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The Promise of Perfection

by Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen

The following article, taken from a public talk given by Andrew Cohen at the Harvard Divinity School in late October 1997, provides the essential underpinning, framework and context for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? With bold simplicity, he articulates the relationship between our most fundamental desire to have and possess for ourselves, the compelling excitement these desires elicit in us, and the enormous potential for suffering and confusion they engender. Andrew Cohen's words echo and renew timeless teachings on the causes of human suffering and the end of that suffering. The distinctions he makes are vital to any contemporary inquiry into sexuality and spirituality because it is only from the perspective of such perennial wisdom that this endlessly confusing subject can be seen with extraordinary and liberating clarity.
I think that one of the most difficult things in human life is to be able to see things clearly, or to be able to see things as they are. And after teaching continuously for twelve years now, I think I can say with a great deal of confidence that it is the ability to see things clearly, to see things as they actually are, that even the most sincere seekers struggle with enormously.

The hardest part of spiritual practice is to get to the point where we can actually trust our interpretation of our own experience. We are all constantly in the process of interpreting our experience, and sometimes we are aware of that process and sometimes we're not. But whether we're consciously aware of it or not, the fact remains that we are all almost constantly interpreting our experience from one moment to the next, and if a human being wants to be free, if a human being wants to be able to know the truth, and if a human being wants to be able to live in a way that expresses and demonstrates that depth of perception, then of course it is absolutely essential for that individual to cultivate the ability to see things as they actually are.

Now we often hear in the spiritual literature words such as "illusion." We're often told that what we're seeing is not real, and it can be very difficult to understand what this kind of thing means—what it actually means when we are told that we're not seeing things clearly, that we're not seeing things as they are, and even worse, that what most of us are perceiving may only be "an illusion." If that were true, it would be something that would be a little bit intimidating or even frightening; it's the kind of thing that, I think for me, if it were true, would scare me to death.

So what does it actually mean? What does it mean when we hear these kinds of words spoken, when we're told that we're not seeing clearly, not seeing things as they are, and that as a matter of fact what we're seeing is illusion, that what we're actually perceiving so much of the time is illusory? If something is illusory, it means that it literally does not exist. It means that what we are perceiving—experiencing with our mind and our senses—really has no independent self-existence, that it does not exist independently of our own personal experience or perception, that it does not actually exist outside our own mind and field of sensual experience. It means that what we're perceiving is something that we're creating—somehow, in some way, for some reason—through and with our own mind and our own senses, and that we're projecting it onto the world around us, or onto particular objects, places and individuals.

Now I really do believe that most of us, even though we're rarely aware of it, live a great deal of our lives very much lost in and distracted by psychological and sensual experiences that have no independent reality outside the field of our own inner experience, which means that a large part of what many of us experience in our own inner personal sphere has no objective reality and is something that we actually create. And I can tell you what my own experience has taught me and continues to reveal to me about this. It's quite simple, but it's also very tricky.

What creates this continuity of illusory thought, this illusory stream of thought and sense perception—this movement of inner experience which has no independent self-existence and which does not exist outside our own personal sphere—is an endless craving, an endless wanting for personal gratification. This is very simple and may be even very obvious to some of you, but the fact that it may sound very simple, and may even appear very obvious, does not mean that its implications are not unthinkably profound. Because the fact is that in order to truly understand the implications of what it is that I'm speaking about, it is necessary to look very, very deeply into our own personal experience.

For example, you might hear the kind of talk I'm giving today simply intellectually—in other words, "Does what I'm hearing make sense? Is it intellectually sound?" Some people may listen to it that way and if intellectually it makes sense to them they might say, "Hmm, that makes sense; that's very nice." Or not; maybe it doesn't make sense, and they might therefore conclude that it's not worth listening to. But listening in that way to the kind of talk that I'm giving is not really enough. For what I'm speaking about to have any impact, for one to experience its liberating potential—and there's an inherent power to liberate in what I'm speaking about if one lets it in—we have to be willing not only to listen, but simultaneously to look very, very deeply as we're listening. We have to be willing to look very deeply into our own experience of our own self in this moment, and hopefully in every moment, because then we're listening not only from the point of view of "Does this make sense?"—which of course is important—but we're also looking very deeply into our own self and our own experience in order to see what it really means.

