Desire, Obligation, and Rebellion

Woman Sings and Plays Harmonium
April 20, 2022

Getting honest about our desires transforms our relationship to obligation and rebellion. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Desire, obligation, rebellion is this kind of like constellation I find myself in a lot.

Yeah, that's that is actually a kind of interesting triangle. Desire, obligation, and rebellion. So what does it mean to be rebellious? It's kind of an interesting question because being rebellious keeps you in relationship with whatever you're rebelling against, so you become defined by whatever you're rebelling against.

So, for instance, if we just take the archetypal teenager who is rebellious against maybe some of the culture of the family they grew up in, or against restrictions that they feel are unfair, or maybe they're doing what a lot of teenagers do, trying on behavior that is not what their families would approve of.

All of that is what? It's self expression, but it's an attempt to define oneself differently from those around you. Right.

To find out who you are, defined by how different you are. So rebelliousness in and of itself is really very much an identity formation that many people go through in order to just have a sense of self.

So when we're teenagers, we're kind of coming out of that zone where we're pretty much defined by our families. I mean, not always. Obviously, I'm just generalizing. But for instance, when I was growing up, in some ways I felt very different, just my concerns, what I cared about seemed different from my birth family, but in other ways I was conforming.

So the question is, can rebelliousness be anything other than an identity formation? Because then we get to the dyad between obligation and desire. And many of us conform out of a sense of obligation.

And that sense of obligation can be including fear of being criticized. A lot of it is fear of being criticized or fear of some sort of emotional or physical violence, fear of being too different.

We go from wanting to be seen as different, but then fearing being too different.

But it's all on the same [axis] of trying to find out who you are, how to express yourself, but in ways that are highly conventional. Rebelliousness is a convention. If we look at how a lot of teenagers rebel, it's all very much the same way all over the world. How is that?

Why is that? I don't know. I don't have the answer to that. But in any case, rebelliousness and doing things out of a sense of obligation seems to me to be very much on a horizontal plane.

But desire is not that.

So doing what you want to do simply because you want to do it and recognizing what it is that you want and acting on that is not always, but very often, really stepping onto the wild side because it means that you're not doing things out of obligation.

You may do things that look the same as other people. For instance, my Dzogchen teacher always used to get down on people or rag on people who would be ostentatious spiritually. All my teachers have spoken against any kind of spiritual ostentation. Doing mantras in public or getting spiritual tattoos or talking in a funny spiritual voice or pranaming people randomly in the supermarket or whatever [laughs].

All of my teachers have spoken out very much against those kinds of things. Wearing any kind of special spiritual clothing, wearing your malas outside of your clothing, spiritual jewelry, whatever, all those things.

So let's say I'm a very devout person, and I go to a restaurant and I am eating with a bunch of people, and suddenly I just feel overwhelmed by devotion. And I'd love to just be able to break out into song or exclamation or mantra or something like that. But I'm in a circumstance where that would disturb other people.

So what is my desire? It's an interesting question. Some desire is to just be able to express this devotion anywhere I am. But then I have another desire not to disturb people and not to draw attention to myself, not to be ostentatious. And so I decide not to do that.

I decide not to whip out my malas and start chanting mantras in the middle of the Chinese restaurant.

So both of those things are my desire, and I'm just going along with what feels right to me. So acting on your desire without a sense of obligation is not about always doing what feels good, or it's not about hedonism. It's not about license, it's not about fuck other people. I'll just do whatever I want. It has nothing to do with that.

So the kind of desire that is liberated from those sorts of limited ideas always has other people's welfare in mind.

It's more important that I not disturb other people than that I get to chant a mantra in a restaurant. So even though I'm self-limiting in a certain way, or I'm restraining myself, I'm still acting on my own desire.

But I just use that example because I've actually had that, not exactly that experience, that's a little hyperbolic. But certainly I've had desires to be more expressive in a devotional sense in settings where that would be very much out of sync with the people around me.

So I just decide not to do that. And that is also my desire not to do that. Doing things on your own desire and not doing it out of a sense of suppression. You're not suppressing yourself. In that example, I am limiting my expression in a certain way, but I am expressing my care and concern for other people in a lot of different ways.

But in any case, so I think most adults, anyway, your lives are filled with acts of obligation and suppression and fear of how you're being seen.

So this is not what we want. And then you have little minor acts of rebellion, and then you can tell yourself, oh, I'm a rebel. But actually, you're just conforming all over the place. Acting on your own desire doesn't mean being non-conformist.

It might mean that sometimes, but that's not what it means. It means your desire.

Like, for instance, if my desire is to just serve my family and be a very traditional daughter or son to my parents and work a regular old job and amass money, and that's my desire.

