On Volition and Desire

SOURCE: sacredweb.com
M. Ali Lakhani

‘E’n la sua volontade è nostra pace.’
(In His Will is our Peace.)
Dante, Paradiso, Canto III, line 85
Desire only God, and your heart will be satisfied.
St. Augustine
Humankind has been endowed with the gift of free will, and also with
a sense of the Sacred, an inclination toward transcendent Beauty.
According to Tradition, it is by the divine Will and Fiat that we exist, in
accordance with Our Maker’s creative Nature, and it is by His Command
that we shall return to Him, to be judged according to His Justice and
Mercy. But while we exist on this earth, we are entrusted with the gift
of free will, a responsibility that carries with it not only the power to
act according to our own individual whims and desires but also the
fiduciary obligation to respond to the sense of the Sacred within us, in
conformity with the beauty and goodness of our inner nature, and in
so doing to find our inner Peace.
The purpose of volition is to direct our soul towards Beauty, so that
we may be drawn by its gravitational pull, and to resist the false desires
of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, those transient and outward
attractions that distract and seduce our refractory will from our impulse
for the Sacred, for the eternal and inward Beauty imprinted within the
Spirit which is the font of the animating soul. The fulfillment of this
purpose is the Divine Trust that is incumbent on each soul according
to the degree of its intelligence.
Tradition teaches us that heaven and hell are both accessible within
us, the former by conforming our souls to the divine Will, and the latter
through the consequence of pursuing our individual lusts and vain desires.
The choice is our own. In the words of Jacob Boehme, “…the free will
may reach to which it pleases: both gates stand open to him”. But this
choice is not a burden without the blessing of divine guidance. Despite the
privative influences of existence, we are guided by our innate intelligence,
by its capability of discerning the Sacred within its own Goodness and in
the Beauty that surrounds us. The “reminders” of our spiritual patrimony
exist first within the microcosm of our primordial nature and its inherent
sense of the Sacred which enables it to witness the core of Being (thereby
mirroring the pre-existential “witnessing” which was the basis of the
soul’s covenant with God in the Qur’anic teaching of the Covenant of
Alast, see The Heights, 7:172), and second within the macrocosm of the
theophanic “signs” that reflect this Beauty. Thus we are taught to “know
ourselves” and also to “see God in nature”. The outer is, to discerning eyes,
the mirror of the inner. So, for example, the Qur’an states:
It is He who sends down water from the sky. From it you drink and from it come the
shrubs among which you graze your herds.And by it He makes crops grow for you and
olives and dates and grapes and fruit of every kind. Therein is certainly a sign in that for
people who reflect. He has made the night and the day subservient to you, and the sun,
the moon and the stars, all subject to His command.Therein are certainly signs in that
for people who use their intellect. And also, the things of varying colors He has created
for you in the earth. There is certainly a sign in that for people who pay heed. It is He
who made the sea subservient to you so that you can eat fresh flesh from it and bring
out from it ornaments to wear.And you see the ships cleaving through it so that you can
seek His bounty, and so that perhaps you may show thanks. He cast firmly embedded
mountains on the earth so it would not move under you, and rivers, pathways, and
landmarks so that perhaps you might be guided.And they are guided by the stars. Is He
Who creates like him who does not create? O will you not pay heed? (The Bee, 16:10-17)
And the Psalms state:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day
after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no
speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the
earth, their words to the ends of the world which is like a bridegroom coming forth
from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the
heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat. (Psalm, 19:1-6)

As the theophany reveals itself to us so we are guided according to our
propensity to discern the mirror of its Beauty within us. This propensity
is a matter of our intellectual receptivity, our spiritual intelligence or
faith, which can either be open to the eternal verities of our primordial
nature or be veiled from them, both by the beguilements of the material
world and by the vainglories of the deluded self. In the former case,
the reified world veils us from Beauty and deceives the intelligence,
preventing it from seeing things aright, while in the latter, the reified
self is the veil that “hardens its heart” and intentionally covers up the
spirit, with the full complicity of its egoic volition, against its guiding
intelligence. The celebrated Opening Verse (al-Fatiha) of the Qur’an thus
distinguishes between those “who have gone astray” (by failing to see
things aright) and those “cursed ones” (who willfully assert themselves
against God). Both these tendencies, toward beguilement of the self
by “the life of the present and its glitter” (Hud, 11:15) and toward the
pitting of the Luciferian self against God (“And Satan whispered unto
him and said, ‘O Adam, shall I show thee the Tree of Immortality and
a kingdom that fadeth not away?’, Taha, 20:120), are much on display
in the world we live in, and we must be vigilant to guard against these
tendencies given the conditions of our times.