Now, the experience of perfect peace, perfect happiness, is the result of the cessation of this endless craving for oneself, this endless, endless, endless wanting for one's very own self. But once again, in order to truly recognize this, we have to look into our own experience to find out whether what I'm saying has any profound and significant relevance or not, because if this is merely an intellectual exercise it's not really that important. But if we dare to look very deeply into our own experience, we find that as much as our ego hates to admit it, the truth is that those times in our lives when we have experienced the greatest happiness, the deepest peace, have been moments when for some reason or other we ceased to want, moments when for some reason or other—it doesn't matter why—we wanted absolutely nothing from the world or from anyone else. I don't know if I can put it any more simply than that.

Of course in the world that we live in—the world of the ego, the world of the separate personal self—equating happiness with wanting nothing doesn't make sense because in the world of the ego and the personality, it is the wanting of this and the getting of this, the wanting of that and the getting of that, that generates anticipation, intense longing and excitement. And we find that it is usually when we want something or someone that we experience ourselves as being more alive, because we are very much in touch with this drive within ourselves to have.

Now you have to understand that this wanting, this compulsion to have, is experienced by the personality, by the ego, as a positive thing, as a very good thing. "I want for me. I want a particular object for myself. When I think about that object it makes me feel excited"whatever it is, whatever beautiful thing it is that we're interested in—you know, a new house, a new car. And of course it's even easier to get in touch with the emotional significance of what I'm speaking about if we look into what it means to want another—another individual, another human being—especially if we look, for example, at the romantic/sexual arena. When we really want another person, what we perceive them to be in the midst of that intense longing and wanting is infinitely more than what they actually are. Because as we all know, falling in love is one kind of experience—a delightful experience—and falling out of love is another. And it very rarely happens, if ever, that we remain so deeply in love that we continue to find the mere presence of the other individual intoxicating, that we continue to find the mere sight of them mesmerizing. Because of course after we get to know them intimately and spend some time with them, really get to know them as a human being, it's almost impossible to sustain that experience of intoxication. We may still find them attractive, and we still may feel tremendous affection for them, but that special something, that magic, is gone.

If you want a new car, if you really want a new car and then decide that there's a certain car that you want, then you think about that car quite a bit and when you see that car you love it. You love everything about it; just to look at it makes you feel special. And when you think about the moment when you're going to buy that car you get very excited. It's very interesting to realize that, if we dare to look at this phenomenon from a certain point of view, there's not that much difference between falling in love with someone and really wanting to buy a new car.

The particular aspect of our experience that I'm trying to bring to light in this way is that when certain objects appear in consciousness—things or people, for example—they can appear to be more than they actually are. And this is the point. This is a specific aspect of our experience that I think is very important to make the effort to become aware of. When certain objects in consciousness appear to be more than they actually are—and just to keep it simple here, I've been narrowing it down to things and people but it could just as easily be thoughts or places or anything else—it means that when we perceive that object or that person, we are experiencing more than what is actually there. We're seeing the car, we're seeing the other individual, but because both of them are objects of our desire or our longing, we're also seeing more than what's actually there, more than just a car and more than just an attractive person, and that more that we're seeing has very little to do with the object we're perceiving—very little to do with the car, very little to do with the attractive individual. It has only to do with what we are imagining. It is what we are imagining—what we are adding to the picture—that makes our nerves dance and our hearts beat a little bit faster. It's very important to understand this, very important. Because of course what we're seeing does not actually exist. It has no independent self-existence, no objective reality outside the sphere of our own mind and senses.

