the social obligation to religion no longer particularly operative in our world, there needs to be a deeper driving motivation that draws one to religion, to faith or to spiritual life. And it is this recognition that places transformation of desire and motivation as the very first spiritual practice inherent within the religious life.
So let me invite us to consider this morning what it is that people most truly and deeply desire in life. Well people desire a whole lot of things. Security, money, food, sex, relationships, power, love, meaningful employment or work, self actualization, self realization. Abraham Maslow, the famous American philosopher and psychologist, many years ago developed what he called his hierarchy of needs. That hierarchy of needs could also be called a hierarchy of desire and motivation. Wherever you find yourself in the hierarchy may determine your motivational desires in life. If you're living in an oppressive and violent political regime, security may be the number one motivator and desire in your life. If you've grown up poor, never having enough to eat or compared to your peers and friends not having the same opportunities in life, making money may become a driving motivator in your life. When security and money are ample, making a meaningful contribution to the world through work or service may become a driving desire in your life.
The point that Walsh makes and that is inherent within Maslow's scheme is that our desires and motivations go through a process of transformation throughout our lives. That is to say, as our lives progress, our desires change depending on where we are in our lives. As children we desire toys and stuffees, then go on to want bicycles and computers, then on to cars and so on. Our desires for stuff changes throughout life, and our desires for immaterial items also change.
In Buddhist thinking, it is said that the Buddha named desire in and of itself as the source of all suffering. Cease desiring and you eliminate suffering. But in actual fact, desire is an inherent part of life. And desire is not automatically a bad thing at all. Desire is a motivational force leading to positive change in life. Desire is rooted in a continuous tension in life between what is and what can be. Desire acknowledges the limitations of a present state in life and pushes us towards change, towards improving life. So desire in and of itself is actually a profoundly important ingredient and force in life.
Although the naughty snake and Eve are often maligned in the story of the Garden of Eden, more thoughtful analysts of the scriptures acknowledge within the story an inherent drive towards greater knowledge, wisdom, freedom, power and life. On the surface the story seems to be about human disobedience towards God's demand that humans not eat of the true of the knowledge of good and evil in the centre of the Garden. But God placed the tree there, as a constant reminder that there was more to life, more wisdom, more knowledge, more autonomy ... and it seems rather disingenuous on God's part to tantalize humans with a possibility and then punish them for going after that possibility. It seems that a craving for a constantly deeper experience of life is simply built into our DNA and God put it there.
So, the problem with desire is not desire in itself. The problem with desire is when it becomes craving, when it becomes attachment and addiction. How many of you are addicted to sweets, to money, to love, to sex, to power? You see, desiring an ice cream cone on a hot day is not a problem. Have the ice cream if one is available then move on with life. Now most normal people, if they got a hankering for an ice-cream, would fulfill it and then move on. And if one wasn't available, they would shrug their shoulders and forget about it. But what if you wanted an ice-cream, found one wasn't available and then ended up being tormented by that fact. You might chase all over the city or the countryside looking for an ice-cream stand to be open in the middle of the winter because you just had to have an ice-cream. Now that's getting a little weird isn't it. That's called craving, addiction, and it stems from attachment. And that's called suffering.
The intention of life is to move us through Maslow's hierarchy of needs or desires, progressively realizing as we fulfill each and every desire that its fulfillment does not satisfy our ultimate needs for happiness and peace in life. Life is a school in that way. It presents us with one after the other option for happiness, and along the way revealing to us the limitations in each and every possibility. But when we become attached to and fixated upon one or any possibilities, we block the very growth life is seeking to achieve with us. We become fixated in our craving, seeking an ultimate happiness that simply cannot be achieved in the object of our desire.
So the first set of spiritual exercises, the first practice of the spiritual life, is intended to address our fixated craving, is intended to address the nature of our desires, is intended to release the energy of our desires to enable them to move towards ever more mature and ultimately spiritually inclined motivations. The desires for money, food and sex need to give way to the desires for relationship, love and service, and finally towards the peak of Maslow's hierarchy towards self actualization and realization in God.
So here are some strategies for reducing craving. The first is to recognize pain as a feedback mechanism. When you bring awareness to your spiritual and psychological pain and sorrow, you will realize that it is almost always rooted in a craving for something you don’t have. We don’t have love, we don’t have the job we want, we don’t have recognition or money, or we don’t have a good relationship with someone because of something they’ve done – it’s not that wanting any of those things is bad, but if the wanting becomes attachment you suffer from the lack. Learning to accept what is, is an opening to tremendous peace. So, we need to ask ourselves, “How much pain am I willing to put up with before relinquishing this attachment and ending this suffering?” Surprisingly, the answer often is “a lot.” But the question starts to move us in that direction.
A second strategy is to thoroughly examine the experience of craving. Bringing greater awareness to our experience and behaviour is crucial if we are to understand and change them. Really observe your experience of craving … notice yourself being captured by it, identify the components of the experience, bodily feelings and sensations, emotions and thoughts. Really examining our craving generally provides a picture of ourselves that isn’t pretty, but is important to understand in order to let it go.
Other strategies are to reflect on the costs of a craving or addiction. How does this craving affect your life, your work, your relationships. It’s not about condemning yourself, but simply shedding light on the situation. Two other strategies for rooting out addictions and cravings are to indulge an attachment. Try eating five boxes of sweets in a sitting. Not just for the sake of pigging out, but for the sake of really observing what goes on in you in the process. After the first box, you will start to find your sense of pleasure diminishing more and more. Eventually, you may become turned off altogether. Another strategy is to frustrate an attachment. Purposely put yourself in a situation where it cannot be fulfilled. And then watch how your psyche writhes and turns in the process. Is all this emotional and physical angst worth it. And likely the deep intuition to arise will be no.
It may seem an odd first spiritual practice to govern the entire spiritual and religious life, indeed the future of Christianity. But it is so critical because it lies at the very heart of what draws people to faith and religion in the first place. It’s this desire for happiness and well being, one that ultimately only resolves when we find our true identity in the divine life of God from whom we come, and in whom we live, breathe and have our being. So be it. Amen.
The title of this talk was derived from a wonderful song by K.D. Laing that provides underlying inspiration for this reflection, Constant Craving. To watch K.D. Laing sing this song, please click on the following link.