Walking on the purple sand of Pheifer Beach, I noticed an old man building stone pagodas.
There are thousands of them in this secret cove, I’ve built a few on my previous visits and from the looks of it so has nearly everyone else who’s ventured here.
The old man asks me why I was there and we shared stories of our adventure. Turns out we’d both been staying at the monastery up the hill.
He’d been silent 16 days by then so seemed eager to talk.
We laughed about the oddness of silence, the profound noise that comes from the tiniest things when you’re being intentional. When you try to make no sound, the fork hitting your plate while you eat can feel like an explosion and listening to liquid rushing through your body is amazing.
Numerous times I wondered if my fellow retreatants could hear my heart beating.
This kind of silence changes you.
He asked me what my experiences were and I shared that I was amazed how much my mind manufactures thoughts, like an idea factory, and only in the silence had I really been able to observe just how many come and go. Discernment, choosing which ones to act upon and which ones to let pass through.. that was the practice I was trying to cultivate while walking on the sand.
He nodded for an awkwardly long time and I wondered if he was contemplating what I said or didn’t hear me at all and hadn’t yet realized I was done talking.
I asked him his same question, curious what he’d learned.
He was immediate to answer: “I’ve discovered that Desire is the Devil”.
We sat quiet again; I took some time before inquiring further.
I really wasn’t sure I knew what he meant. I know what desire is and I know what the wisdom teachings are around desire but I wanted to know what this old wise man thought because I’ve long ago learned to clarify people’s personal definitions before believing I understand.
He responded to my further inquiry, “Desire is the constant wanting of what you don’t have… wishing for anything to be different than it is….. Love, money, stuff, happiness, yesterday, tomorrow, the seat across from you, what’s behind you, what’s in front of you, whatever you aren’t eating. Any time you aren’t completely in acceptance of your present experience, you are living in desire”
“Ok then” I answered, immediately judging his answer as two parts true, one part ridiculous. I’ve never met a person who was completely satisfied in the present experience all the time, nor do I believe that person exists.
“Tell me then, how do we stay away from the devil as you describe it.. What brings total satisfaction with whatever the present moment is?
“I’ve concluded, it’s impossible” he explained. Thrilled but curious I looked over at him, expecting him to be sad about this revelation but he seemed joyful in his answer, as if it was somehow a relief to him.
I waited a few minutes finishing my pagoda and then said “you seem happy about this, like you don’t consider this a bad thing or a shortcoming or even something to work on. I’m confused.”
“I have been up on that hill for the last 16 days wrestling with this, trying to fix it. Hell, I’ve been chasing this thing for the better part of 30 years… Do you know the amount of joy and relief I felt when I realized it can never be fixed or achieved…that I will always have desire no matter what?” I stayed quiet because I could tell he had more to say.
“I have finally realized that trying to be happy all the time, trying to live in the moment, believing I can overcome the human conditions that prevail… it’s simply an impossibility. I am so relieved knowing this and find it far more tolerable now, just observing the range of emotions that is a normal life. My only job is to practice acceptance, even acceptance of adversity, sadness, desire… all of it.”
Three steps, one bow.