We may have walked by that car in the window of a car dealership every day for a year and then suddenly, one day, something happens, and we find ourselves looking at it differently. Now every time we see that car we stop and we look; it has an effect on our mind and on our senses. We find it exciting and thrilling. It's a sensual experience just to look at it, and there's an excitement in that. Before, we didn't notice it, but something has happened inside us and now that particular car has become very special. It's the same way with people. You can see certain people every day, and then suddenly something happens, and then. . . . In fact, I think it's actually very revealing that from a certain point of view our experiences with the car and with the person are not that different.

As I said before, what "illusion" means is that we are experiencing something with our mind and senses that does not actually exist, that has no independent self-existence. It does not exist outside the field of our own mind and senses—we're creating it. When that magical something happens, when suddenly the car is not just a car but "the car I want," or when suddenly the individual is not just whoever they are or have been but "the person I want," in that moment, and in all the moments that follow, a very significant part of what it is that we're experiencing has nothing to do with the object itself, but only has to do with the power of our own desire to create the illusion of perfection. Perfection, you see? Because when you don't have it, when you want it but don't yet own it, when all you can do is stand in front of the window and look at it, you know it's much more than just a nice car. There's something about that car that is simply magnetic. And what that something is, of course, is the promise of perfection. And it's exactly the same kind of experience when the object of our wanting is another human being.

In the promise of perfection, you see, and in the wanting of that experience of perfection from sources outside ourselves—from things, from people, from objects outside our own selves—there's a psychophysical experience, a titillation, a thrill. That's part of what the fun is, part of the thrill of falling in love, part of the thrill of buying that car. What is so exciting about it is that there's literally a psychophysical experience in the wanting itself. And that's why, as I said earlier, it's almost impossible for the ego or the personality to recognize the experience of wanting as a bad thing. Because the experience of wanting in and of itself is quite thrilling. To recognize a beautiful car and to make the decision that you want it and that you're going to have it causes a light to go on inside yourself, so that whenever you think about that car you feel warm inside. There's a sense of fullness. And the experience of falling in love with another person you want to have and possess is identical. You merely think about that person and then a light goes on inside, so that even just the thought of them seems like it is almost enough.

So it's important to understand that for the personality, for the ego, wanting in the way that I'm describing is perceived as a very positive experience, and the reason it's experienced as positive is that it's thrilling. It's thrilling to want a beautiful thing or a beautiful person, because it causes one's nerves and mind to begin to dance.

Now of course once we get the car and we've had it for a while, it no longer seems to give us the same kind of pleasure. As a matter of fact, now to our surprise—maybe it has been only a few months since we purchased it—we may suddenly find that we have our eye on another one. And now we feel frustrated. And it's the same when we fall in love. Once we actually get to know the person, we may still feel that they're a wonderful person, but it's not the same as before we had them, before we really had them, before we were able to possess them, or at least to experience the illusion of possessing them.

So now all we see is just a nice car or a nice person. That magical something extra that made all the difference is no longer present. And my point is that what was so attractive to us, what was so irresistible to us about the car or about the individual, that special mysterious X-factor that caused us to experience such enormous anticipation that we were suddenly willing to take the risk of saying, "I'm going to get that car," or, "I'm going to ask that person to marry me," has little or nothing to do with what's actually there. Most of what we're responding to has to do with whatever it is that we're imagining, which does not actually exist and is in fact illusory and therefore completely unreal.

What's so captivating, then, in this kind of experience could not be the having of the individual or the car because once we are actually able to possess the object of our desire, we usually experience a process of gradual or perhaps even immediate disillusionment. In fact it's very significant and can be very enlightening to discover that the most exciting part of the whole process we've just gone through was in the wanting itself: It was the wanting itself that was so thrilling! You see, to the mind, to the ego and to the personality, happiness is equated with the thrill of wanting to possess, of wanting to acquire, of wanting to have for oneself. "I want that car for myself! I want that person for my very own self! I want them for me!" And inherent in this wanting for oneself is a tremendous thrill that the ego and the personality experience as excitement, and which causes the mind and the senses to begin to dance. The heart begins to beat faster and faster, and to the mind and the personality this wanting in and of itself is perceived as an ecstatic experience.

