The most beloved Psalm in the bible is the 23rd, which opens with “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. I always thought it meant that wanting was wrong. I read it as an injunction. “You shall not want”. If “the Lord” is my shepherd the spiritually realized individual shouldn’t want (or need) anything. In my mind this was reinforced by Buddhist notions that desire is at the root of all suffering. I misunderstood, because I learned early that my desire (for connection) was shameful. It was my own self-protective voice, not the Lord’s,issuing the injunction.
Without all that emotional wounding, it simply means that “the Lord” provides. There is nothing that I need or want that will not be provided for by Him/Her/It. S/he will hold my needs and wants tenderly and give me what I need to be resourced for life. We have the image here of good enough mother/father who, through adequate offerings of love, attention and security, cultivates an enduring sensibility that Reality is for me (not against and not indifferent). This is the fruit of trust.
But when a child deprived of those basic needs reads the opening lines—and if that child has grown into a clergyman!—then he will interpret it as my need and desire is wrong. I, (and we as a spiritual community), should have no wants and no needs, and if we do it is because we are lacking in faith. The presence of desire is therefore judged as a lower and unfaithful condition.
I know it’s fucked up, but there it is. How does this misinterpretation (and consequent negative attitude about desire) get set up? First, what’s going on here is that the (mis)interpretation confirms an early compensatory belief that got set up in response to the unbearable truth that my needs and wants are inconsequential to the one charged with my nurturance. That compensatory belief is: ” I don’t desire anything”. If I desire my heart will be broken, and I will be shamed by reaching out for what I want. I will be destroyed by disappointment. Said child grows up forgetting that s/he ever had needs and wants. S/he proceeds with the illusion that s/he is desireless and free from needs. But the truth is that desire and need have merely gone underground. It’s leaking out everywhere, and everybody close to us knows it.
With this repressed desire lurking in the unconscious, we wait for an opportunity to release our rage and hatred at the world or our loved ones, when we don’t get what we want NOW! Of course, we’d never admit that we are angry and hateful, because this would entail admitting that we had needs that weren’t met, and this in turn means that we’d have to feel that loss. As a child those feelings are simply unbearable, thus they are intelligently buried. The other line of attack that is driven by buried rage and hatred of not getting our needs met is to turn ourselves into a saint, and identify with the one who didn’t give us what we needed, and compensate by doing for others what was never done for us. We exhaust ourselves in acts of sainthood and pride ourselves (secretly) in sanctimonious self-sacrifice. This drama of spiritual by-passing runs amok in churches. It is virtually undetectable until this individual is not adequately recognized in their preferred way (inclusion in the inner circle, a mention in the Sunday bulletin, regular visits from the pastor, special favours, etc.). Then the old, open wound of being jilted by a mother’s love, is exposed. A true opportunity for healing arises, but it rarely manifests because said individual is unwilling to suffer the truth.
And here’s the kicker: if this child, now grown into adulthood (chronologically, but not developmentally), has a spiritual bent, s/he will turn this compensatory belief into a spiritual virtue. It now becomes “non-attachment”. It’s complete bullshit, but it was an innocent mental move of the inner survivalist, ensuring that the s/he never again endures the pain of being the jilted child. This is the essence of “spiritual by-passing” or the “flight to transcendence”—interpreting a compensating belief for early trauma as a spiritual virtue. The spiritual path is hijacked, in these circumstances, in the service of denial and repression.
Desire is not the enemy of the spiritual life. It is through desire that we reach out to the world, exploring and appropriating all it has to offer. It is how we evolve. When Eve reached for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, she was shamed and cast out. In my opinion, this is a trauma story. It was written by a priesthood intent on maintaining their exclusive authority. (We can’t have the hoi polloi trusting in their own knowing, unmediated by a priesthood, for we will be out of a job).
The kind of desire that is destructive to self and other is unconscious or repressed desire that leaks out and turns everything and everybody into nothing more than a perceived source of satisfaction for an insatiable ego. Maybe you will be the one finally to give me what I reached out for and was denied as an infant/toddler. The other can never be seen as a separate and distinct individual with their own life, but only as a boob to suckle or blood to suck. You are reduced to what you can do to meet my unconscious need. That object (new car, house, job, gadget) likewise becomes a substitute for what was really wanted and was heartbreakingly denied—connection, kindness, affection, etc. That’s not to say that desiring a new car is wrong or unspiritual. But basing one’s self worth on that car reveals that a deeper desire (for acceptance, to be seen, and ultimately to be loved) is “driving” the desire.
There is unconscious desire, born of trauma, and there is a deeper or holy longing underlying all these desires. We want to be known; we want to be seen as inherently worthy of respect and dignity; we want to reach out to others and to the world in love; we want to know the deep pleasure of another’s company; we want our sovereignty celebrated and to know the deep unity that connects us to All That Is; we want to proceed in life as though we are needed; we want intensity, a felt sense of the absolute value of life; we want to be able to rest in the presence of an other without being hurt or shamed.
When we fully accept that we’re never going to make up for early thwarted desires, and grieve this terrible loss, then the light of consciousness may bring genuine and conscious desire back on line. We may discover that we can ask for our needs to be met without being shamed. We can reach out for what we want. We can take openly and unreservedly and experience the joy in realizing that the universe is there for us.
Importantly, gratitude may bubble up. We may realize that the absence of gratitude in our joyless life was fuelled by a deep unconscious belief that we were just taking back from the world what was rightfully ours. This shift from an unconscious, desperate and angry grabbing of what we were denied, to a conscious, grateful receiving of our heart’s desire is the preeminent sign of healing.
We then are set free to assume the shepherding function, directly acting on behalf of Life/the Great Mystery, to resource ourselves or ask others to be for us. We make ourselves “lie down in green pastures” when we are tired. We lead ourselves “beside still waters” when we are overwhelmed. We become stewards of our own soul, and when we it becomes necessary to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, we surround ourselves with those we can depend on for strength and protection. We resource ourselves for the challenges by preparing a table of nourishing food for ourselves, especially when we feel threatened (“in the presence of my enemies”). As we resonate in the frequency of Source, we take on this self-shepherding vocation. This isn’t false or heroic self-reliance. Rather self-shepherding includes the capacity to reach out to others when we need resourcing.