Individuating With Integrity: Non-attached Desire as the Motor for Purpose

You might be wondering, how the f@ck did I manage to get all of those words together in a single phrase? Do they even relate?

Well, here. Let me explain.

First, what is individuation? As one might surmise by looking at the word’s root, it’s the process of becoming individual — by evolutionary means, I would add. It’s a process that comes about as a result of everything one has ever thought, done, had happen to one. It’s the process the oak tree underwent to become what it is, with its thick, dramatically defined bark, its funky flared leaves, and its adorable acorns.

And that word, integrity? It’s a nod to wholeness, to All That Is. Think integral. Integrity. So, individuating with integrity is individuating as a unique member of the Universe, as a cell in the collective body, with a function and a role. That function and role is our purpose. The oak tree provides shade, gives home to insects and lichens, and feeds the woodland animals with its nutty fruits.

Now for the real doozy: “non-attached desire.” I know there are at least a few fledgling Buddhists out there in the peanut gallery all like, “Whaaa? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” I would posit that no, actually, it isn’t. On the contrary, non-attached desire, I believe, is a core and vital function of life as we know it. It’s the mechanism, the pattern-creator, of all life. It’s part of what we access when we turn deeply inward, and what ultimately gives us direction when we’re “chopping wood and carrying water.”

One might see desire in two very different ways. The first way of looking at it is the most common portrayal: as lesser, strictly of the body, sinful, a knee-jerk reaction sold out to instant gratification. In contemporary Western understanding, desire is an inescapable, evil thing. It is my view, however, that such a reductionist perspective does not serve our species. Desire is not just temptation by the devil, not only the product of habituation or genetic predisposition and not merely passing fancy either. It is all these things, and so much more.

Here’s another way to look at desire: as a primordial force — one that can, and must be reckoned with if we are to dare strive for our highest aspirations. It’s what propels that great oak to the sun, binds the tides of the earth to the cycles of the moon, and causes our planet’s surface to crack open as her molten core pushes its way out to birth new land. This Great Desire pre-exists us all, yet weaves its way into our deepest dreams.

And this is where non-attachment comes in. You’ve heard the saying, “Not my will, but thy will.” While sometimes used as a self-effacing tenant of a defunct religious practice, I beg the question, why can’t these things be one and the same? I believe that the more we align our outer self to our innermost Self, the more this becomes true. I look to my deepest desires and what I find there is a longing for the well-being of all life, and if that doesn’t look like Creator-consciousness…

I digress.

Let us return to that saying, “Not my will, but thy will.” This could mean, “What I want doesn’t matter. Desire will only lead me astray, so therefore I will live a purely passive life and/or a strictly regimented life of pre-dictated dogma and doctrine.” Alternatively, one could understand this phrase to mean that ultimately, Great Desire is much more important (and more greatly desired, even by lil ol’ me) than my little desires.

In order to make this concept more relatable, I’ll shrink it down to the microcosm. My little desire for sweet, homemade treats is minimally significant to me compared to my Greater Desire for a homestead that provides for me, my family, and my community.

Sometimes my little desires, if acted upon regularly, can become direct obstacles to my Greater Desires. For example, I might have a Great Desire for bodily health, but am constantly acting out a little desire for sugary, processed foods. This conflict occurs simply because of my attachment to my little desire. When I’m really caught up in my little desires, I find myself in one of two situations. Either a) I’m in this semi-amnesiatic state where I can’t even remember what Greater Desires there are out there, let alone that I have any or b) I’m super tortured because I want this little desire AND that Great Desire and feel like I can’t have that Greater One, so I’m just making do with this pittance of satisfaction instead. Both situations are a very funny place to be. Neither are helpful to me.

I’m not suggesting that one shut the little desires down. Actually, I think doing so would be extremely harmful to the psyche. These little desires are here for a reason, and it’s best to treat them with acceptance and compassion. One need not indulge every little whim to do so, however. By remaining unattached to the little things, one creates space for the Greater Desires to make themselves known and act themselves out.

Looking back at the example of sugary, process foods vs. bodily health, I might take a non-attached stance and say, “Sure, I’d love to eat a bunch of doughnuts tonight, but they’ve been making me feel really physically down lately and I want better for myself. This time, I won’t force that desire into being.” I find that often, when I take this approach, a more perfect circumstance makes its way through. A friend brings by a ripe Kona King mango, thus satisfying my craving for sweets (which was the real desire hiding behind my fixation on doughnuts) while simultaneously contributing to my bodily health rather than detracting from it.

More often than not, my desires are quite simple in nature, and stem from very basic needs. The problem arises when I try to solve these needs with rote patterns, based on my attachments. Doing so, I remain blinded to the more ideal situations available to me. Instead, I can maintain a perfect tension between attachment and self-denial, acknowledging the lesser flow of my smaller desires while leaving space for a greater flow to work alongside me. Blended together, these two flows can propel me towards my biggest dreams.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be of service, particularly in regards to planetary healing (I mean, c’mon. At age four, my dream job was to be an astronaut-veterinarian. That’s a single position, folks). That part of the question has always been easy for me to answer, but it feels so nebulous when I think about how life actually works. What has been exceedingly difficult for me to answer is HOW TO GET THERE. At the end of the day, I’m not actually that attached to what it looks like. I could be researching plant compounds in an effort to treat disease, writing novels that inspire individuals to create a more perfect society, teaching children important life skills… Realistically thinking though, I have to start from where I am now, and when I don’t presently have the means to just make one of those life paths happen, where do I even begin?

When I was in college, I was dead-set on making one such linear path happen. I had it all planned out, only to learn upon closer look that what I wanted to do would almost certainly require my breaking from my moral/ethical code. (Or more accurately, what I thought wanted to do was appearing more and more impotent in the grand scheme of achieving my Great Desires). Unfortunately, I had already put all my eggs in that basket.

Exactly one identity crisis and energetic recovery later, I realized I could still get to where I wanted to go, and that the path I took could ultimately be much more exciting, inspiring, and rewarding. This is the path of non-attached desire.

In following what sings to me, I place myself in a network of beings, and ways of being, that contribute to my cause. I, in turn, contribute to theirs. I become more refined, and the source that feeds me, as well as my impact, expands.

I learned that the One that plants the seed of Great Desire in the human readily supports a selection of my little desires — creating art, being with community, dialoguing, eating delicious food, to name a few — and that ultimately, these little desires can support me in creating my Greater Desires of harmony, sustainability, magic, fulfillment and universal dignified living for humans and animals. One day, I believe I will get there (only to realize even Greater Desires — the thought is exquisite). May the path never end; may it only ascend.

Depending on the person, this process of integral individuation looks like a lot of different things. Some processes look more heroic, powerful, artistic, magical, noble, compassionate, exciting, inspiring, than others. I do my best to avoid comparison. What matters most here is authenticity, integrity and persistence. It’s also important to keep in mind that this path is a non-linear one. Goal setting can be helpful in this journey, but it isn’t helpful to force oneself into a rigid structure if it doesn’t inspire. This process, more than anything else, is deeply satisfying and enjoyable.

What is the highest desire I can conceive for myself and my world from where I am now? How is that desire operating in All That Is? Could my little desires bring me closer to manifesting the big ones? I actively clear the path standing between me and the attainment of that desire. I start from where I am. I give it as a gift to myself, and the world.

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