“The true desires are overlaid with false; though true, there is a false covering-up of them. For if any one belonging to him is gone, he, while still in the world, cannot reach him to behold him. And those belonging to him who are alive, and those who are gone, and anything else he desires, yet cannot reach, entering there he finds them, for in this world these his true desires are overlaid with false.
“Just as those who know not its place may again and again walk over a hidden treasure of gold and not know it, so these beings, going day by day to the world of the Eternal, know it not, for they are held back by the false.”—Chhandogya Upanishad, VIII, 3, 1.
Here is a matter that has come home to us all quite recently: “One belonging to us, a friend, a brother, well-loved, is gone,” and we are face to face with the old question of death. The answer to the question in the Upanishad is plain enough. We cannot reach our dead friend to behold him, because this true desire of ours is overlaid and covered up with false desires, so that we are like people walking over a hidden treasure of gold, and not seeing it, because it is overlaid with earth.
The heart of the whole matter is here; we cannot enter real life, being already in it we cannot profit by real life, because our souls are so thickly overlaid with false desires that they thwart and blind us to what is very close to us. If we rise for a moment above them, gain a moment’s vision of the light of life, we can see the cloud of false desires below us, murky, copper-hued, forbidding. It is what we are pleased to call our personal concerns, our personal well-being; and when we sink down again from the vision of light, we shall be so blinded by these clouds that we shall believe in nothing else in the universe but them, and begin to justify our love of them to ourselves and everybody else.
Perhaps the keen intent of self-justification will hold our eyes long enough on these clouds for us to see what they are really like. We shall have the entertainment of seeing that what we call our personal well-being, and, even more, what we all supremely long for, the complacency of our personalities, is a bitter and acrid business at best, and not the quite successful festivity in our honour that we should like it to be. Here is the desire of man: to play the king of some fairy tale, not so much flattered as rightfully honoured for the supreme virtues and graces, of body, mind and estate, which he cannot but feel that he possesses, though modestly keeping them in the background of his mind; to receive, not the meaningless adulation, but rather the quite merited applause and appreciation of our good admirers, vassals and courtiers; to have all things go our way, and to feel that our way is supremely well; and to have such delight of sense as we feel is good for every one, for us especially.
See these worthy people all round us trying to grow rich. What motive have they? They cannot, without danger to their comfort, eat more than before, or enjoy more purely physical pleasure than the beggar by the roadside. Their motive is not physical pleasure at all, but the haunting desire to be that king in the fairy-tale. As soon as they get even a little rich, you see the fancy coming out; they want beautiful things, graceful things, things of art and culture, things fit for a prince. Not, indeed, because they find joy in their beauty; for joy in beauty can be exquisitely gratified without lust of possession; there is no tax on rainbows or sunset clouds. Joy in beauty is a true desire, overlaid by the false desire of being admired and looked up to, as the possessor of a beautiful thing; as, even to a little degree, the king in the fairy-tale.
In speaking of this as the desire of man, we do not mean to inculpate only one-half of humanity, or to pretend that the fancy of playing fairytale queen is any less universal. It is wonderful what large doses of vanity go to make the wine of love-making; how big a part the desire of queening it plays in all these pretty dramas of our Arcadian shepherdesses.
A charming play of children would our human life be, were these fairy-tale fancies all of it; but unhappily there is the bitterness and the meanness which we import into the realization of our fancies. It is instructive, not edifying, to watch the mists and dark clouds of resentment that steam up from the marshes of our minds, the moment we begin to feel that the other people are not falling in with our fairy-tale fancy, but are altogether hard-hearted towards our self-admitted merits; it takes a fairly advanced sage to endure being laughed at with equanimity; it takes an adept to really enjoy being ignored.
The play of these vanities of ours is incredibly large; they make up nearly the whole of life in this world of ours; they make the whole atmosphere of life, often lurid and stormy, hiding the mountains and the stars. When our hearts are stripped of vanities, they are bare, indeed.
These and the like are the false desires that overlay our souls and make the whole coloring of our lives, clustering thick round us like discolored, smothering clouds which shut out the real world, and in time persuade us that they themselves are the real world. In lighter moods we are tempted to say that life is a mere farce, a comedy of puppets: in darker hours we call it “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The clouds of false desires dazzle us into levity and futility, till merciful life overtakes us with some event of stunning and piercing reality, which raises and drives us out of ourselves, and lets us look on the cloud-wreaths of life a little apart, as though viewing not our own life but the life of another. Then we begin to understand what futility is, and what reality. And it is well for us if we can hold to our vision, and bring it back with us to clear away our clouds a little, so that we may see the sunshine. But again and again we shall miss the point of it all, and misname this touch of reality a touch of suffering and sorrow, deeply bewailing the sadness of our lives, and wondering that we could ever have taken interest in the pretty clouds that delighted us before sorrow came. But in truth our sorrow and suffering are as much of cloudland as our pretty vanities were, or even more.
We moan over separation from our friends, whether they are out of reach in this world or passed out of this world altogether. But the truth is, there is no separation. We are immediately together, but I am so busy with my cloudland pictures that I never raise my eyes to see my friend who is quite close to me, whether I speak of him as dead or living. I rise for a while above that thick, whirling globe of clouds that I call my personality, and I see clearly my friend who is gone, and much more that “belongs to me.” Yet it is wonderful how many times, after I have quite clearly recognized the futility and vanity of my cloudland, and quite clearly and in set terms stated as much to myself, it is wonderful how many times I shall still be taken in by it; shall take my vanity and its futility seriously. Then I shall begin to lose sight and memory of my vision, and here again it is wonderful how completely the process can go. So that, even though day by day entering the world of the Eternal, even though day by day dwelling in real life, we see and know no more of it than the people in the simile, of the treasure of gold buried under their feet. The strong affirmations of faith and knowledge are rifts in the clouds that blind us; the petty reasonings that try to smother up our faith are the clouds coming back again into our eyes. Vanity and doubt are the falsest of all the false desires that overlay the true; but they play each other’s game. Vanity tells Doubt that to doubt is wise and prudent: Doubt tells Vanity that the cloud-world of its hopes is the only world, and that there is no other to strive for. Thus are our souls blinded, and thus grows the sad comedy of human life.