What do you want?
He asked if I could feel my heartbeat in my fingernails. “Take three more slow, deep breaths,” he said. Then he asked if I could feel it in the front of my teeth.
I lifted a slight smile as my heart pulsed in my mouth like a subtle toothache. Now I was ready for the question.
“Sitaram… What do you want?”
A simple question, but deceivingly direct, like a garden shovel we overlook as it hangs in the garage.
I answered with whatever truth I could muster in the moment, probably something vague about Love or God, and then he asked again.
“Sitaram… What do you want?”
This same question was repeated, again and again, until my habitual responses had been fully spent, leaving me without the safety net of a pre-programmed response. A wake of anticipatory silence seemed to flood the room as I waited for the emergence of a yet-unknown answer.
With each round of questioning, tension shed from my body as it sank into the soft couch of the transpersonal therapist’s office. I had come seeking guidance as I tried to navigate my confusion over my relationship, my decision to go back to school, and my conflicting desires for how to be in the world.
Much of my spiritual life has involved “dropping out.” I spent my senior year in college eating psychedelics and reading spiritual texts, and I almost didn’t graduate. From there, I traveled to India, lived out of my car in the desert of New Mexico, lived with anarchists in a tree sit in Berkeley, dumpster dove for food in Seattle, and lived in a bamboo hut without electricity in the rain-forest of Hawaii. My first time having a bed in three years was when I moved in to serve my teacher, Ram Dass.
As I have written previously, shortly after leaving Ram Dass’s home and starting a relationship with my current partner, I freaked out and almost dropped everything to live at the Ashram in Taos, NM. I thought I had worked through that, but now, several years later, it felt as if I still had two conflicting paths- Do I leave behind everything, move into a van and live as an American sadhu? Or… Do I stay in my relationship, keep paying the bills and go back to school to get my Master in Social Work?
In truth, it wasn’t an either/or situation; my path has been a long, slow struggle to realize my freedom lies in my commitment. But the fear of surrendering to my Dharma- in the form of both my commitment to social justice and my relationship with my partner, scared the shit out of me.
The question, “What do you want?” cut through my neurosis and showed me that, underneath my fear and anxiety, there lied a deep trust in my path. My heart knew its next steps, I just needed a little help filtering out the noise.
There are no rules for how the heart unfolds. Rules are in the mind, often stemming from embedded cultural programs, deep wounds, and old stories. But the heart knows what it wants. It intimately understands its path towards freedom. One simple question, “What do you want?” unlocks a vast potential the mind will never understand.
Since that day, I have participated in the same exercise in a variety of group contexts, most recently in a dyad exercise led by Ram Dev at the Ram Dass Legacy retreat in Ojai, and each time it has taken on new meaning, always leading me towards the ever-unfolding intelligence of the moment.
I have also facilitated and asked this question when counseling friends, clients, seekers of Truth, and lovers of God as they navigate life’s waters with the often murky compass of the heart. On more than one occasion, I have been asked if the question can be rephrased. Something about the word want hits a nerve, and instead they want it changed to something like “what feels right?”
I understand the reasons for it- we are on a path of letting go of desire, and it can seem on the surface like this is about chasing more of it. But it has been my experience that this is not the case, and by changing the question we dilute its potency.
What do you want? is ownership. Accountability. Trust in our deepest self. What feels right makes it seem as if it is coming from somewhere else, as if what we are supposed to do is somehow different than what we want. It skips over an important piece: Why?
Why does it feel right?
I have come to the conclusion that it feels right because, underneath societal expectations and cultural programmings, shoulds and should-nots, old stories, past traumas, and our addictions to emotional and physical pleasure, this is what our heart yearns for.
What do you want is a deep trust in our own Being, the realization that what we want, what we really want, is to heal, to live to our full potential, to use our gifts to serve others, to relieve suffering and inspire joy, to plumb the depths of our heart and sing and dance for God, to live out our simple Dharma with reverence for all of life…
Our deepest wants are what God wants for us. Our deepest wants are what feels right. It feels right because our heart sings a resounding YES!
Deep down, at our core, we recognize that we can live a better way. We know we are not living to our highest potential, that the systemic violence of separation and exploitation- of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, imperialism, colonialism, and the destruction of our planet- are not what we want. We don’t want this.
We are so addicted to maximizing pleasure and minimizing discomfort that we have misplaced these addictions as distorted forms of our deepest heartsong. We forget that this addiction is a response to a collective trauma that long ago left us feeling like we can’t actually trust ourselves. We have forgotten that we are actually, at our core, good. This leaves us so disconnected that we are left frantically searching for ways to manage this dysfunctional system. But our methods only reinforce the illusion of separation.
Imagine riding a broken bicycle. The handle bars might fall off any minute, so you have to hold them tight as you turn. The pedals are jammed, and you have to press at a certain speed to keep them going- too slow and they won’t move, too fast and they will freeze. The brakes don’t work, so you are vigilant for pedestrians and cars while constantly scanning for creative ways to stop. It’s not safe to ride, but you have places to go, it’s the only bike you know, and everyone else is riding broken bicycles too.
We have grown highly skilled at riding our bicycles. It took years to get this good at it, and as our bikes continue to malfunction, we develop new skills to keep the ride going. But none of this prepares us for learning to ride a bicycle that actually works. None of our skills to minimize danger and harm will work on the new bicycle. We are so attached to our way of riding and so scared of something new that we ignore the heart’s whispers about a new bicycle that is much safer and more fun. This is the predicament we are in.
We live in an materialistic culture that values individual pleasure above all else. We live out an old story that proclaims humans are at their core evil, nasty and brutish. The only option for us to live together, then, is to curb our deepest desires through fear and punishment. We have lived this way for so long that we don’t even need an external authority anymore to police us. We do it to ourselves. So when we are asked the question, “What do you want?” we tense up to protect our broken bicycle from falling apart.
The fear is that this question will manifest as more narcissism and validate the exploitative and consumer values of our culture.
It has been my experience that the opposite is true. When we share our desires and allow them to be seen, the power of bringing our shadows into the light reflects for us that deeper want- buried for years under layers of guilt, shame, repression, and addiction- that knows our service is our greatest Joy. It burns away the work we do out of inadequacy so we have the space to do God’s work, the work we want to do- Love, Serve, Honor the Sacred, Remember God, Tell the Truth.
On the devotional path, our primary means of letting go of lesser attachments is to remember that what we really want is God. It is said that the Gopis of Vrindavan are the gurus of knowing what to want. Their heart burned for Krishna and their last impurities were incinerated by the intensity of that yearning.
The lesser desires of the mind and senses only pull us away from our inherent Divinity and decrease overall satisfaction. As we grow on the path, instead of grabbing for illusive pleasures that cause discord, we begin to turn towards the wisdom of the heart, nourishing everyone, including ourselves. This is what we want!
The only danger is if we stop asking. Our Addictions and cultural programmings run deep, and we need to always be careful of the ways these double agents can co-opt our deepest heart-song into instruments of separation. Each time we find our truest answer, we need to be willing to ask again…. and again…. and again….
so… since we’re here…
What do you want?