It's not necessarily something that's going to take a walk on the wild side, but what is on the wild side is saying, I'm doing this because that's what I want, not for any other reason, whatever that looks like. You don't have any justification for it, you don't have any explanation for it.

You just feel the impulse, you feel the desire, and you just act on it, period. There's nothing actually to talk about.

And this is really difficult for people because when we do act on our desire, especially if it's actually outside of various forms of obligation, then we feel all kinds of needs to justify ourselves.

Simply wanting to live how we want to live isn't good enough, especially when we're talking about women. Women often have all kinds of explanations and justifications for the most minor thing.

I'm going to go to the store because... so, I hope you don't mind.

It's exhausting to even listen to. I used to have quite a little persona of a rebel going when I was younger. Somebody once said to me, you think you're so different and you are really different, but you think you're different. That's the problem.

We want to lose the identity formation part of however we are.

It's okay to be different or not different, but we don't want to keep proclaiming how different we are. That just then becomes this boring, repetitive identity formation. I'm so different in this way, and you all are so not different over and over again. Where does that actually get you?

It's very dull.

In your example, you talked about what are essentially two conflicting desires. How do we work with conflicting desires that come in multiples?

Well, I don't think that there is actually any conflict in that example, because my greater desire is always to be of service to people and not grandstand in any way, or I don't need to be seen in any way. For me, that example, there's no conflict.

And I would say that conflict always comes when we're either trying to decide between actually expressing ourselves and doing something out of a sense of obligation, that creates conflict in people.

Well, I want to do this for so and so because I said I would and they're expecting that, and if I didn't, they'd be upset. But really, I wanted you this other thing. And now there's a conflict. There isn't really a conflict between your desire.

There's a conflict between your fear of criticism and disappointing other people and being thought of as not a nice person and your desire to just do whatever it is you want to do.

And then, of course, we have more or less self-reference in our desires, depending on how limited or how non-limited they are, depending on how hard based they are versus something else.

And so we could have, for instance, conflicting desires because we are afraid of missing out on something, not getting something. That conflict is all about what we're going to get or not get.

That could be a source of conflict or just basic vata confusion. Not really being able to decide things because you don't have a clear access. You don't have access to your own clarity, yet.

So there's really not much you can do about that other than try to be more balanced in your life and try to find more clarity through your sadhana and through living in a more balanced way. But also you can notice how much of the conflict is really about you, yourself, and yourself.

Because once we have more of a feeling of I'm here to just relate to other people, then the conflict level starts to really go down. Most conflicts are based on some kind of fear, self-referential fear.

You talk a lot about bringing whatever condition we're in, whatever experiencing on to the path. I was wondering if you break that down for me a little bit.

Well, number one, losing the division between spiritual and non-spiritual.

The first way to bring everything onto the path, every way that you are, is to no longer make any division between work life and spiritual life, family life and spiritual life, secular life and spiritual life.

Recognizing that everything is a field for potential greater self-awareness and awakening so that you can use every part of your life, not just specifically spiritual parts.

The second thing is recognizing that ordinary behavior, our ordinary lives together are spiritual practice. The ordinary conversations you have, the ordinary thoughts in your mind, the ways you relate to other people. This is material for spiritual awakening.

It's not just about meditation and mantra. It's about observing yourself. How am I, what's actually happening right now?

And knowing yourself in that ordinary way, not running away from yourself and then applying the practices that you've learned to redirect various fixated patterns wherever they show up at the fast food restaurant chain or the laundromat or your cushion. So no divisions, no separations whatsoever.

Recognizing in any moment is sadhana. And then bringing yourself to your practice, your everyday life as practice and your seated practice, and your work with the teacher and with the community.

Bring yourself to that in an honest, open way. Without honesty, there's nothing, period.

You can't be happy.

You can't have a spiritual life.

You can't work with a teacher without honesty.

You may be there physically [laughs], you may be putting time in on a cushion. You may be offering seva, you may be having conversations with people.

But if you're not being honest, if you're not showing up honestly, you got nothing.

And I found that this is the number one obstacle in our culture. It's very hard for people to be honest. And if you think I'm talking about you, I am. But I'm not only talking about one of you.

So if you think I'm oh, she's only talking about me or especially about me, that is not true.

There's so many people who cannot be honest because of a fear of being seen and criticized. And without the willingness to be honest, you have nothing.

So if we're going to bring who we are onto the path, it has to actually be who we are [laughs].

I mean, I know that sounds silly, but it's absolutely true. You have to be willing to look at yourself honestly.

And this doesn't mean, honesty, doesn't mean criticism. See that I think this is part of the problem that somewhere in your little psyches are equating honesty with being criticized or finding out something bad about yourself. It's not that.