And if you look at the world that we live in, you see immediately what it is that we're all encouraged to do: We're all encouraged to be endlessly obsessed with objects and with people, with wanting to possess people and wanting to possess objects. But this is not the fault of the culture we're living in; this kind of thing is part of the human condition. And you can't blame it on advertising, either. Someone just realized what we're really up to and figured out a way to make a lot of money.

It can be very enlightening, when we begin to deeply consider the truth of our own personal experience, to realize that in fact we experience the greatest joy, the deepest peace and the greatest real happiness in those moments when we actually want nothing at all from anybody or from anything. Because if it's the case that real happiness is found in those moments when we want nothing—and if when we look very deeply into the nature of our own experience we discover that this is actually true—then that would mean that we must begin to scrutinize our own experience very closely, and with a certain degree of intensity, in order to find out what our relationship to our experience actually is.

I said at the beginning of this talk that seeing clearly, being able to see things as they are, free from illusion or self-deception, is the hardest part of spiritual practice. It's not that difficult for an individual to experience insight now and again, and it's not that difficult for a serious seeker to have some kind of experience of transcendence now and then if that's what they really want. But to be able to see things clearly, to be able to see things as they actually are—this is a very, very challenging business. Because, you see, the experience of intoxication and the promise inherent in that intoxication is so powerful—so, so powerful. Only an individual who truly wants to be free more than anything else, who wants to know the truth more than anything else, will find the power of discrimination within themselves to be able to cut through illusion. Most of us won't be able to do it because we are going to be too lost in the intoxicating experience of wanting itself.

Because the thing is: We don't want not to want, you see? This is what the problem is; we don't want that. A lot of people say, "I just want to be happy, I just want to live a simple life, I really do"—but of course it isn't true because in order for that to happen, we have to not want the wanting. It's only when the wanting diminishes that we can begin to experience the fullness that is already there. Otherwise we'll never be aware of it because we're so captivated by, intoxicated by—endlessly, over and over and over again—the experience of wanting.

In this world, in this miserable world, it is the experience of wanting, the thrill of wanting, that most people are completely hypnotized by, and intelligence has no bearing on what I'm speaking about. You can be a very intelligent human being, very well read, a powerful person in the world, and still be utterly and completely lost in this wanting which is such a big part of the fundamental problem of the human condition. And as long as we allow ourselves to be hypnotized and hypnotically distracted by the wanting of this and the wanting of that, and by the illusion of perfection that is the promise that we're entertaining, we will never be able to see things clearly, we will never be able to see things as they really are—not for more than a couple of moments, and definitely not when it really counts.

It may be easy to see clearly if you're sitting on a meditation cushion, but the point is that there are certain times in life that count more than others, moments in life when it matters a lot more that we're actually able to see things clearly, able to see things as they are—precisely those moments, in fact, when we experience this wanting with the greatest intensity. Those are the moments, you see? Because when any one of us experiences that kind of wanting with a great intensity, we don't know what we're going to do. When we begin to want something that badly, we may do whatever we need to do to get it because our desire for that object has become so compelling, so thrilling, so difficult to resist that we're willing to lie or cheat—not only to other people but to ourselves—in order to possess that object, possess that person. So this matter of being able to see clearly, being able to discriminate between the real and the unreal, between truth and falsehood, is a lot more important in those moments when we experience that wanting with the greatest intensity; it's a lot more important in those moments than when we feel relatively peaceful. This is very important to understand: It's one thing to be able to sit very quietly, very still, but it's something else altogether to find oneself very much in the midst of the intensity of this wanting. When we are in the midst of this wanting, can we cut through it? If we can, nothing's going to happen. But if we can't, then, as they say, entire universes are born.

