I recently had some torrid one-night stands with my lower self — that petulant punk who thinks he is the center of the universe and deserves all he wants. It’s not that I wish to behead desire’s fiery skull; I’d prefer to transmute base urges into soulful ones. (Good luck with that!)
The truth is that what my inner brat says I want is not necessarily what I really want. It is often misinterpreted desire. When my brat says “stimulate” I usually need rest. When he says “alter consciousness” I really crave a simple adventure. When he says “obliterate” I in truth aspire to feel more deeply. It reminds me a little of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza does the exact opposite of what his mind first tells him to do, and he marvels at the good fortune that unfolds in front of him.
The Sufis calls these desires “the nafs”: animal energies that naturally course through us. They don’t necessarily label these as bad, something the Western mind (and I) do quite readily. In fact, the poet Coleman Barks says, “Each stage of growth has its nafs which make one satisfied with his present state and inhibit further growth. Recognition of, and conflict with, those nafs leads to an opening, a new breathing, the next step.” In grappling with the nafs, then, we grow, which means they can be blessings, or at least catalysts.
But how to engage with the lower self in a present way? I can so easily lose myself in the rabbit hole that it’s hard to keep my feet on solid ground. Tangles with my animal soul tend to leave me spent, hungover, hanging by a fragile thread. The lows I experience afterward come not necessarily from the acts themselves, nor even guilt over them, but more from the morbid disappointment that I remain unfulfilled despite my gorging.
In contrast, when I meet my true desires, I find them quite easily fulfilled, a pleasure really: a kiss from Rio; an interesting conversation with a stranger; writing for a few minutes even if what I produce feels like the crudest sketchings.
Perhaps the best I can do is to increase the frequency of these serene moments and to embrace also the days I stray. I believe this is called being authentic. The only alternative is to split myself into two halves: the good me and the bad me. I’ve tried this and have been left holding only jagged shards.
No, I’d rather look for chunks of gold in the pits.