The modern world poses a great peril for the soul. According to the
great faith traditions, we are living in the End Times in which traditional
bulwarks have eroded and, in many cases, disappeared altogether. Modern
societies are increasingly secularized, pushing the boundaries of religion
further into the private sphere. We can see this erosion occurring in all
areas through the loss of verticality and the leveling of society to its outer
elements. Primordial norms rooted in theocentric metaphysical archetypes
of divine revelation, accessible through initiation and intellection, are
being denied legitimacy by modernist world-views and schools of thought
that privilege anthropocentric norms lacking metaphysical objectivity.
Traditional structures of hierarchy and authority are being supplanted by
horizontalized notions of individual rights and freedoms, and by norms
and values based on the relativist criteria of subjective preferences fueled
by fashion or consumerism, or those based on the quantitative criteria of
scientific materialism, which privileges mechanistic and computational
analyses over qualitative intellectual perceptions and values. These trends
are evident, for example, in the ascendancy of scientistic atheism and
its assertion of the so-called “God delusion”, in modernist challenges to
traditional values about sexual freedom, gay marriage, and gender roles,
and in the pervasive influence of scientism and neo-Darwinism within
fields ranging from economic planning to health planning to literary
criticism. Modernism has even directly influenced religion in diverse ways
including evolutionist theology, syncretist ecumenism, New-Ageism, and
fundamentalism, to cite only a few examples.
As the world becomes reduced to its surfaces, the qualitative elements
of human purpose and value and of spiritual well-being become relegated
in importance to quantitative elements such as material comforts and
the outer pleasures of sensory gratification and stimulation. The inward
contemplativeness of the subject gives way to subjectivism, intellectual
intuitions to discursive reasoning, and empathetic virtue to indulgent
sentimentalism. The psyche dominates the self and is conflated with the
spirit, a trend that is evident in various forms of pseudo-religion. The loss of
awareness of true metaphysical archetypes creates at the individual level an
appetite for virtual reality and for surrealistic fantasy, and at the social level
it breeds monstrous utopian delusions. So too unbridled sensory passions,
no longer tethered by their guiding intellect, make the soul vulnerable to
infernal influences that manifest in myriad forms of hedonism.
In this milieu, the distractions of the material world and of the vain
self can easily overwhelm our senses and cause us to lose our grip on
reality. More than ever, it becomes important to combat these centrifugal
influences by reorienting ourselves to our spiritual Center, by rediscovering the sense of the Sacred within our souls, by seeking its presence
in the Beauty of the unfolding theophany around and within us, and
by conforming our will to our deeper purpose: to become vessels of
the divine Light.

Because we exist, we experience privation. Our desires represent
our longing for connection with transcendence, for our apartness to
be replaced by a sense of wholeness, for the emptiness within us to
be filled. In reality, as tradition teaches, we are created “from a single
soul”, and therefore we have a common metaphysical origin and are
connected by an intrinsic harmony, whose core or spiritual Center is
our innermost being. Viewed in this light, existence is Beauty. It is the
effulgent radiance of this Center, which we recognize as the Sacred.
Like the reed-pipe in the opening stanza of Rumi’s Mathnavi, we are
all exiles seeking to be united with the spiritual reed-bed which is our
Origin. It is by sublimating our worldly desires to the Sacred, by being
drawn by its Beauty, that we can attain the wholeness that we seek.
Yet we must empty ourselves of ourselves in order to be filled. In the
words of T.S. Eliot, “In order to possess what you do not possess / You
must go by the way of dispossession. / In order to arrive at what you
are not / You must go through the way in which you are not.” For the
desire for the possession of phenomenal things, and the quest to gratify
the phenomenal self, is a form of ignorance—we ignore that which is
substantial. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy observes:
…the cause of all wanting is ignorance (avidya)—for we “ignore” that the objects of our
desire can never be possessed in any real sense of the word, ignore that even when we
have got what we want, we still “want” to keep it and are still “in want”. The ignorance
meant is of things as they really are, and the consequent attribution of substantiality to
what is merely phenomenal; the seeing of Self in what is not-Self.
It is only by detaching ourselves from the lures of the peripheral that
we can gain access to the inner sanctum of the Sacred. As Christ taught,
we must submit to God’s Will (see Mark 14:36: “Father,…take away this
cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt”). And
as the Buddha taught (one of his principal teachings being that false
desires are the root of all suffering), we must re-educate our desires by
awakening our souls to transcendence. By opening ourselves to God,
He opens to our souls. By turning towards God, He turns to us. Hence
it is written, “Turn ye unto me,…and I will turn to you” (Zechariah, 1:3)
and “Remember Me and I will remember you” (Qur’an, The Cow, 2:152).
It is through the inner self-restraint of ascesis and conformity of our
self-will to our primordial nature that we can open ourselves up to our
transcendent source and end. It is through reconstitutive prayer and
contemplation upon the eternal verities evidenced in our hearts and in
nature, that we can “polish the mirror of the soul” and thereby reflect
the inner Light that we possess as Lamps of God.

While we cannot necessarily change the way of the world, we can by
the Grace of God change ourselves—and by doing so, we can thereby
change our own world. But this requires us to reorient ourselves radically
towards the “Face of God”, to discern, with “eyes of faith”, the underlying
harmony of the unfolding theophany and our role within it. It requires us
to open hearts to the intrinsic goodness of creation, to see it not merely
in its separateness but in its integrated wholeness, as holy in each of its
particulars, and thereby to perceive our own intrinsic goodness too. And
by this reorientation, by this witnessing and perception, we can hope
by His Grace to redirect ourselves towards His ends, to efface ourselves
within His Face and to conform our will to His Will.
The true object of our volition is virtue, and of our desire is union
with our Beloved. As our intellects incline to Truth, so our wills incline
to Goodness, and our hearts to Beauty. It is in the ways of Goodness
and virtue that we must bend our wills, and be drawn by our desire for
the Beauty of the sacred presence of our Beloved. It is in so doing that
we can hope to be transformed. As Ruysbroek taught, “The measure
of your holiness is proportionate to the goodness of your will”, and
we cannot attain to our higher purpose on this earth unless we have
sublimated our merely human wills and desires to our transcendent
Spirit. It is by conforming our desires to our innate Goodness, that
we can hope to become a mirror of Beauty and so attain to the Peace
that is everlasting