So this matter of seeing clearly, and being able to see illusion for what it is, is entirely dependent upon our fundamental relationship to life. For most of us, our fundamental relationship to life is essentially driven by the unending desire to have and to possess for ourselves—"I want for me." For most of us, this is our modus operandi; wanting for ourselves is what our fundamental relationship to all of our experience is based on. As long as this remains the case it will be very difficult, if not almost impossible, for us to be able to cut through illusion, for us to be able to see things as they actually are, for us to be able to distinguish clearly between truth and falsehood for more than a few brief moments every now and again. Why? Because our fundamental relationship to life is this wanting itself; our very reason for being is: "I want." It really is, in the end, "I want, therefore I am." For most of us, this is the foundation of our entire relationship to life.

The way to be able to see clearly, the way to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, is discovered not simply by trying to make the effort to see clearly, because if you're trying to see clearly and you still fundamentally want for yourself, where are you going to end up? You're only going to be able to see a little bit more clearly what it is that you really, really want for yourself. So simply making the effort to look with greater intensity is not enough. We have to be willing to look into our fundamental relationship to life. "I want for me, I want for me always"—this is expressed and demonstrated in gross and subtle ways thousands of times in every single day: when we turn our head, when we look, when we reach out. Almost everything that we do is motivated by this fundamental wanting for ourselves. It is only when this movement begins to slow down that we're going to start to notice that our perception, the way that we interpret our experience, has begun to change in conjunction with the lessening of this wanting for ourselves. It happens automatically. It's not something that you have to cultivate through making effort, or through straining your brain cells in order to see in a different way. It happens by itself; it's a by-product.

So if we want to see clearly, it's not a matter of getting better glasses. If we want to see clearly, we have to look into our fundamental relationship to life and begin to see that for most of us, our entire relationship to life is based on what is in the end this very ugly, lustful, greedy and entirely selfish wanting for me, wanting for me, wanting for me. And merely the clear perception of that, without any movement away from it, merely having the courage to experience that and to stay with it, will in and of itself open the door to another possibility, another way of being. And in this other way of being we will discover, not once or twice but over and over and over again—especially if we're very interested—that real happiness, simplicity, profound peace and true sanity are experienced directly when we want nothing, when we experience liberation from, or freedom from, this painful wanting.

It's the wanting, you see, that is so painful really. Of course we—the ego and the personality—experience this wanting as pleasure. But when we look very, very closely, we become aware of the fact that this wanting is not pleasure—but pain. It's pain. It's an endless tension. And peace, joy, happiness, sanity and clarity are discovered when that tension is no longer present, when it is absent. When that tension ceases, or when it begins to lessen, or even if it has only just begun to slow down, instantly we begin to feel more comfortable, more at ease; and when the tension decreases even more, we begin to feel even more at ease, suddenly present, finally at home in our own body, in our own skin, in our own mind, in our own personality—whoever we thought we were. However miserable we thought we were, suddenly we find that we're very comfortable being exactly who we are and exactly who we always have been. This is a new experience for us, very marvelous and very unknown. And in this experience, the wanting and all the tension inherent in it, which before we perceived as pleasure, now we recognize as pain. This is one aspect of enlightenment, or at least it's one expression of it.

So what it is that makes it so difficult for us to be able to see clearly is this ceaseless wanting. And if we're interested in seeing clearly, if we're interested in knowing the truth, if we're interested in being able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, then we have to be willing to give up wanting, which means renunciation. We have to be willing to practice renouncing the thrill of wanting. I'm trying to say this as clearly as I possibly can, and I hope that all of you will be able to remember it: The thrill of the wanting itself is what has to be renounced. That may be very easy for us at certain times, and at other times it may be so difficult that it's impossible to put into words. But one way or the other, it doesn't really matter; it's still the thrill of this wanting that has to be renounced. When the thrill of wanting is renounced, I promise you that you'll recognize that thrill not as the pleasure it appeared to be; but you will recognize it as pain. And so the challenge in all of this, the great challenge, is to discover the willingness to renounce the wanting itself, the thrill of wanting. This is the greatest challenge for the ego and the personality.


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