It's just looking and seeing what's there, whatever it might be.

But as long as we're so afraid of being criticized or found out or seen, then we have nothing, really. And that means also being willing to take the reflection you're being given from the teacher and consider it and look at it and let that be something that you can take in and not just reject.

The idea is that when we're bringing everything onto the path, then we have to get ourselves into a position where we can reflect on ourselves usefully, where we can hear reflection, where we can see ourselves without recoiling, without being defensive.

And a lot of us have just gotten ourselves into this condition where we just have these automatic responses of reactivity and defensiveness of things to such minor things, such, such, such minor things.

And then very often I hear somebody's angry about something, or someone is upset about something, or maybe someone is reflecting on something. But when they talk to me about it, everything's all like smiles and so wonderful and nothing's wrong.

And it's like, what do you think you're doing? I don't know how it is for other teachers. Maybe it's exactly the same. I have no idea.

What I'm here for, for myself, is because I actually want to realize and what I'm doing as a teacher is because I want you to actually realize.

And I'm telling you that this just doesn't work. Yeah. If you're not willing to be seen in a leaky, messy, disconfabulated state, if you're not willing to say when you're angry, if you're not willing to say when you've behaved badly or been reactive, if you're not willing to be seen by the teacher.

Really, what are we doing? You're just paying me to do nothing.

Basically, this community is completely community supported. We don't have any money. But the money that you guys give, if you're not open and honest with me, you're just basically paying me for nothing [laughter].

Think about it that way. You're definitely not getting your money's worth.

Tell me one thing I can be more honest.

Just try to be more honest in this arena with me and with people in the Mandala. Just start here, where you'll be heard.

And that goes for everybody here, not just you. No harm is going to come to us from being honest here in this arena. Or minor harm, maybe, I don't know. But compared to some other harms, not much. And this is what spiritual community, the spiritual teachers are for.

We have to learn to just relax and be ourselves.

Otherwise we have to learn how to be spontaneous, relaxed, be ourselves, express ourselves freely without a premeditation. I mean, really, what else do we have? There's just no way around this. If this isn't a priority for you, then you're kind of fooling yourself about having a spiritual life.

I realized that we have these deep samskaras that cause us to automatically and reactively push out these versions of ourselves that aren't really authentic and present a face to people that isn't really how we feel. And outright lie and fudge things and put a rosy pink filter on things. .

Or whatever we do, all the different things we do to create our personal brand and hide out behind it. I realized that these things are samskaras. You can't just go like this [snaps fingers] and make them stop.

But if it isn't a number one priority for you to start taking more risks and being more honest, then you're just fooling yourself about having a spiritual life.

I mean, you just cannot have a spiritual life if you aren't able to let yourself be seen. And this also relates to intimacy and feeling love and having friends.

You could have the most picture perfect friends, but it could all be completely made up. You're pushing your persona and they're pushing theirs, and you have a lovely day out, but you go home feeling depleted and empty and lonely because you weren't really there.

So the idea is that we actually want to be living our own lives, relating with intimacy to other beings, and giving and receiving and really feeling each other.

There just isn't anything else. That's what there is, period. That's what this is about.

What did I say to somebody the other day?

I wrote somebody who's very worried about doing their sadhana perfectly, has written me various things and come to office hours, I'm afraid I'm not doing this perfectly, and that perfectly. And the other thing perfectly.

And after maybe five or six of these communications, I wrote back and I said, What I wish for you is that you would settle for being more open-hearted rather than perfect. This is what this is about, being intimate with everything.

And it starts with letting yourself be seen.

If you're not really there, then you're not experiencing intimacy and there's no possibility of spiritual growth. I know that from my own experience with my teachers that there can be nervousness around the teacher or not wanting the teacher to think this that or the other thing about you.

Certainly that's a thing that is true for some people, but you have to try to get beyond that because otherwise what can really happen?

And I don't know what you think is happening for me when you're doing that. If you really just stopped for a minute and thought about it, if you think that you're entertaining me or that I'm liking you more when you're doing all these fake things or hiding things or fudging things, if you think I'm not seeing it or if you think I find it pleasant or entertaining, I don't know, it just makes me feel useless.

I just feel unused and useless when you guys show up like that. I feel sad for you and it's almost like you give me nothing to do other than every once in a while I'll keep trying to break through that stuff.

It's very difficult in this culture when almost everyone is doing that to some degree or another, very difficult to figure out how to actually be anybody's teacher. But believe me, I'm not not entertained by it at all. I find it just sad and often boring [laughs].

I'm entertained by the live and unpredictable connection between people.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.