Often times in the yogic world we confuse non-attachment with the relinquishment of desire. This is a misunderstanding of spiritual philosophy. Desire is an important tenet in our practice and I was reminded of this teaching during a recent visit to New York City. Chris and I saw three outstanding exhibitions: The Rolling Stones “Exhibitionism” in the West Village, “Agnes Martin” at the Guggenheim, and Kerry James Marshall “Mastry” at Met Breuer and I was struck by the desire saturating each of these shows. Each artist saw something specific in the world and wanted nothing more than to fulfill that aspiration.
Perhaps the world could exist without art, music, and practices like yoga, but life is surely more enjoyable because our creative endeavors and desires endure.
“Think that you are gliding out from the face of a cliff
Like an eagle. Think that you’re walking
Like a tiger walks by himself in the forest.
You’re most handsome when you’re after food.” -Rumi
As yogis’ we must ask clearly for what we want. Desire is an essential endeavor on the spiritual path. James Martin, author and Jesuit priest says, “Without desire we would never get up in the morning. We would never have ventured beyond the front door. We would never have read a book or learned something new. No desire means no growth, no change. Desire is what makes two people create a third person. Desire is what makes crocuses push up through the late winter soil. Desire is energy, the energy of creativity, the energy of life itself.”
Agnes Martin, James Kerry Marshall, and the Rolling Stones achieved their unique art by mastering a specific want. In yogic terms we call this “the object of concentration.” For the Stones, the thing was rhythm and blues. Kerry James Marshall was lit up by the tradition of painting. And Agnes Martin embodied the lofty goal of illustrating subtle emotions like innocence.
Each of these artists dedicated everything to their endeavor.
Rumi reminds us, “You must ask for what you really want and don’t go back to sleep.”
As yogis, we identify an aspect of our practice that really turns us on. This passion leads us to desire more. The desire then results in a mastery of our craft. By establishing excellence, comfort, and fluidity in our work something unique (art) is a natural residue.
In his inspiring book, The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, James Martin refers to a bible story. Jesus, approached by a blind man, asks the beggar, “What do you want?” The man replies directly, “I want to see.” Only then did Jesus perform the miracle of returning the sightless man’s vision.
One might ask, why would Jesus, the all-knowing maker of miracles, ask a blind man what he wanted? Surely the prophet already knew the answer. The teaching clearly instructs us that the question is not posed for Jesus’ benefit, but for the seekers. By asking for what he really wants the blind man names his desire. Knowing what you want and asking for it is half the game.
Can the path be as simple as that?
Exhibitionism, a retrospective of the Stones history includes a recreation of the bands first apartment at 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea. It is a mess. There are dirty dishes piled in the sink, rumpled soiled clothes, unmade beds, cigarette butts and beer bottles strewn about but there is also a recording of Keith Richards describing why.
“We were too busy, you know, avidly learning to be blues players and that was all we had time for.”
The Stones were infamous for 10, 20, even 30 takes to get a song right. They would not give up until the sound they heard in their head came out on the record. Their desire was specific, clear, and unfinished until fulfilled.
Imagine if your desire is exactly what the world needs?
"Come, come whoever you are, wanderers, worshippers, lovers of leaving. Ours is not a caravan of despair, even if you have broken your vow a million times…still come, and yet again, come." -Rumi
James Kerry Marshall, who has classical and modern painting elements in his large identity-driven artworks, said in the audio tour of “Mastry”, that he desires to learn everything painting has to teach. He wants to know how to paint classical portraiture, landscape and even modern techniques like “Jackson Pollock” drips. His deepest desire is to insert the black figure into an overwhelmingly white cannon of painting. He masters painting and as a result introduces a more complete perspective on African-American life. His artworks, which include overtly black figures in every walk of life - artist, prophet, business owner, student, family member - has changed the history of painting by including African Americans in roles beyond slave or exotic other.
His intelligence, facility and insight bring a powerful voice to issues of race and equality. He adds to the conversation, through art, a clear past, illustrating injustice, persistence, and power that sustain black people despite the unfairness of their treatment. His work is so potent and necessary as we try to right wrongs of the past and move forward into an era where refugees, immigrants and “others” need to be treated with care and respect.
“Be like a fish moving toward wave-sound.”- Rumi
Agnes Martin wanted to understand and paint subtle emotion. She sat in her studio for a long time, asking for a vision of innocence. She waited. She emptied her mind and waited some more. Then she saw the image of a grid. She said to herself, this is innocence but is this what I am supposed to paint? No one will think a grid is art?
She moved forward anyway. Martin surrendered to her desire and began a lifelong career in abstract painting. She concretized the grid as a tool for experiencing subtle emotions.
Her work requires the viewer to slow down and look closely. If we take time to look and perceive the tiny irregularities, we see the same subtleties we experience in our yoga practice. We feel bodily sensations arising and falling away. We listen to the soft voice and notice our response. Our intimacy with her work brings up subtle emotions like innocence, kindness, love, and happiness. This is exactly what Martin desired. The monastic experience is a consistent characteristic in her work.
“Try to make an idea move from ear to eye. Then your wooly ears become subtle as fibers of light. Your whole body becomes a mirror, all eyes and spiritual breathing. Let your ear lead you to your lover.” - Rumi
In yoga, as we study traditional forms of asana and pranayama, we find our passion in the practice. My passion may be different from yours but since yoga is an art, our commitment to our individual desire is the actual work. This commitment is what will push us forward on the path and keep us interested.
Sufis call this wanting Nafs. Coleman Barks, the beloved translator of Rumi’s poetry talks about Nafs: “from the urgent way lovers want each other to the Sannyasin’s search for truth, all moving is from the mover. Every pull draws us to the ocean.”
Agnes Martin, Kerry James Marshall and the Rolling Stones, dedicate everything to their desire without hesitation. These exhibitions illustrate this idea clearly. Agnes Martin says painting is not putting down pink or green because you like them; Painting is something you cannot resist, something that drives you.
James Martin continues, “To live our deeper desires, the ones that shape our lives, help us know who we are and what we are to do. This is exactly what the world needs.”
Desire may lead us from power yoga to restorative, from abstract painting to still life, it may move us from writing prose to poems but it is a voice that we should follow. The intelligent pursuit of our deepest desire makes us great. For more on desire read about Astavakra and his persistent, insistent, desire and how it helps our asana practice.